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[He Got] Game Plan

Spike Lee doesn’t want to tell people what to think about race and the movies, but that doesn’t mean he’s without opinions. “I don’t want to sound like Amiri Baraka or something,” he says, “like I’m the gatekeeper of black cinema, but c’mon. A lot of these films that are coming out are just bullshit. Bulllll-shit.”

It’s a true enough assessment, and one that probably pains Lee more than he lets on. With his 1986 debut, She’s Gotta Have It, Lee helped inspire and solidify a number of trends that are still doing good box office—mental and otherwise—12 years later: a commercially viable independent cinema, an aggressive rhetoric of black filmmaking as political or public good, a guerrilla-warfare take on indie movies where any unknown with a few dollars and a dream can envision leaping into the national consciousness, and an artist-as-brand-name philosophy where black filmmakers want to scale not only the heights of their own profession but also the worlds of ready-to-wear, record production, and advertising. That’s a hefty list of “created”s and “inspired”s, but despite breaking all that ground Lee sees a messy, woefully incomplete construction site, the list of black films since 1986 including a few good entries but many, many more that are deeply flawed.

Booty Call. How To Be a Player. I like Ice Cube, but I didn’t like Players Club. Ride. B.A.P’s—I mean, did you see B.A.P’s? I don’t understand how some of these films get green-lighted. It’s just not a good thing when you look at someone’s résumé and you see one of those films on the first line. You can be as talented as you want, but if you compromise in the beginning, you’ll still have a hard time getting any other films made.”

Lee says he still faces a fight getting his own films made, but he’s managed to finish two in the last year, the Oscar-nominated documentary Four Little Girls and his upcoming 12th feature, the Denzel Washington basketball drama He Got Game. And that’s just the filmography, as Lee never forgets to cite being a husband and father, running an ad agency (SpikeDDB), teaching directing at New York University’s graduate film school, and, of course, “getting the Knicks in.”

He Got Game is the long-awaited Spike Lee Sports Film. “I didn’t plan it like this,” he says. “I always thought my first sports film would be the Jackie Robinson story, but we’re still looking for the funding on that. After Get on the Bus, my wife, Tanya, told me, ‘You should write another original screenplay,’ that she’d been missing my voice. My first thought to myself was ‘And what do you know?’ But after some reflection, I realized she was right. Once again. Jungle Fever had been my last original screenplay, and that had been six, seven years ago. So I started writing, and basketball was the first thing that came to mind.”

Lee didn’t want “Sportscenter addicts” to be the only people to see the film, and he didn’t want to do “that hokum Hoosiers, Rocky kind of sports movie. No underdogs, no team from the sticks. No glorious return to the days when teams were teams and there was no such thing as the fast break, when we didn’t have all this fancy nigger shit with behind-the-back passes and jams, when basketball was ‘pure.’ I also didn’t want to do one of those fake schoolyard films. No stunt doubles, trick photography, or lowered baskets like they did for Above the Rim. It’s like a karate movie the way they have bodies moving through the air, like they’re on wires and trampolines.”

Directing the picture was akin to coaching basketball. “I didn’t want to be like a lot of these coaches in the league that are just like, plod plod plod. So some court sequences were choreographed, but mostly we gave the players the leeway to create and improvise. That’s the way I’ve always directed my films. You have directors out here where an actor can’t change one single word. That’s one way of directing, which is fine. You have your coaches like Pat Riley, and you have your Phil Jacksons. I want input from actors and I don’t treat them like robots. Some of the best moments in Game came completely from Denzel.”

Craft is clearly important to Lee, which is why, try as he might, he can’t stay away from Amiri Baraka­sounding comments once he’s been asked to talk about other people’s films. “I’m happy people are getting work and opportunities,” Lee says. “But I’m not happy with most of these films. You have to raise the bar eventually, at least try to. You can’t pitch or green-light a film on the possibility of selling a hip hop sound track. You have places like New Line and Miramax that are cornering the market on certain segments of the black audience, companies with no black people in the top executive ranks.”

He knows black folks aren’t rejecting these movies. “That’s the sad thing. The black audience is going for the bullshit. You’ll have a stampede for Booty Call, and no one’ll go see Rosewood. And black people’ll be the first ones kicking and screaming about b.s. black movies. You can’t just keep blaming Anglo-Saxons, though,” he says, “because there’s also a whole Matty Rich syndrome where filmmakers are like, ‘I’m real, I didn’t go to film school, this is the first time I’ve ever picked up a camera.’ I don’t understand how you can tout your ignorance as a badge of courage.”

When offered bell hooks’s line, “White people worship at the altar of black mediocrity,” Lee laughs. “My biggest fan. But it’s true. A lot of times when white people are in a position of power and there are two black people, a competent person and an incompetent person, the incompetent one will get the job. That’s how they view us as a people. Incompetent. But where’s Matty Rich now? Where are those lack of skills that he was championing? They’re busy not getting him any more work. Black people, kids especially, almost seem to fail on purpose because they want to be real, because they don’t want to be ridiculed as acting white. Now that’s seeping into the arts.”

Lee’s version of keeping it real means having feet planted in both independent filmmaking and Hollywood. “I maintain complete creative control of my films, but I use Hollywood for their money and distribution. So I have complete control to make a film, but it’s not like I can do anything I want. I can do anything I want under certain budgetary constraints. Which is fine. It teaches you to find new ways of solving problems. I’m just not getting $50 million.”

Asked to look ahead, Lee says he doesn’t know what he’s working on next, but “whatever it is, we start shooting in July.” Other projects are floating in his head: a musical (“Don’t have a story yet, but it’ll be all singing and dancing”), as well as a redoubled effort to get The Jackie Robinson Story made. He also wants to break into television, “but that’s a tough nut to crack. Forget how we are in the movies, look at those sitcoms on the U Peoples Network and We Brothers.” Asked to look back, he declares himself a man with no regrets, but after a pause he reaches all the way to the beginning for one thing he wishes he could do over.

“I would take the rape scene out of She’s Gotta Have It.”

Asked why, Lee responds, “Rape is obviously a very violent act, and I just wish I hadn’t put the scene in. It brought a lot of things into the picture that didn’t belong there, and it just wasn’t necessary. It was my ignorance at the time that put it there.” Lee bristles just a little when he’s asked if he’s reevaluated it because of long-standing criticisms. “No, nobody TOLD me. I’m 41 now. I was 24 when I wrote that script. It just didn’t belong in the movie. You grow and you learn.”

All of which goes to show why, if black film is going to have a gatekeeper, it might as well be Spike Lee: When was the last time you heard Amiri Baraka, or any other self-appointed defender and definer of anything black or white, admit they made a mistake?

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Buppie Meltdown

Like Milli Vanilli’s and Matty Rich’s, hers had been a short yet glorious reign. But the New Year was here, and there was no more avoiding it. She had healed her inner child; now the time had come to pull the plug on her inner hostess. Fly the mud-cloth flag half-mast above the Soul Cafe. My alter ego Monifa Stewart has left the building.

Wasn’t it obvious that those vixens who claim to be Monifa’s dear friends had come up with the name? It was the perfect description, so they said, of their girl’s fondness for a certain personal style and home decor that can best be described as Afro-Saxon. You know the telltale signs. Celebrate Christmas and Kwanzaa. Belong both to the Studio Museum of Harlem and MOMA. Drape your Ethan Allen couch in fabric from the generic Motherland. Can’t remember a rap lyric since ”hotel, motel, Holiday Inn,” but love Jamiroquai. Buy coffee table books like I Dream a World and Homecoming: The Life and Art of William H. Johnson. Own a coffee table, period. Should be out protesting Proposition 209, but can’t find the time. Need I go on?

She wasn’t exactly sure when it had all begun. But one day early last year she had simply cast her brain, art, and man aside, and become a full-time Monifa. And like those characters in The Colored Museum, who gave up on the travails of black life in America and went to live inside the lacquered world of Ebony magazine, our girl had gone to live inside some amalgmam of the cocoa-brown womb of Essence and the snow-white parlor of Living.

Hours that could’ve been spent finishing her novel or making love were now put at the service of color schemes, china patterns, and marbleizing the walls of her dining room a milky shade of cinnabar. And whereas she had been known to dive into East Village mosh pits or rub bellies in Flatbush dancehall clubs, cooking was now her escapist cultural activity of choice. What will it be tonight, honey? Monifa would coo. Smothered chicken or fried whiting? (Somebody should have cold slapped her at that point, but who knew?)

The worst part, however, of this whole Monifa trip was the need, the dire need, she had developed to throw parties. Monifa had become a virtual crack ‘ho for home entertaining. Cocktail parties. Spades parties. Juneteenth parties. Name it, she was throwing it. Expense was a nonissue. At least once a month without fail, Monifa was on the phone to her people. Bring the Merlot, I have the chicken wings. Party over here.

At first, Monifa’s rationale for this sort of obsessive-compulsive behavior had to do with race, naturally. In place of a regular spiritual practice, these gatherings were to her a form of black church. Bread was broken, libations were poured, and the devil was danced away. Opening her home, Monifa reasoned, was a cultural inheritance handed down from her grandmother, known as ”Aunt Lane” to the many who loved her. When Monifa was growing up in the 1970s, folks came by Aunt Lane’s on the regular to get a plate of her sublime macaroni and cheese, talk the talk, and be fortified against the Man and his pettiness.

But these gatherings had come to seem less about a communion of kin as they were about affirming that Monifa and her crew were not among the newly dis-entitled, the self-medicated, the street-corner pharmacists, or, least desirable, the how-to-marry-a-black-man set, whose butts were still glued to the bar stools of B. Smith or the newest, latest, shall we say, far too common, buppie watering hole. Monifa’s people had some place (particular) to go to show off their new money, and to Monifa’s house they went.

In her heart, Monifa knew that her party addiction had less to do with Aunt Lane and the trans-Atlantic African communal tradition than it did with that malaise known as Buppie Meltdown–a sort of nouveau-riche itis of the soul. The Ebonics dictionary defines itis as the fatigue following a good meal. Buppie meltdown, so it follows, is about getting race weary soon after getting your piece of the rock.

Let me elaborate. They hadn’t realized it yet, but Monifa’s tribe of artists and professionals had become latte-sipping insiders, more akin to the complacent black middle class. They used television as a sedative, went to the occasional black play, and were certainly more apt to rush out to see Wings of the Dove than Amistad.

They spent more time chatting about the antics of the black, rich, and famous than fussing over the race problem. A running gag of late at Monifa’s gatherings involved ”monies,” a play on Autumn Jackson’s desperate attempt to blackmail her alleged Ghost Dad Bill Cosby. ”Please pass the monies,” folks were going around saying, a snap that was always good for a self-righteous cackle, the buppie equivalent of a three-minute crack high.

The excesses of Monifa, the inner hostess, seemed to accelerate with the emptiness she felt in her cultural and civic life. She didn’t go out and volunteer at a women’s shelter. No, she threw more parties. Things were status quo until the holiday season struck. Money started getting tight and folks got ugly.

At Monifa’s Kwanzaa gathering, some ”brothers” told an off-color gay joke, and then washed it down with laughter. Now, down the street, or so Monifa imagined, her liberal white friends were at dinner parties weighing in intelligently on the debate between the Sex Panic sexual liberationists and the more conservative wing of the gay community who preached monogamy. But here at Monifa’s house, much to her shame, some–excuse me–ignorant folk were giggling about ”homos.” Oh no, no, no. Didn’t Monifa read them, in their face, in public?! Oh yes, she did.

But it was a hollow victory. Breaking bread with the folk wasn’t what it used to be. After that unfortunate incident, everything went downhill. Even her annual shopping trip to the Kwanzaa expo at the Javits Center failed to lift her spirits. So it was true. Black folks were no longer kin, just an ethnic market left to pick dry. Monifa had been in denial for too long.

And so it happened that Monifa, the perpetual Afro-romantic, lost her innocence. She called several friends to announce her retirement. Monifa would join the tired, cynical masses who had given up. You know the kind. Those folks who call Kwanzaa that ”Kum-ba-ya shit” and go around shaking their heads and saying, ”Your people, your people.” Those who casually drop the ”N” word, never offer to help young mothers navigate their baby carriages up the subway stairs, and whose eyes glaze over when anyone wants to talk about why the NAACP is so damn silent lately.

Monifa canceled her subscription to Heart & Soul. Tore up her earth mama, superwoman, girlfriend, and diva cards. The last day of Kwanzaa came and went without fanfare. She packed up her vintage kinara–inherited from her aunt, the ’60s cultural nationalist–and settled in for a long winter of solitude.

Yet hardly a week had gone by before the calls started coming. Her Christmas-Kwanzaa tree, stripped of its black and gold ornaments, was still on the sidewalk waiting for the garbage pickup. How about a Brazilian caperina party, or a black ball where everyone could come dressed as their favorite black historical figure? (If you were melanin-deprived, you could come as Carl Van Vechten or Jack Johnson’s wife. We can fit you in, no problem.) Monifa resisted the urge to say, as her six-year-old cousin had the nerve to hurl at her recently, ”Speak to the hand.”

Suddenly a force larger than Monifa took over. She felt herself drawn inexplicably to the first-edition copy of Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor’s Vibration Cooking she kept on display in her country kitchen. After all, the King holiday was coming up. Perhaps something to honor King would be nice, especially in this the age of civil rights retrenchments.

Familiar smells came from the kitchen. Garlic and ginger marinade for the wings. Smoked turkey frying up for the collards. Her husband looked up from his copy of Quarterly Black Review of Books and shook his head. Before he could talk some sense into her, Monifa had left the building….She was last spotted in the Blackberry section of Macy’s eyeing the cowrie-shell napkin rings and mumbling to herself, ”You can never have too many of these.”

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Living NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES Style THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Buppie Meltdown

Like Milli Vanilli’s and Matty Rich’s, hers had been a short yet glorious reign. But the New Year was here, and there was no more avoiding it. She had healed her inner child; now the time had come to pull the plug on her inner hostess. Fly the mud-cloth flag half-mast above the Soul Cafe. My alter ego Monifa Stewart has left the building.

Wasn’t it obvious that those vixens who claim to be Monifa’s dear friends had come up with the name? It was the perfect description, so they said, of their girl’s fondness for a certain personal style and home decor that can best be described as Afro-Saxon. You know the telltale signs. Celebrate Christmas and Kwanzaa. Belong both to the Studio Museum of Harlem and MOMA. Drape your Ethan Allen couch in fabric from the generic Motherland. Can’t remember a rap lyric since “hotel, motel, Holiday Inn,” but love Jamiroquai. Buy coffee table books like I Dream a World and Homecoming: The Life and Art of William H. Johnson. Own a coffee table, period. Should be out protesting Proposition 209, but can’t find the time. Need I go on?

She wasn’t exactly sure when it had all begun. But one day early last year she had simply cast her brain, art, and man aside, and become a full-time Monifa. And like those characters in The Colored Museum, who gave up on the travails of black life in America and went to live inside the lacquered world of Ebony magazine, our girl had gone to live inside some amalgmam of the cocoa-brown womb of Essence and the snow-white parlor of Living.

Hours that could’ve been spent finishing her novel or making love were now put at the service of color schemes, china patterns, and marbleizing the walls of her dining room a milky shade of cinnabar. And whereas she had been known to dive into East Village mosh pits or rub bellies in Flatbush dancehall clubs, cooking was now her escapist cultural activity of choice. What will it be tonight, honey? Monifa would coo. Smothered chicken or fried whiting? (Somebody should have cold slapped her at that point, but who knew?)

The worst part, however, of this whole Monifa trip was the need, the dire need, she had developed to throw parties. Monifa had become a virtual crack ‘ho for home entertaining. Cocktail parties. Spades parties. Juneteenth parties. Name it, she was throwing it. Expense was a nonissue. At least once a month without fail, Monifa was on the phone to her people. Bring the Merlot, I have the chicken wings. Party over here.

At first, Monifa’s rationale for this sort of obsessive-compulsive behavior had to do with race, naturally. In place of a regular spiritual practice, these gatherings were to her a form of black church. Bread was broken, libations were poured, and the devil was danced away. Opening her home, Monifa reasoned, was a cultural inheritance handed down from her grandmother, known as “Aunt Lane” to the many who loved her. When Monifa was growing up in the 1970s, folks came by Aunt Lane’s on the regular to get a plate of her sublime macaroni and cheese, talk the talk, and be fortified against the Man and his pettiness.

But these gatherings had come to seem less about a communion of kin as they were about affirming that Monifa and her crew were not among the newly dis-entitled, the self-medicated, the street-corner pharmacists, or, least desirable, the how-to-marry-a-black-man set, whose butts were still glued to the bar stools of B. Smith or the newest, latest, shall we say, far too common, buppie watering hole. Monifa’s people had some place (particular) to go to show off their new money, and to Monifa’s house they went.

In her heart, Monifa knew that her party addiction had less to do with Aunt Lane and the trans-Atlantic African communal tradition than it did with that malaise known as Buppie Meltdown—a sort of nouveau-riche itis of the soul. The Ebonics dictionary defines itis as the fatigue following a good meal. Buppie meltdown, so it follows, is about getting race weary soon after getting your piece of the rock.

Let me elaborate. They hadn’t realized it yet, but Monifa’s tribe of artists and professionals had become latte-sipping insiders, more akin to the complacent black middle class. They used television as a sedative, went to the occasional black play, and were certainly more apt to rush out to see Wings of the Dove than Amistad.

They spent more time chatting about the antics of the black, rich, and famous than fussing over the race problem. A running gag of late at Monifa’s gatherings involved “monies,” a play on Autumn Jackson’s desperate attempt to blackmail her alleged Ghost Dad Bill Cosby. “Please pass the monies,” folks were going around saying, a snap that was always good for a self-righteous cackle, the buppie equivalent of a three-minute crack high.

The excesses of Monifa, the inner hostess, seemed to accelerate with the emptiness she felt in her cultural and civic life. She didn’t go out and volunteer at a women’s shelter. No, she threw more parties. Things were status quo until the holiday season struck. Money started getting tight and folks got ugly.

At Monifa’s Kwanzaa gathering, some “brothers” told an off-color gay joke, and then washed it down with laughter. Now, down the street, or so Monifa imagined, her liberal white friends were at dinner parties weighing in intelligently on the debate between the Sex Panic sexual liberationists and the more conservative wing of the gay community who preached monogamy. But here at Monifa’s house, much to her shame, some—excuse me—ignorant folk were giggling about “homos.” Oh no, no, no. Didn’t Monifa read them, in their face, in public?! Oh yes, she did.

But it was a hollow victory. Breaking bread with the folk wasn’t what it used to be. After that unfortunate incident, everything went downhill. Even her annual shopping trip to the Kwanzaa expo at the Javits Center failed to lift her spirits. So it was true. Black folks were no longer kin, just an ethnic market left to pick dry. Monifa had been in denial for too long.

And so it happened that Monifa, the perpetual Afro-romantic, lost her innocence. She called several friends to announce her retirement. Monifa would join the tired, cynical masses who had given up. You know the kind. Those folks who call Kwanzaa that “Kum-ba-ya shit” and go around shaking their heads and saying, “Your people, your people.” Those who casually drop the “N” word, never offer to help young mothers navigate their baby carriages up the subway stairs, and whose eyes glaze over when anyone wants to talk about why the NAACP is so damn silent lately.

Monifa canceled her subscription to Heart & Soul. Tore up her earth mama, superwoman, girlfriend, and diva cards. The last day of Kwanzaa came and went without fanfare. She packed up her vintage kinara—inherited from her aunt, the ’60s cultural nationalist—and settled in for a long winter of solitude.

Yet hardly a week had gone by before the calls started coming. Her Christmas-Kwanzaa tree, stripped of its black and gold ornaments, was still on the sidewalk waiting for the garbage pickup. How about a Brazilian caperina party, or a black ball where everyone could come dressed as their favorite black historical figure? (If you were melanin-deprived, you could come as Carl Van Vechten or Jack Johnson’s wife. We can fit you in, no problem.) Monifa resisted the urge to say, as her six-year-old cousin had the nerve to hurl at her recently, “Speak to the hand.”

Suddenly a force larger than Monifa took over. She felt herself drawn inexplicably to the first-edition copy of Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor’s Vibration Cooking she kept on display in her country kitchen. After all, the King holiday was coming up. Perhaps something to honor King would be nice, especially in this the age of civil rights retrenchments.

Familiar smells came from the kitchen. Garlic and ginger marinade for the wings. Smoked turkey frying up for the collards. Her husband looked up from his copy of Quarterly Black Review of Books and shook his head. Before he could talk some sense into her, Monifa had left the building….She was last spotted in the Blackberry section of Macy’s eyeing the cowrie-shell napkin rings and mumbling to herself, “You can never have too many of these.”