Sunday, January 23, 2011

Spike Lee

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2008)

I’ve always kept the faith with Spike Lee, although it’s often been a lonely place. I absolutely loved Bamboozled – I actually consider it one of the best American movies of the decade. The film is a satire of the modern media, built around the outrageous notion of an ambitious young black TV executive reviving the minstrel show (along with blackface make-up, plantation setting, and every possible offensive cliché) – he thinks it will fail obnoxiously, but it becomes a cultural phenomenon.


The film was either derided or ignored, and much about it seems careless or under-developed. To many people, using the long-gone minstrel genre was an instant wrong move, being barely relevant to whatever the real contemporary problems of African-American media representation might be. But I think Lee’s movie carries the thrust of a desperate archaeologist – he sees a status quo rife with contradictions and persistent belittlements, often exacerbated by iconic black figures misdiagnosing their own success and influence. There’s a college textbook crammed into his film, but also a great deal of outrageous, scintillating invention (and Lee isn’t usually given enough credit for how much he gets out of his actors).

I also mean to go back and view again one of his subsequent films, She Hate Me. This one lost even Bamboozled’s shallow support, but to me suggested how rich Lee’s investigative method could be. With the feel of a voyage through purgatory, the film pushes untidily toward the possibility of a new paradigm for black men – positing that corporate conformity, homophobic unease, fading historical memory and cultural clichés might fuse into some kind of transcendence. But Lee hasn’t returned since to that line of investigation. He made the powerful and rightly acclaimed documentary about New Orleans, When The Levees Broke, and then scored his biggest box-office hit of all time with Inside Man, which I don’t think I really got.

In a recent New Yorker profile, he comes across as contrary and feisty as ever, still seeming pervasively mistreated and marginalized (and making the reader believe it, at least fleetingly) despite his huge success and access. After Inside Man he had ideas for projects based on James Brown and Rodney King, but ended up taking on an earlier sore of black history – the undervaluing of the African-American contribution to WW2 (a subject on which he’s traded some widely-reported shots with Clint Eastwood). The resulting film, Miracle At St. Anna, is now out, and it’s a major disappointment, but fascinating for what it tells us both about Lee’s vision and his limitations.

Miracle At St. Anna

It starts with an old war film – John Wayne and a bunch of white guys - viewed on an old black guy’s TV screen; “We were there too, pilgrim,” he mumbles. The next day he goes to work, doesn’t like the face of one of the guys in line, pulls out a gun and shoots him dead. A young journalist, on his first day on the job, persuading a hard-bitten cop to give him a break, gets access to the perp’s apartment search, where they discover an ancient stone head, quickly identified by a local expert as an Italian artifact missing since WW2. The news travels round the world – an amorous woman throws the Herald Tribune out the window as she climbs onto her husband; the man down below, seeing the story, spills his coffee. The journalist visits the guy in jail; eventually he breaks his silence; we flip into flashback mode and the story proper.

This entire preamble virtually begs to be thrown out the window, along with the newspaper. The opening, frankly, stinks. It’s contrived, badly written, badly acted, maladroit in all respects. It’s interesting to wonder why Lee didn’t throw it out, along with the matching bookend at the film’s conclusion (which, if anything, seems even worse) and just present the historical story. And I think the answer would be, in essence – why shouldn’t the black war movie have the sprawl and eccentricity and lasting ripples that a movie about white soldiers might have? Why confine it to an act of commemoration? In a way, the more wayward and even goofy Lee’s movie gets, the more meaningful the tribute – like a badge of authenticity.

The film consequently confounds almost every expectation. The flashback takes us to 1944 Italy, to four soldiers in the all-black 92nd Division, advancing on a German position. The four are separated from their unit, and hole up in a tiny mountain village - one of them sleeps with a local girl, another develops an almost mystically close bond with a young boy. Italian partisans intervene, with a captured Nazi. At one point Lee takes us into discussions within the Nazi brigade; at another he inserts a flashback within the flashback, to depict the prejudice back home in Louisiana. Despite the fraught situation, the four experience a form of liberation: the mechanism of subjugation (illustrated mainly via their ignorant immediate superior) falls away and they function just as men against the elements. Through some elements of magic realism (focusing on the aforementioned stone head), Lee even brings a transcendent aspect to the implications of all this.

Shallowness of the propagandist?

It’s all very convoluted and complicated, although it does ultimately just about hang together. The four soldiers are fairly blandly portrayed, and what individuality they do have is tritely conceived. The film feels as if its maker were constantly losing concentration, wandering off in one direction and then another. Lee doesn’t show much facility with large-scale logistics – that first sequence in the story proper, inter-cutting the two opposing sides along with “Axis Sally,” whose anti-American propaganda blares out from loudspeakers, is a considerable mess. The film is heavy with redundancies – the Louisiana sequence, for instance, is a laborious cliché. And implausibilities and unanswered questions pile up like body bags.

As you can see, I don’t think the film has very much specific merit at all. So what does it tell us about Spike Lee? Well, I recently listened for the first time to his commentary on the Bamboozled DVD, and was surprised how little he really had to say about his intentions. Beyond some personal anecdotes and score settling, it often felt as if he were doing cheerleading for someone else’s movie. It’s not uncommon, of course, for directors to be less literate than their films. But then reflect on how Stanley Crouch, in that New Yorker article, says that Lee’s career is marked throughout by “the fundamental shallowness that you get from a propagandist.”

That’s the problem with Miracle At St. Anna – it’s a continent wide and an inch deep. On Bamboozled and others, Lee may have been as undisciplined, but the basic premise was tight enough that any misdirected energy mostly bounced off the walls and reflected back into the mix. Removed from the home ground of his influences and resentments, it’s rather shocking how quickly his artistic force dissipates. Which for an artist who's obviously itchy to grow, is a real problem.

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