FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives

Julie Dash Films Gullah Country


Gullah country, more commonly known as the Georgia Sea Islands, starts off the coastline of Beaufort County, South Carolina, and stretches south into Georgia. The islands are connected to the mainland by bridges of recent vintage; locals refer to the whole region as the Low Country. To get there from here you must be driven 50 miles from the Savannah airport, perhaps by a retired gentleman from Buffalo who affably shares news of his upcom­ing trip to Minneapolis for cancer treatment. So much for smalltalk. Kick back, enjoy the ride and the countryside: winding blacktop flanked by high-rise forests, ranch houses, trailer homes, and the occasional dog or possum come out from under some semi’s wheels to lump up the road, organic sculpture from the Francis Bacon school. Peculiar to the region’s foliage are nifty, atmo­spheric ornaments: drooping spools of Spanish moss and spiky palmettos. Half­way to our destination, the Royal Frog­more Inn, my compañera asks me what I notice first when I visit a new place and I say the houses. Beulah Joe says she looks at the dirt and wonders what the differ­ence between us means. I tell her it means I’m a house Negro and she’s a field Negro and she laughs, well, we already knew that.

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The Royal Frogmore is a motel on the island of St. Helena. The black people who populate St. Helena and most of the other islands off the Georgia and South Carolina coasts are known as Gullah or Geechees. People who don’t know any better think Gullah people talk funny. Those in the know realize that Gullah is a bona fide dialect and are confident in the scholarly thesis that ‘Gullah’ is a contrac­tion of ‘Angola.’

But me and Beulah Joe aren’t here to gaze upon the Gullah. We’re here to see black independent filmmaker Julie Dash go into intensive labor on her feature-in­-utero, Daughters of the Dust, a turn-of­-the-century tale about a fictional Gullah family. Dash has three other films to her credit: Four Women, a choreopoem based on the Nina Simone song of the same name; Diary of an African Nun, from the Alice Walker short story; and Illusions, a 34-minute original starring Lonette McKee as a black woman exec passing for white at a Hollywood studio during the wartime ’40s. The latter has received standing ovations from Amy Taubin, J. Hoberman, and the dean of black inde­pendent film crits, Clyde Taylor.

Daughters is Dash’s most ambitious project to date on several counts, not least for being shot on 35mm color stock, which costs $365 per two-minute reel. Dash’s financing for the two-week shoot comes from several grants — $25,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts, $5000 from the Appleshop Southeast Re­gional Fellowship, $9000 from the Geor­gia Endowment for the Humanities, $16,000 from the Fulton County Arts Council. By the end of her Beaufort stay, Dash says, she’ll be worrying over how she and husband/cinematographer A. J. Fielder are going to pay their rent and phone bills. Dash’s plan after initial shooting is to edit a trailer on video then seek out investors and more grants. As independent film financing schemes go, it’s as sound as any.

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Dash’s personal demeanor suggests both dreamy-eyed fabulist and fo­cused professional. Her attitude on the set is casual but only be­cause her preproduction work is meticulous, worked out in fine detail on the Toshiba PC she’s installed in her Royal Frogmore office. Day charts detail­ing the entire two-week shoot drape the walls with information on costume changes, locations, camera angles, and special effects. She considers herself more a technical director than an actor’s director, and very little dialogue goes on between her and the actors on the set. Dialogue with the crew is also at a minimum. Once Dash sets up her shots and sound and camera get rolling, the action plays until the takes sync with her vision. Her mood on the shoot is chill maximus.

Dash’s eyes, spunky and alert eyes, per­petually gleam. They are set in a doeish face that maternal weight-gain has left somewhat stout. On location the director wears pearl-drop earrings and coral lip­stick, jeans, a fisherman’s cap decorated by a Palestinian Film Institute pin, and a Venezia sweatshirt. The island’s kamika­ze gnats and mosquitoes dive over her Reebok hightops, leaving her legs and ankles a spotted red.

The production’s budget crunch will have Dash pull triple-duty as wardrobe mistress, makeup artist, and director. In this she’s not alone: Her coproducer Ber­nard Nicolas functions as troubleshooter, fogmachine operator, and soundman. Art director Kerry Marshall will take time away from building a graveyard, Eli’s blacksmith shop, and an indigo process­ing plant to play a bit part as a Muslim bowing toward Mecca from the beach. First assistant cameraman Will Hudson will step from behind the camera to por­tray a slave in a flashback scene.

Set in 1902, Daughters focuses on a Gullah family whose young adults are preparing for a mass exodus north and a junking of their Gullah heritage in their diaspora to industrialized America. An acknowledged point of departure for Dash’s script is the work of Toni Morri­son, particularly evident in Dash’s han­dling of Gullah women’s communal infrastructure. The leading characters are, with one exception, female. There is the wizened, snuff-chomping matriarch Great Mother Palmer, an African born in captivity who fears the young people’s connection to the ancestors will be severed by urbanization and Christian con­version. Opposing her is Hagar — an edu­cated convert, brashly sarcastic toward Great Mother Palmer’s “hoodoo” reli­gion. Yella Mary has recently returned from a life of surrogate mothering and prostitution in Cuba. Eula is young, preg­nant, and victim of a rape by a white man. Her husband Eli, the community blacksmith, suspects the baby ain’t his. Dash’s personal favorite among her dra­matis personae is The Unborn Child, a spritely five-year-old vision of Eula and Eli’s progeny who romps unseen on the margins of key scenes.

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There are several dream sequences in the scenario. Ancestral spirits visit the living to chase away their inner de­mons — an Africanist switch on conven­tional film use of both phantasms and psychoanalysis. While the offscreen rape would play as melodramatic fodder in a David Wolper postbellum potboiler, Dash uses it symbolically to probe black wom­en’s wombs — investigating their powers of regeneration and the psychic scars left by forced miscegenation. Like Morrison’s novels, the script for Daughters is a testi­mony to the secret celebrations and packed-away sorrows of African-Ameri­can women.

Dash was raised in the Queensridge projects but her daddy was a Gee­chee. Dash’s mother used to tell her, if you think your father talks funny you should hear some of his backwoods cousins. Dash remembers her daddy as a fancy dan who loved ballroom dancing. One day he brought a bucket of crabs home and set them loose on the living room floor (the Gullah being re­nowned for their shrimp and crab fish­ing). Dash smiles at the memory of climbing over the furniture, screaming with delight.

Dash’s uncle Julien was a jazz saxo­phonist who wrote the swing hit “Tuxedo Junction” for Erskine Hawkins’s band and made Super-8 and 16mm films of his life on the road. Her uncle Roger, who resides in Los Angeles, has been an in­dustrial film producer for 15 years. Nei­ther of these relations, Dash says, played any role in her decision to become a film­maker 17 years ago. That she attributes to the Studio Museum in Harlem, where Dash went to meet a girlfriend and found herself seduced by the 16mm hardware floating around a cinematography class her homegirl was taking. The equipment had been donated after the riots, part of the era’s gliberal program to quell the rage of Harlem youth. A few years later the gear would be reclaimed by its do­-good donors. Dash recalls the teaching method as hands-on and the esthetic as verité.

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Dash remembers her childhood as one spent reading and daydreaming. Day­dreaming has always gotten her into trouble. In third grade she wrote a story about the sun and the moon which her teacher brandished before the class as an example of something called plagiarism. Dash’s mother straightened that teacher out, like she straightened out a meddle­some churchgoer who complained during a Bear Mountain voyage about Dash staring into the water on a cruise. Dash was daydreaming, a frequent pastime to spare herself from condescending adult conversation. The busybody advised psychiatric help for Dash. Dash’s mother told the woman who really needed help.

Mom could relate: she was a daydream­er too. She often told her daughters how as a child she believed she was a princess who’d been shanghaied to North Caroli­na. Dash recently had her astrologer do a reading for Mom. He divined she’d been a princess in a past life. Dash’s mother also used to drape shower curtains depicting a beach or Parisian cafe scene over a door and photograph herself and her daugh­ters playacting in bathing suits. Record­ing this material I glimmer the pleasures it might bring — for some Lacanian film theorist. Dash says she continues to day­dream and often returns to several that play in her mind like ongoing miniseries, some of which she hopes will one day become films.

The movies Dash remembers best from her youth are West Side Story and Gold­finger, but less as theatrical events than Hollywood product appropriated for neighborhood recreation. There were days when the basketball court would fill up with kids reenacting the Jets-Sharks opera. Dialogue from the Bond film became stock for oblique retorts to teachers and school administrators. “I want scenes like those in my films — the kind you never see in Hollywood movies about black urban youth.”

California dreaming brought Dash to Los Angeles upon her graduation from CCNY’s film program in 1974. One rea­son Dash headed West was to escape the tyranny of political documentary film­making then favored on the East Coast. The concept for her first film, Four Women, was rejected by the brothers at the Studio Museum for being irrelevant to the struggle. The project undertaken in its place would show righteous bloods providing victuals to the starving masses.

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In L.A., Dash became one of the youn­gest fellows in American Film Insti­tute history, a fact that provoked more trepidation than pride. “I was surrounded by all of these people who’d done features, had worked in the industry. I felt out of my depth.” In this period she was also introduced to black independents Larry Clarke and Charles Burnett, who’d been classmates at UCLA with Haile Gerima of Bush Mama fame. Clarke was working on his visionary jazz drama Passing Through; Dash helped with the sound. Burnett had by that time produced his short The Horse and the epochal Killer of Sheep — first-prize win­ner at the 1980 Berlin Film Festival­ — which filmmaker Reggie Hudlin rightly appraises as “black independent cinema’s Invisible Man.”

Dash’s first major project at UCLA was an adaptation of Alice Walker’s story “Diary of an African Nun,” a Bressonian exercise in angst and austerity with spooky black-and-white visuals. The au­thor’s response to the film still smarts for Dash. “I struck a print for her out of courtesy and she sent me a 10-page cri­tique. I wanted to tell her, lady don’t you know I’m only a student?”

Dash wound up making her AFI gradu­ate project, Illusions, at UCLA because the powers that be at Greystoke Mansion disapproved of a scene depicting film-recording technology not possible in the ’40s, when the film takes place. Once again Dash was daydreaming up against a brick wall. “They tell you film is a “fanta­sy medium where you can do anything you want and then say you can’t make a film because some technology wasn’t in­vented yet. They make films about black people that have nothing to do with reali­ty all the time.”

Illusions stirs up a racial identity quag­mire by way of Lanette Mckee’s wanna­bee character, Mignon. The film also frames interlocking takes on racism, sex­ism, patriarchal warmongering, and the exploitation of black musical artists by the white entertainment industry. Illu­sions is unique in black independent cine­ma for its period setting, specially con­structed sets, film-within-film action, white chorus line and mostly white cast. First reactions to the film were disheartening for Dash. At a black film festival in London the pan-ethnic screening board thought it had been sent to them by mis­take. Until she met the festival’s director a year later, Dash couldn’t figure why the film was the only one in the festival not reviewed.

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The scenes shot for this round of pro­duction involve four of the principal characters in Daughters of the Dust­ — Eula, Yella Mary, Eli, and The Unborn Child. Alva Rogers, who has the Eula role, is a friend of mine from New York. She’s got a supporting role in Spike Lee’s School Daze and works with the black women’s performance cartel, Rodeo Cal­donia. Rogers is also a “new music” vo­calist who’s done work with Butch Morris and Elliot Sharp. She performs her own music at downtown spaces — sung incantations on race and gender derived from texts by black women writers. Alva is black like Miles Davis, as beautiful and photogenic as the maestro was at 26. Her skin is black in the way that made Bud Powell say to Miles, I wish I was as black as you.

Barbara-O was the lead in black director Haile Gerima’s gritty, epochal Bush Mama, but has also done episodic television — Lou Grant, Laverne and Shirley, and even Wonder Woman, where she played “high-queen of the interplanetary council.” She left acting in 1980 to study filmmaking; Daughters is one of only two roles she’s taken in seven years. Though her fallen-woman character is called Yella Mary, she’s more orange than ochre, with Cherokee high cheekbones, deep-set suc­cubus eyes, and a posture more erect than a Trump tower. She gets into character by leaving her door open at night draped with yellow mosquito netting, awaiting, says she, her lovers.

For this round of shooting Alva and Barbara-O will play their dialogue scenes at a location called Ibo Landing in the script. Slaveships anchored there, and legend has it that a chained group of Ibos once walked down the planks, surveyed the situation, and turned around to walk across the water. There are many St. Helena sites that will serve as “Ibo Landings” during the filming. This scene will take place on the Black People’s Beach, passed which common can property never be of sold St. but Helena’s only blacks, down generation to generation.

This Ibo Landing is a meadow whose centerpiece is a monstrous tree that looks like a thrashing giant buried upside down to the chest. Behind it is a sunken bayou with junked kitchen appliances the crew will have to move — stove, sink, and cabi­nets — followed by yellow marshes and then the shell-strewn beach. As water­front properties go, the Black People’s Beach isn’t much to look at, more Tarzanland than sunbather’s paradise for lack of landclearing funds.

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In character, Barbara-O mounts the tree to lay back on a sturdy limb in full lady-of-leisure regalia: a white waist­length coat, white high-heeled boots with hooksnaps, a gold nose-ring, green con­tacts, and a floor-length lace-shouldered number dripping with petticoats. Her shoulder bag is big and embroidered, her hat is a bonnet on its way to becoming a fedora with veil. For hours on end Barba­ra-O manages to maintain a stallion’s carriage in a chaise-longue recline. I surmise yoga has given this bush mama a truss-rod spine. At one point she leans forward from the waist like a lever topped by a wig and jaw definition Iman would die for. The surprise of the shoot is the debut of Alva’s and Barbara-O’s vari­ations on Gullah dialect. Alva’s is mutant mimicry: a soft singsong, via the moun­tains of Norway and the hills of Jamaica. Imagine Liv Ullman coming out of the mouth like a Rasta jah-jah girl. There’s a mocking stridency to Barbara-O’s accent that makes it less about music than a bitchin’ screen femme fatale attitude. The haughty lilt of the Caribbean is there, sure, but hers is really more like some Lauren Bacall-goes-to-the-Low­-Country stuff. Fierce. At this point I real­ize Daughters of the Dust has the poten­tial to be something we’ve never really seen on the screen before: a black “wom­en’s picture” — not quite in the grand George Cukor tradition, but close enough to be kin. There’s certainly enough atti­tude on the prowl up in here to give the comparison anchorage.

True to the pattern of Dash’s other projects, Daughters has already gone up against two funding agen­cies, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National En­dowment for the Humanities. At CPB the project ran afoul of a black woman exec who told Dash her script was too mystical and suggested she write some­thing geared toward white midwestern­ers. At NEH the project was rejected, says a letter from the powers that be, for not being written in the Gullah brogue on the one hand, and for being “an intellec­tual exercise” beyond primetime compre­hension on the other. Dash believes what’s really operating here is a fear of black people making political statements grounded in an autochthonous reading of black culture. “The image of the black revolutionary was neutralized through caricature during the blaxploitation era. He was made to seem weak and a phony. Now there exists a fear of black people using our culture to make statements in code. It’s the modern variation on the fear that led slaveholders to take our drums away.” Though the NEH letter applauds Dash’s research and the en­dorsements of her script by respected Gullah scholars, it tries to claim that the film’s symbolic elements are purely flights of her fancy. What Dash has come up against here is the arrogance of someone else’s ignorance — an arrogance forti­fied by what appears to be the common belief that blacks’ self-knowledge is like no knowledge at all.

Knowing that racism is behind the in­stitutions’ failure to support her does nothing to insure that Dash will have dollar one to complete Daughters this spring. But Dash, a veteran of black inde­pendent film’s long march, doesn’t know how to be despondent. “I just read Spike’s book on the making of She’s Gotta Have It, and after all he went through to finish his film, I know we’re going to finish this one.” ❖

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Black Independents’ Coming Attractions 

Yes, Virginia, there is a black in­dependent cinema beyond the genius of Spike Lee and the pound-wise, penny-ante-foolishness and ingenuity of Robert Townsend. You want more dap on it, you are required to read Thomas Cripps’s informative if problematic Slow Fade to Black, wait for Clyde Taylor’s poststructuralist tome on the subject, and by all means to join the Black Filmmaker Foundation. The BFF — 80 Eighth Avenue, suite 1704, NYC, 10011, 924-1198 — has a rental archive of work by nearly 100 black independents, and screens films every month by up-and-coming directors. Had you, for example, been a member two years ago you could have seen She’s Gotta Have It damn near right out the lab.

Five black independent filmmakers were working on Daughters of the Dust. A. J. Fielder has produced a short experimental work, Super 8 transferred to video, and has plans to begin shooting this summer a feature of Joycean intertextuality about his Howard years called Jahamas on Su­per 8, to be transferred to video. First assistant Will Hudson has completed two short video features, Rootman and Winter, that have a gutbucket phan­tasmagoric look. Drama adviser Leroy McDonald, a colleague of Dash’s at AFI, has done a short feature based on the infamous Tuskegee experiments and has another in the works about Olympic gold medalist Tommy Smith, who, with John Carlos, gave the black power salute at the ’68 games and wrecked his sports career as a result. Barbara-O is editing a documentary about black homeless men, and pro­ducer Bernard Nicolas has completed a documentary on his Haitian emigré family. Other names to watch out for are Reggie Hudlin, whose The Kold Waves is on the boards for production by New World this summer; Ellen Sumter, another Howard grad, with two 16mm short features to her credit; Brooklyn’s own Ayoka Chenzira; and Neema Barnette, whose work you may have peeped on two early Frank’s Place episodes. All coming to a theater near you in your lifetime we desper­ately hope. ■


Do the White Thing

Fear Eats the Soul

[Spike] Lee is cagey and talented, but he’s a classic art-school dilettante when it comes to politics … His film … is more trendoid than tragic, reflecting the latest rifts in hip black separatism rather than taking an intellectually honest look at the problems he’s nibbling around . … All these subtleties are likely to leave white ( especially white liberal) audiences debat­ing the meaning of Spike Lee’s message. Black teenagers won’t find it so hard, though. For them, the message is clear … The police are your enemy … Whites are your enemy.
— Joe Klein, New York Magazine

I’D LIKE TO SHARE A STORY with Joe Klein. Though perhaps in light of the murder of Yusef Hawkins in Bensonhurst, its moral may have al­ready occurred to him.

One summer afternoon in New Haven, a white friend went walking with her white boyfriend through the green across from Yale’s old campus. Most students had cleared out, leaving this economically depressed and predominantly black and Italian city to its own devices. Viv and Ned passed three young black men who were hanging out on a bench, cranking a radio, blasting a song called “Drop a Bomb On the White Na­tion.” According to Viv, the homies said nothing, maybe didn’t even notice them; but she sure noticed them. All of a sud­den, she said later, she was convinced they wanted to kill her. Why? Because she was white.

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Now, I understand fear and feeling en­dangered — that, unfortunately, is femi­nine intuition — but when this story was related to me I just laughed. It all seemed so obvious: Here’s this nice white student continuing on the road to economic as­cendancy — a very complicated given predicated on a racist, classist system. (Forgive the revolutionary tone.) Here are these young black men — statistically, their stars are not rising. They were just listening to the radio. What was she thinking? Her racial anxiety didn’t just shift, it flipped: subconsciously, she con­cluded that if we black folks aren’t mad at white folks, we should be. Repressing this conclusion, she arrived at a blind sense of threat. Others go further: Some of the best white supremacist rhetoric is couched in the language of self-defense.

I’m not a fan of reading movies as ambiguous and nuanced as Do the Right Thing as agitprop, or even thinking that a director has the special handle on his film; Spike has said some iffy things. Even so, when Joe Klein wrote that the film might lead to riotous behavior on the level of the Central Park Horror, he turned reality on its head. Instead, why didn’t he envision this, more common scenario: in a city tense about race issues, a gang of white youths hunt down four black men and kill one of them.

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Klein seems unable to accept that black moviegoers can become angry with­out rioting; he also ignores the possibility of backlash, of a reverse race riot. But while Klein is baffled by the complexities of what Lee put onscreen, the residents of Bensonhurst are unable to admit the simple reality of what happened on their streets. Witness the defensiveness of their responses: it wasn’t racism, it was a case of mistaken identity, or the age-old axe murder/rapist/molestor/batterer de­fense, “He couldn’t have done it, he was always a nice guy.” The fact is, you don’t know whether someone is racist until they come face to face with another race — or until they feel the need to justify the racist actions of a neighbor.

This past Sunday my brother, some friends, and I were having brunch. One person at the table was reading the cover of The Daily News, something about wa­termelons and a jeering crowd of young Bensonhurst residents out to rid the neighborhood of protestors. Watermelons and racist exhibitionists and another black death in New York City. Suddenly, it was all too cartoonish and hopeless. My brother just began to laugh his beau­tiful soft laugh, slightly hysterical. I joined in — our two friends, both white, just looked horrified. ■

Next: “This Land Is Your Land” by Joe Wood

1989 Village Voice article by Kathy Dobie about murder of Yusef Hawkins in Bensonhurst

1989 Lisa Kennedy article for the Village Voice about the murder of Yusef Hawkins in Bensonhurst and also Joe Klein’s obtuse review of DO THE RIGHT THING

From The Archives From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES

BLACK LIKE WHO? Arguing With the Homeboys

Since Spike Lee has consistently promoted himself as the down voice of black life — the homeboy who, with his other homeboys, speaks to and for black community — it should come as no surprise that black folks feel free to talk back to Spike. We speak about him in ways that suggest familiarity, closeness, the right to butt into his business. In traditional black community, elders would stop you when they thought you were out of line and set you straight. They would call you over, find a quiet space, and let you know what they thought you were doing wrong: this was not the stuff of con­troversy. In the world of racial integration where one’s shit gets “checked” publicly, in the newspapers even, with everybody watching, such critique becomes not only controversial, it plays right into racist as­sumptions that there can only be one pow­erful black (usually male) voice at any given time and that a struggle (preferably one that creates entertaining spectacle for racist onlookers) must take place to see who will retain the title of “head negro in charge.”

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The recent conflict between Spike Lee and Amiri Baraka has all the qualities of darky spectacle. When Lee boasts that “there are thirty million blacks in this country” and that “more of them are on my side than his,” he trivializes the importance of progressive cultural criticism that dares to speak on issues related to black experi­ence, reducing socially relevant conflict to a battle between two black male egos. Had Baraka and crew simply privately voiced concern about the way Spike might portray Malcolm’s life on the screen, it would not have become the stuff of controversy. It would not have raised in the public’s imagination fears of black fascist censorship, of a Rushdie-like affair with Lee as the potential victim of image or life-threatening attacks. When this conflict gets talked about as though it were merely a war between phal­locentric black males for public voice — for authority over black experience — the more serious issues having to do with the place of cultural criticism in black life, ongoing de­bates about issues of identity and authen­ticity (will the real black person please stand up?), as well as the role of artistic production in progressive black liberation struggle, are obscured and all but ignored. These are the happening issues that black folks do not talk about enough or with the level of critical seriousness and sophistica­tion that would enhance and enrich our understanding of black life and simultaneously strengthen our collective struggle. Both Spike Lee and Amiri Baraka would probably agree that collectively black folks are not FREE; that most of us have not decolonized our minds, are caught in the grips of paralyzing internalized racism; and that as a people we lack the kind of ongoing radical analysis of our economic plight that would lead us to understand fully the im­pact of capitalism on black life (contrary to what Spike and others would have us be­lieve, black capitalism and black self-deter­mination are not one and the same).

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Given that black folks make art and mar­ket it within white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, none of us can ignore the reality that any black person who wants to create a product with mass crossover appeal must do some serious soul-searching. It’s all too easy to sell out, to be co-opted, seduced into a conservative artistic practice that allows one to pretend that somehow it’s all right to produce reactionary, right-wing representations of black life that neither threaten nor challenge the status quo — if one is well-paid. Black folks, and all other critical thinkers who are concerned about the fate of black people, who want to see an end to racist domination, are justifiably concerned about the impact of race and representation. In this culture, what group of people could know better than black folks the danger of the IMAGE? And it is politically astute for us to raise questions about the way black life is represented (and that includes the biography of Malcolm X). But if we want such critique to act as constructive intervention, then it cannot be shallow or rooted in superficial personal conflict.

The most frustrating aspect of this Spike/Baraka affair is that as spectacle it does not serve as a catalyst for the making of new critical locations, spaces for open, honest communication. On the positive tip, at best it reminds those among us who would commodify blackness so as to render us objects to be consumed by a ravenous racist public (many of them people of color suffering from internalized racism) that we have not all lost our minds to greed and the lust for fame, that it is still crucial that black people critically examine the nature of the images we project so as not to be guilty of perpetuating the very domination we oppose. The issues raised by the conflict between Spike and Baraka remind us that there is a need for critical vigilance, that artistic production is always, always political.

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It is important that Baraka and crew urge black people to take a critical approach to cultural production, but the field of contes­tation they project is much too narrow and leans toward censorship. The point should not be to “check” or censor Spike or public­ly threaten him, but to urge black folks to be critical viewers committed to a libera­tory politics that would check our tenden­cies to passively consume images. A dynamic space for critical exchange should exist in which meaningful black artistic production could emerge and be critiqued. Many black folks, ruthlessly obsessed with the desire to further racial uplift by pro­moting “positive images,” refuse to ac­knowledge that we need a diversity of per­spectives, and seek to suppress the voices of dissent. Spike should know this since he has shown little interest in critical voices that he does not control, that do not un­equivocally affirm his projects.

Censorship is happening on all levels of the black culture scene. It threatens to keep black artistic expression and cultural cri­tique confined to narrow, suffocating spaces, where they serve as vehicles for the recycling of old images and thought or mindless propaganda. We need to get a grip! During the controversy over Satanic Verses any voice that supported Third World readers’ critical interrogation of the ways people of color are represented in a white supremacist context was automatical­ly seen as betraying the cause of artistic freedom, threatening democratic principles. Yet many folks (myself included) felt we could unequivocally oppose violent intimi­dation even as we could simultaneously ac­knowledge the political necessity of op­pressed and/or marginalized groups asserting in resistance that all forms of ar­tistic expression seeking to perpetuate and maintain imperialism, colonialism, racism, and sexism must be contested. Contestation and censorship are not the same.

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The work of Spike Lee and of all of us who create black art should be critically interrogated. There should be a space to discuss work — in progress as well as com­pleted. As the field of contestation widens for black artists and audiences, as we insist on a critical openness that expands our visions, that invites ongoing transformation of consciousness, we will not need to worry about who produces what kind of image, for the structures will be in place to chal­lenge, critically interrogate, and, if neces­sary, subvert. ■


On Malcolm X: Can This Be the End for Cyclops and Professor X?

Can This Be the End for Cyclops and Professor X?
November 10, 1992

“I’m not a race man. I’m an X-man,” says Bullrose to Dravidiana, the she-ra with the Hi-8 video camera.

“As in Malcolm, of course?” she crack, whopping them blond dreads out of her face with ye olde roundhouse swing of the dome.

“No, as in Ice Man, Angel, Cyclops, and The Beast. My slave name used to be Scott Summers, dig?” A list that does not leave Dravidiana perplexed, just provoked into Bullrose’s bushwah.

“Whoa, Troop! What happened to X-Girl? You just erasin’ her from the pages of Marvel history?”

The gender interrogation feel like déjà vu to Bullrose. It take him back. Back before Dravidiana turned that lesbonic corner, back when she was his woman and he were her man, back when she routinely took him to task for the masculinist infractions.

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“I remember back in the day when being up on Marvel Comics’ lore was strictly a brother-thang. Can’t nothing be strictly a brother-thang anymore? I know how them all-white country clubs feel. Can’t get away from these niggas nowhere.”

“And woman is the nigga of the world,” proclaimed the she-ra. “But let’s stick to the point. The original question was…”

“… how many peckers did Peter Piper prick?”

“The original question was, why are so many young brothers sweatin’ Malcolm X’s dick so hard these days? Is it ’cause Spike Lee, Chuck D, BDP? Why you got the sleaze-ass likes of Big Daddy Kane saying he aspires to be a combination of Malcolm X and Marvin Gaye, a great Black leader and a sexy entertainer? And a virtual humanist like Vernon Reid coming out the box like he wants to be X and Hendrix rolled into one? How cum? Huh? Huh?”

“Well, all the brothers you mentioned led the way far as the resurrection goes, but X wouldn’t be making this kind of comeback if he wasn’t a bona fide superstar. I mean, the brother had style. He never took a bad photograph in his life. His records still sound dope. And no matter what kinda nigga y0u are, if you read his book you can see yourself in him. Like Chaka Khan said she was everywoman, X was every Black man. I mean, the brother had a multiple-identity crisis going on. Count ’em off: preacher, poet, pimp, prostitute, prophet, player, political activist, warrior-king, husband, father, martyr.

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“X occupies so many housin’ units in the Black male psyche, a brother can’t erase X without erasing himself. I don’t think he shot hoop, and he wasn’t a jazz musician, but he was a great jazz dancer, which is close enough to confer jazzman/jock cache on his godhead too.”

“But what do these brothers really know about brother Malcolm? All they know is what other niggas say about what a nigga he was. Jockin’ on the T-shirts, buttons, and shit. What do they know about his politics, which were like totally fucked up?”

“What does a young brother got to know? X was a smooth operator from the streets with a dope rap who stood up for Black folks and got shot down for doing it. That’s the stuff Black heroes are made of. Staying Black and dying for it. It’s a myth0-pop-poeic world out there. Brother been brought up on it same as everybody else. Malcolm was like JFK or Elvis. He was made for the TV age. Brother man was videogenic and gave great soundbites. The hip-hop nation got to dig him because he could rap, he had street knowledge, mother wit, and supreme verbal flow. You know how we value verbal prowess in the Black community. The brother or sister who can make stone rhetoric swing like a pickax to the brain. All of that is why the young brothers are on Malcolm’s jock so hard.”

“Do you think they’d be following him if he was alive today?”

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“If he was alive today they wouldn’t need to be following him. I mean, do you realize how different America would be today if King and X had been around to provide moral leadership and militant thrust to the Panthers and the Yippies and all them muhfuckuhs instead of them being left out there to freelance and fuck it up for themselves? But, you know, it’s cool, because Malcolm left the brothers their first revolutionary pop ikon. Nat Turner don’t count. Who even knows what he looked like? Coulda been a nerd. And when you dealing with American superstars, baby, all you need to know is he lived fast and died young, a martyr who went out in a blaze of glory. Dying under suspicious and mysterious circumstances helps too. That way you can really hype the conspiratorial element. Live heroes are a problem. They be getting all soft and wet and problematic on you. If you’re lucky enough to die young you can be remembered for being a hard muhfuckuh forever. We celebrate the death of Malcolm X for what it is — the birth of a new Black god. X is dead, long live X. He’s like the Elvis of Black pop politics — a real piece of Afro-Americana. That’s why Spike’s logo is branded with an American flag. Malcolm couldn’t have happened anywhere else.”

“Do you think Malcolm’s spirituality makes a difference to the youth at all?”

“Sure it does because that’s all part of the package, the construct we know as X the martyr. But spirituality is like anything else in America, you got to package it right. Malcolm had the right package. If being Muslim is how you get to be a righteous Black man like Malcolm, then you become Muslim. When you’re young, dumb, and full of cum and, lord knows, you gonna get you some, you like to think you got juice to pass judgment on the world, that youth makes right. Self-righteousness comes with the territory: You think however you living is justifiable because you a sexy young thing, maybe good with your hands or in some sport. But maybe not because it really ain’t as important as being proficient in Black Male Posturing. BMP is a bitch. Carry you farther than you will ever imagine in this world because the whole world gives it so much power. Except for the butch breed like yourself who on the whole are probably less impressed than anybody. And cocky because of it. Yeah, I be checking how arrogantly y’all will ignore a fine brother just because you know it fucks up his whole program. Y’all eat that shit up.”

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“You mean like you, boy-Romeo.”

“Being a loveman is a tough job but somebody has to do it, right? Anything else you want to ask me?”

“When did you first hear about Malcolm?”

“In my house growing up. I’m an old muhfuhkuh so we talking ’65, ’66 when I was around eight or nine. He was a regular on the turntable. ’longside Otis, Coltrane, and Nina Simone. We lived in a big three-story house. The stereo was a big old piece of furniture. So when my people played Malcolm on a Sunday it would fill up the house, every nook and cranny, you could almost smell Malcolm’s voice smoking up the joint. Seems like on Sunday my people kept Malcolm going like we keep candles and incense going today. Except for Nina Simone and Otis Redding and John Coltrane, the only records I can remember my people playing was X. Now all my mother listens to besides jazz-lite radio and weight-loss tapes is Public Enemy. There’s some kinda continuity there, I guess. I don’t know what happened to all those X records she had. Probably got stolen, or borrowed and never returned. They’re collector’s items really. Probably fetch a fine price on the open market.”

“What do you remember from the X oeuvre?”

“Certain phrases will stick with me forever. ‘I’m the man you think you are.’ ‘I’d do the same as you, only more of it.’ ‘You can’t get a chicken from a duck egg.’ I always liked that image. It always made me see a baby chick flopping around in an eggshell three sizes too big. ‘You can’t have a revolution without bloodshed.’ ‘Doesn’t matter if you’re a Baptist or a Methodist, you’ll still catch hell.’ That conjured an image in my mind too: churches burning down. That one where he talks about how if you were a citizen you wouldn’t need no Civil Rights bill. What’s funny is that even as a child — and I’m talking seven, eight years old — X made perfect sense to me. Maybe because he was talking about right and wrong in such binary terms, like in fairy tales. You know he painted the world as Black equals good and white equals evil. Black could be stupid, punk ass, and illogical but not evil. And white couldn’t be nothing but evil. Do I still believe that? Not expressly. On the other hand I’m not impressed by much of anything white people do except for some painters and photographers, a couple stand-up comics and the theoretical physicist types.”

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“Not to digress but you can be hard on your Black visual artists. Why is that?”

“The evidence speaks for itself. It’s not even about where’s the Coltrane, the Baraka, the Lady Day, the Fannie Lou Hamer of painting, sculpture, and photography. It’s about where is the Jr. Walker, the Iceberg Slim, the Gloria Lynne, the Shirley Chisholm. There’s very little Black visual work that personifies blackness. You got people that do good work but rarely does it not lack for the wit, pathos, and absurdity of Black existential reality. We got people that have rolled up close up on it. But it can get even blacker than that. I think so, anyway.”

“How can you quantify the blackness of visual practice and phenomena?”

“Only by the way it does things white boys can’t even contemplate. Like being a Malcolm X, Bob Marley, Miles Davis. If you a white boy you know there’s no way in hell you could be one of them because you could never step inside of history in their skin. Race doesn’t prescribe experience or predict emotional depth, but there are historical experiences that only being Black in space, time, and mind will make possible. You get my drift?”

“Sounds kinda essentialist to me. What’s really the difference between what you’re saying and calling white folks grafted devils?”

“Are we gonna have that old debate again? Look, there is a special kind of alienation you possess as Black person in this society that is all mashed up with your feeling of love and loathing and loyalty to Black folks as a whole. Unless you were raised among Black people you never develop certain sensitivities or neuroses about race and culture and identity that I believe are a fundamental inspiration for Black creative genius. Du Bois talked about Black folks and double consciousness. I think if you’re a Black intellectual you got quadruple, sextuple, octagonal consciousness beaming around your brain. You’re always trying to square things that have no lines and hard edges. Like where Africa ends and Europe begins. How to develop yourself without alienating those who are interested in development on whose behalf you are developing yourself. You know if Malcolm hadn’t had the Nation of Islam’s save-a-sinner program behind him to smooth all that kinda shit out he woulda been another alienated Black intellectual in deep crisis. Trying to figure out how to relate to the masses and redeem ’em without romanticizing and patronizing or, worst of all, pandering to them. It’s easy to challenge Black folks on self-destructive behavior. Harder to challenge us on reactionary practices like misogyny, homophobia, and thinking that intellectual development is a white thang. But what is Malcolm to you, Dravi? What are you looking for from these interviews and whatnot?”

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“Well, like, I was never raised to have heroes. I was raised to listen to what people said and look for how it contradicted what they did. I learned that the person who did a constructive thing for the community today could be about tearing it down tomorrow. I was taught how fragile and selfish most human beings are — except for Black mothers — and that holding power over people makes them even more fragile, vain and lonely and dangerous. Dangerous to others because their charisma makes folks want to let them do their thinking for them. Dangerous to themselves because they have to give up their humanity on the way to the hall of glory.

“I think history shows us that the revolutionaries and prophets that the state killed got a better deal than the ones who became living symbols. Because there’s nothing at the end of that road but bitterness, regret, and tyranny. How can you respect the common humanity of people who hold your ideas, your utterances as more valid than their own lives? That’s why I got no use for heroes. I can respect heroic acts I can’t respect anybody who’d want idolatry for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”

“You don’t think that’s what Malcolm wanted, do you?”

“I don’t know that any real revolutionary starts out wanting that. It’s what people want for you. And the only way you can defeat that kind of imposed demogogic status is by rejecting the people and the power they invest in you. Malcolm was one of the lucky ones. History swallowed him before he swallowed it.”

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“Ahh, the humanist response. Deep. Far as it goes. But if you want to know the real deal, I think X was swallowed by the world of the assassins.”

“The what?”

“The world of the assassins. The world he renounced after his trip to Mecca and after he renounced the Nation of Islam. Anywhere you have a politicized secret society you’re going to draw the secret order of the assassins. They’re a guild that’s been around since about the 11th century. For more on this than I got time for here I suggest you check out Ishmael Reed, Thomas Pynchon, and Robert Anton Wilson. I think X became a target when he threatened to come out of the cultish darkness of Islamic separatism and into the light of pantheistic humanism. The assassins thrive wherever humans dispute over difference, borders, territories, or identity — anywhere difference becomes politicized, the assassins have got a stake and probably a hand in it. They killed JFK and RFK when they threatened to bridge differences between nations. And they did it to Martin when he threatened the Vietnam project as well as their program of American economic apartheid. They could have killed Castro but they realized his presence provided the ‘logic’ that kept state terror and the assassins’ order alive and well in Latin America.

“The assassins uphold no ideology, no. The assassins live only for chaos, disunion, and the perfectability of the art of the political murder. To perpetuate themselves they have to practice their craft. Anyone with political power who renounces them in pursuit of dissolving human difference is dangerous. The assassins want to keep us in the Tower of Babel state. That’s why they had to take out Coltrane, Redding, Hendrix, Marley, and X, and neutralize Clinton and Sly. That’s why you see cats like Chuck D and KRS-One only flirt with humanism but not really embrace it. They know that the assassins are on the nether side of bringing folk together, with a vengeance. When you can convince folks they don’t need ignorance, hatred, and fear or the ism-schisms to survive, you’ve effectively cut the heads off the assassins and tossed their mangy torsos into the streets to be mulled over and masticated by the dogs in the clear light of day. Malcolm was on the way to taking them out of the darkness and into the light like every other progressive prophet who ever came down the pike, and that’s why ‘history’ swallowed him. Dig?”

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“Dig? Niggapleeze. If you don’t get out my face with that warmed-over Illuminati Tragedy-Mumbo-Jumbo Rainbow Coalition bushwah — I still say we don’t need another hero.”

“And I say you still don’t get it. It’s not about us. It’s about an ancient conflict over how the soul of the world should turn.”

“No, it’s about the souls of the men and how easily they turn to violence when they can’t control the earth, nature, or women. If any of these prophets you speak of were truly progressive, they’d realize the only way your assassins could be assassinated will be when the planet is ruled by the cult of woman, which is the cult of the earth. But men are too into keeping up the body count because all they can bring into existence on the planet without bowing down to the feminine principle is murder.”

“I ain’t even steppin’ up into that nonsense. Baby, I’m 5000.”

“5000? Not even that high. More like 33 and a third.”

CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

Do the Race Thing: Spike Lee’s Afro-Fascist Chic

The problems Spike Lee and his new film, Do the Right Thing, represent cannot be discussed outside the con­text of contemporary Afro-American media success and the reemergence of black power thinking. But a good place to begin is Brooklyn on June 5, the evening that Lee and Robert Townsend of Hollywood Shuffle were given tribute by the Black Filmmaker Foundation, a nonprofit organization that distributes independently made Afro-American films. Not only were Lee and Townsend praised but the 10-year existence of the foun­dation was cause for an awards presentation acknowl­edging the mostly white funders and the best films made since 1979.

The numerous film clips shown that glamorous eve­ning at the Majestic Theatre of the Brooklyn Academy of Music demonstrated that Lee and Townsend are but examples of the many people making films, looking at historical figures, and attempting to address the joys, ambiguities, and dilemmas central to being an American of color in our time.

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But at the press conference that preceded the ceremo­nies, it was obvious that such problems are of less interest to Lee than the chance to express a rather muddled vision of black cinema. When I asked him what exactly constitutes black film in terms of cinematic style, Lee could only answer that there isn’t a large enough body of work to say, which suggests that he has yet to think out an aesthetic that would determine the visual style of his work. But there is no doubt that he has high regard for his new film: he claimed he had been robbed at Cannes because “they are always looking for a golden white boy.” Depicting himself as a victim, Lee complained he’d had to fight for the $6 million that this film cost and “I’ll probably have to fight for the $12 million for my next picture.” In discussing whether Do the Right Thing is racist, Lee said, “White people can’t call black people racist. They invented that shit.”

Lee’s glibness and his stage hostility weren’t particu­larly fresh, but there was an especially disturbing quality to his bootlegged ’60s pronouncement about racism. There is far too much proof that racism is no more the invention of white people than white people were, as Malcolm X taught so many while under the thrall of Elijah Muhammad, invented by a mad black scientist. The statement, however, seemed to be an attempt to parry what will become a central part of the discussion of the film, its very existence proof of what one can bring off with the necessary ambition to lead, the energy for self-promotion, and the ability to manipulate the simplistic ethnic ideas that pop leadership demands.

As Do the Right Thing proves, Lee is a miniaturist in more than size. His vision is small and lacks subtlety, but it continues to raise a luster of surface brilliance. The new film is such an advance in technical terms over the amateurish School Daze that one is surprised by it, even taken in — initially. Lee’s control of the contempo­rary cinematic language — which is so influenced by tele­vision commercials, rock videos, and the techniques of the ’60s European avant-garde — has been found impres­sive. All who would dismiss his gifts as a framer, lighter, and editor of images must now leave the room. He is clearly learning how to do it with exceptional speed.

But Lee, whose truest gift appears to be comedy, either lacks the intelligence, maturity, and the sensitiv­ity necessary for drama, or hasn’t the courage and the will to give racial confrontation true dramatic complexity. At heart, he is for now a propagandist, one who reduces the world to a shorthand projected with such force that the very power of the projection itself will make those with tall grass for brains bend to the will of the wind. Though there is much cleverness, the film has no feeling for the intricacies of the human spirit on any level other than that of fast-food irony, no sense of the trickiness of both good and evil, none of the emotional scope that brings artistic resonance. Do the Right Thing, for all its wit, is the sort of rancid fairy tale one expects of the racist, whether or not Lee actually is one.

One must always face the razor’s edge of the fact that race as it applies to American identity has a complex relationship to the grace, grime, and gore of democracy, and that an essential aspect of democracy, of a free society’s exchange of ideas, is that we will inevitably be inspired, dismayed, and disgusted by the good, mediocre, and insipid ideas that freedom allows. The burden of democracy is that you will not only get a Thurgood Marshall but an Alton Maddox, a Martin Luther King and an Al Sharpton — the brilliant, the hysteric, the hustling. And in terms of film opening up to more and more black people, there is no doubt that most will follow trends and appeal to the spiritual peanut galleries of society as long as there is money to be made, while a few will say something of importance, not only to Amer­ican society but to the contemporary world. Few in this country have ever wanted to be artists, have wished to challenge or equal the best on a national and interna­tional basis. Most want no more than a good job and — ­in our time of the rock-and-roll elevation of the brutish, the superficial, and the adolescent — pop stardom. Those who believe that such American tendencies will fall before the revelations of the sword of the Negro soul are naïve.

That naïveté, like an intellectual jack-in-the-box bumpkin, periodically popped up through the Black Filmmaker Foundation’s ceremonies. There was much talk of “controlling our images,” a term suggestive of the worst political aspects of black nationalism, one far more dangerous if taken in certain directions than, say, expanding our images. Such “control” without attendant intelligence and moral courage of the sort we saw so little of during the Brawley farce or rarely hear when Louis Farrakhan is discussed, will make little difference, since the problems Afro-Americans presently face ex­tend far beyond the unarguable persistence of a declin­ing racism. Intellectual cowardice, opportunism, and the itch for riches by almost any means necessary define the demons within the black community. The demons are presently symbolized by those black college teachers so intimidated by career threats that they don’t protest students bringing Louis Farrakhan on campus, by men like Vernon Mason who sold out a good reputation in a cynical bid for political power by pimping real victims of racism in order to smoke-screen Tawana Brawley’s lies, by the crack dealers who have wrought unprecedented horrors, and by Afro-fascist race-baiters like Public Ene­my who perform on the soundtrack to Do the Right Thing.

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In more than a few ways, Do the Right Thing fits the description Susan Sontag gave fascism in her discussion of Leni Riefenstahl, “Fascinating Fascism.” Sontag says fascist aesthetics “endorse two seemingly opposite states, egomania and servitude. The relations of domi­nation and enslavement take the form of a characteristic pageantry: the massing of groups of people; the turning of people into things; the multiplication or replication of things; and the grouping of people/things around an all-­powerful, hypnotic leader-figure or force.”

In Do the Right Thing, the egomania and the servi­tude, the massing of people into things, and the irresist­ible force are all part of blackness. That blackness has the same purpose Sontag recognized in the work of Riefenstahl: it exists to overcome “the dissolution of alienation in ecstatic feelings of community.” Lee’s vi­sion of blackness connects to what Sontag realized was “a romantic ideal… expressed in such diverse modes of cultural dissidence and propaganda for new forms of community as the youth/rock culture, primal therapy, anti-psychiatry, Third World camp following, and belief in the occult.”

In order to bring off his romantic vision of race superseding all, Lee creates a fantasy Bed-Stuy neighborhood. No villains such as drug dealers ever appear to complicate things, nor any middle-class would-be street Negroes like the filmmaker himself. The variety of black people Lee chooses to sentimentalize, capture accurate­ly, or to show admiration for are all lower class. Some even feel animosity for each other. But when the racial call is given, all forms of alienation dissolve and the neighborhood merges into ANGRY BLACK PEOPLE led into a riot by a rail-tailed ne’er-do-well named Mookie, who throws a trash can through the window of a pizzeria owned by an Italian he works for. In the logic of the film, the Italian, Sal, is the real villain because, even though he has had his shop in the neighborhood for 25 years and has watched people grow up and die, he refuses to put the pictures of “some black people” on his wall, which is covered with the images of famous Italian­-Americans.

Sal’s refusal enrages a fatmouthing Negro named Bug­gin Out, who wants to boycott the pizzeria but can find only one supporter, Radio Raheem. To Lee’s credit, Buggin Out is shown as a fool and Radio Raheem the kind of social bully who commandeers audio space with his noise-blasting boombox. Raheem brandishes gold­plated brass knuckles and explains why one pair is lettered “love” and the other “hate” in a soliloquy that connects him to Robert Mitchum’s psychopath in The Night of the Hunter. Near the end of the film, the two enter Sal’s place as it is about to close, the boombox obnoxiously loud, demanding the placement of black faces on the wall. Sal tells them to turn off the radio or get out. They refuse and tension builds until the Italian utters THAT WORD: nigger, then smashes the box with a bat. A fight ensues and Raheem is put in a choke hold and killed by the police during the struggle. When the police pull off with Buggin Out handcuffed as they drive billies into his stomach, Mookie throws the trash can and begins screaming at Sal that Raheem “died because he had a radio.” The neighborhood Negroes then realize that Sal is the villain, that he is THE WHITE MAN, and that they, regardless of how much they have been irri­tated by Raheem and Buggin Out are, like them, BLACK. They exact their revenge — the young, the old, the crip­pled, the crazy. To maintain obligatory Third World solidarity, the mob decides not to destroy the Korean store across the street after the owner shouts, “I’m black, too.”

When the firemen arrive after the pizzeria has been looted and torched, they hose the crowd blocking their work, and Lee commits the kind of vulgar distortion of history one is familiar with in the work of fascists. Are audiences to believe that Negroes bent on stopping fire­men from putting out a conflagration are the same as those who met the force of water in Birmingham during a nonviolent demonstration? Apparently so, but that is only one example of Lee’s moral confusion. His charac­ter, Mookie, rises from the bed of his Puerto Rican girlfriend the next morning, ignoring yet another of her foul-mouthed demands that he come visit her and their baby more often, and goes back to see Sal for his $250 salary. Sal throws five $100 bills in his face. Mookie throws two of them back at Sal, then finally picks them up and walks off, perhaps providing us with a metaphor for what Lee expects of his career — that he will be able to make irresponsible films white people will angrily pay him for.

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It all seems, like much of LeRoi Jones’s agitprop work, a little man’s fantasy twisted up with a confused morality that justifies itself in the name of racial pride and outrage against historical and contemporary injus­tice. Throughout, pipe-stem Mookie talks bad to Sal and his two Italian sons, even tells Sal he had better not try anything with his sister. If you are Mookie’s size and expect to talk that rough to a “let’s step outside” Italian, you had better be sure that you wrote the script, direct­ed the movie, and that he is working for you!

But Do the Right Thing is already being celebrated by white critics who would never have accepted such a polluted political vision from one of their own. It is, for one thing, a perverted version of My Beautiful Laun­drette, where the white guy who works for the resented Asians helps defend his employers against a skinhead riot, not out of obeisance but in reaction to anarchy. Had that rightly praised film been made by a white director and had it shown the ex-skinhead leading his buddies in the destruction of the laundrette and the assault on the Asians, it would have been sanctimo­niously shouted down, regardless of the personal short­comings of some of the Asian characters.

In fact, had Do the Right Thing been the work of a white actor/writer/director, the picket lines would stretch to the Red Sea. But the gullibility of those white people who would pretend that this film is a comment on racism and not perhaps the real thing itself is proof of what Sontag calls “pop sophistication,” the ability to perceive the actual political meaning as no more than “aesthetic excess.”

Lee’s success with the critics at this point goes beyond the fact that those whites who feel they are being treated to “the real thing” have rarely been disturbed by the exotic experience of having a turd pushed into their faces through a hole on the social deck beneath them. What makes Lee special is that fascists are never very good at comedy. Few, if any, are known for the quality of witty remarks made during their addresses or for bursts of humor in their work that provoke universal laughter. It is precisely because Lee can make audiences laugh that the fascist aesthetic he follows with such irresponsible deliberation slips the critical noose. Intel­lectually, he is like John Wayne Gacy in his clown suit, entertaining those who cannot believe the bodies buried under his house.

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And Then There Was Nunn
By Lisa Kennedy

Bill Nunn’s Radio Raheem is like a trace across Do the Right Thing, always heading out into the Bed-Stuy streets, adjusting his attitude by pumping up the volume on his monster box. He’s part rap-nationalist mis­sionary, part goof. His personal soundtrack comes from the fighting words of Public Enemy’s newest anthem — without a doubt one of this summer’s major beats — “Fight the Power.” When they see him com­ing — almost lumbering, he’s a big guy — Raheem’s neighbors are just as likely to shake their heads good-humoredly as tell him to shut the fucker down. No ­two people read him the same way, so why should we?

Raheem is big and silent. Sort of a quintessential stand-in for what is threatening about young black maleness. What you don’t know you assume, erring in the direction of ugliness and danger. When he finally talks, it’s a bizarre philosophical moment in which he extemporizes about LOVE and HATE, complete with visual aids — a knuckle band on each hand inscribed accordingly. It’s not for clarity’s sake, this yin/yang soliloquy. Nope, Raheem only becomes more confus­ing, and then he’s on his journey back and forth across the ’hood again.

Nunn picks up the phone in Atlanta and says, “Hel­lo.” The Southern inflection makes you think Grady­ — the character he played in School Daze — not Raheem. Is he more a fella than a rap nationalist? Well yes, and then again. “I happen to really like rap and reggae. I’m the oldest rap fan in America. Sometimes I’m listening to my Walkman on the train, and I hear a song that I really want to turn up.” He pauses. “Raheem, well he imposes his music on people, and he’s not bashful about doing it. It was his mission.”

While an artist-in-residence at Spellman, working on plays with Monty Ross, Nunn met Spike Lee. “Spike used to come to the plays,” recounts Nunn. “One time he told me to bring a head shot to his grandmother’s house. I did. We talked, and he said, ‘I think I have something I want you to do.’ ” That’s how he got the part Grady in School Daze.

“I love working with Spike. I think he’s generous with his talent. When he writes his script, it’s not written in stone. He let me play with my lines.” He is talking more about his experience as Grady than Ra­heem. Besides the fact that Raheem is two steps be­yond laconic, Nunn says, “In Do the Right Thing, I followed more closely what was written, because I felt Spike had a strong sense of the character.”

Despite the accent, Nunn was born and raised in Pittsburgh, before relocating to Atlanta. He also keeps a place in Harlem. Until Do the Right Thing, Brooklyn was not his province. Even so, the best borough worked its charm. “I grew attached to the people in the neighborhood,” Nunn confesses. “When the shooting was over, people were really sad about it, not just cause your money was stopping, but, I felt, we’re gone and the people are still there.”

Everyone who’s worked on this newest Lee joint is well-versed in its implications. They’re all walking the line between film and ugly reality. Nunn is kind of touching in the way he tries to negotiate the power of his fate in Do the Right Thing. “I hope they take it as a particular story,” he says. “I sure hope no one is going to bug out, ’cause it’s still just a film.”

Nunn goes on to talk about the right thing as a professional actor — keeping busy, whether it be in films, children’s theater, or a little Atlanta MCing on the side. And being in films that he won’t have to apologize to his eight-year-old daughter, his mother, his homeboys, about. He’s a big fella, Nunn, about as warm as Raheem is inscrutable.

To wit, as Nunn recounts another part of the Brooklyn shoot: “The most emotional day was when we were doing the scene where Buggin Out [Giancarlo Espo­sito] gets put in the [police] car, and he looks over to where I am on the ground.” He begins to sound some­what incredulous. “It fucked up my head.” Silence on the other end of the line. “It’s making me emotional talking about it.”

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Rosie the Riveting
By Guy Trebay

She plays Tina, who’s the lover of Mookie, who never comes over except for sex. Tina is mouthy and bighearted with a bitch rant so cartoonish she should be under contract to Ralph Bakshi. A compression of every cliché Latino mami you’ve ever seen, Tina is the female lead in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, tightly packaged in the coffee-colored person of Rosie Perez. No filmmak­er but Lee could invent a character like Tina (or get away with it). And Lee didn’t really invent Tina in the first place. You couldn’t invent her tough and sexy streetwise attitude, or her look of permanent suspicion, or her matchless Spanglish sibilance. Let’s just say Lee met Perez and then pointed a camera in the right direction.

Here’s how Rosie was cast: “It was a twist of fate,” she says by phone from Los Angeles. “A friend out here conned me into going to this club called Funky Reggae. They were having Spike’s birthday party, and there was a butt contest, so I started acting like a smart aleck. I got up on the mike, and I was talking back to the band. Then some guy started waving at me, and I thought I was getting thrown out of the club. But he turned out to be Spike’s partner, Monty Ross. He said, ‘There’s someone I’d like you to meet.’ And I immediately thought to myself, ‘Sure. Two famous slimebuckets of Hollywood trying to influence their way into a girl’s panties.’ ”

Perez was not an actress at the time. She was a 22-year-old legal assistant from Brooklyn, one of 11 chil­dren of Lydia and Ishmael Perez, educated at Grover Cleveland High School, then at a Los Angeles commu­nity college after ditching a scholarship to USC (“I felt so stifled, I wanted to throw up on their shoes”), a sixth-generation, 100 per cent Puerto Rican native New Yorker, raised six blocks from the corner where Lee set his new film. “Later, Spike heard where I grew up and he fell out in tears of laughter,” says Perez. “I was kind of insulted at the time.”

The actress shrugged off Ross’s overtures and left the club. “For one thing, Spike and I didn’t really hit it off.” A month afterward, when her father fell ill and she decided to drive East by way of Washington, D.C., Perez dug out Lee’s 40 Acres and a Mule business card and gave him a call. “They heard my voice and said, ‘We’ve been dying to hear from you. You’re going to be in Washington? So are we. We can drive you back. We’ll pay for your train ticket. We’ll meet you there.’ Then it began to dawn on me that they were serious about this acting thing.”

It was on the car trip from the capital that Lee began surreptitiously taping Rosie, mentally altering the role of Tina, which originally called for a black actress, to accommodate Perez’s quirky talents and her inexhaustible store of slang. “Spike and Monty would take me to dinner or driving, and they would write down my little sayings and put it in the script,” says Perez. In particular, Lee took to Rosie’s way with an insult, using it to enliven the character of a (mostly) done-wrong lover. “They used it when I said stuff like ‘Your shit is to the curb,’ ” says Rosie, who should have gotten screenwriting credit for dissing.

This is not to imply that Perez plays herself in the film. For all its pouty broadness, Perez’s performance lets you know that Tina’s an invention: What keeps her from being a caricature is Perez’s ease in front of the lens. “I just regressed into childhood and the kids I grew up with to play the character of Tina,” says Perez, whose only pre–Spike Lee acting experience was a role in a seventh-grade classroom commercial. “The whole thing was simple. It wasn’t even like making a movie. My sister Carmen would bring me my rice and beans on the set. And we were shooting so close to my house that I could go and get a suntan on my mother’s roof.”

But it probably won’t be Perez’s acting that gets noticed as much as her freestyle dance solo to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” which opens the film. Or her seduction by Mookie on the hottest day of the year. “In the original script, the scene was much more graphic,” Perez says. “You know — ‘Close-up of ice cube melting in slow motion on her nipple.’ I saw that and got emotional. I told Spike, ‘This is like soft porn.’ He let me have a week to think about it. ‘I need this scene,’ he told me. I said, ‘Your tongue is not touching my body.’ ”

Mookie’s tongue ultimately doesn’t touch Tina’s body; the scene as filmed is a mildly erotic blur of close-up body parts. It wouldn’t make Perez’s mother blush.

“That shot was worth it,” Perez says, “because of the other messages the film is getting out. I’m a minority, and I grew up in one of the major ghettos in Bushwick. So I understand the conflicts between vio­lence and nonviolence that Spike is dealing with. Basi­cally everybody wants love and respect. If you grow up outside a system, you’re always saying, ‘I want to come in… Can I come in, please?’ Finally, nobody’s listen­ing, so you say, ‘Fuck it.’ And you just grab a leg and break in, you know?”

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Journey Into Fear
By Samir Hachem

CANNES — As the plane from Nice touched the ground at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle Airport and passengers started to get up, Sally Field — a member of the Cannes Film Festival jury that saw fit not to award Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing a single mention during the previous night’s closing ceremony — leaned over the row of seats in front of her and shook Lee’s hand. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I fought for your movie till the end, and I’d do it again.” Lee was taken aback. “They thought Mookie wasn’t heroic!” he said. “What’s heroic about a fucking per­vert who interviews women about their sex lives on TV?” He was referring to sex, lies and videotape, the movie that defeated his in grabbing the Palme d’Or, and to the persistent rumor that claimed jury president Wim Wenders did not find Do the Right Thing deserv­ing because of its lead character’s lack of heroism. “They didn’t like that Mookie threw the garbage through the window,” Field said, shaking her head. “I don’t think they understood it. It’ll do well in the States,” she added, nodding.

Lee arrived in Cannes about a week before his film was scheduled to screen, but he mostly kept out of public view, making his first appearance at a jam-­packed independent American filmmakers press conference. French fans hound him for autographs and pictures. On the Croisette, they can’t keep up with him. A diminutive, handsome 32-year-old with a New York Giants cap on his head, an earring in his left ear, and a small goatee that he continually rubs while speaking, Lee has scrawny legs that stick out of bright­-colored baggy shorts, and he walks on feet buried inside huge hightops, darting forward quickly with inward-pointed steps. He stops only once or twice, to regard a large billboard collage that contains his image alongside those of Wenders, Woody Allen, Satyajit Ray, and Francis Coppola and to read the title on a movie poster: How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired, which makes him frown.

Back in his hotel, the Carlton (courtesy of American distributor Universal), there are people to cater to his every need. He is punctual and obviously values effi­ciency. He takes promotion seriously and appears to do it tirelessly. “No one’s going to sell that movie better than I will,” he says. Lee attended the United Interna­tional Pictures (Do the Right Thing‘s overseas distrib­utor) party given in his honor and schmoozed with the bigwigs. (“UIP said they desperately need an award here,” he mentions. “I don’t think that award will mean much in the States. We want to get the reviews, to start a buzz. We hope to get a good response, not so much a prize. I don’t need a stamp of approval from the festival. I know what I’ve done.”) “You’re the man,” Universal chief Tom Pollock recites from the script. “No, you’re the man!” someone at the bash replies.

Hard as it might have been on him, Lee played by the rules at Cannes. He met the world press. One day, inside a sunny blue room at the Carlton, Lee sat surrounded by six or seven European journalists, who asked him questions like “Why aren’t there many riots in New York or Chicago?” “What is your opinion of films like Cry Freedom?” (“I hate movies like that,” he answered.) “What do you think of Islam as a vehicle for blacks?” “Do you like pizza?” Most of the time, the filmmaker answered the questions politely. “Malcolm’s quote [at the end of the film] is not about violence; it’s about self-defense,” he told one reporter, and, later, “This film is not about a ghetto. It’s about racism, and racism exists everywhere.”

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Sometimes a question really riled him up. “What about black racism?” one journalist asked. “Black rac­ism? What’s that?” Lee snapped. “I think we have to distinguish between racism and prejudice. Black people are not racist. If I call you a white motherfucker, that’s not racist; that’s prejudiced name-calling. But when you’re in a position of power to affect my life and economic reality and you abuse that power, that’s racism.”

And some things really irritated him, as when a USA Today reporter stood up during the big press confer­ence to complain that the neighborhood in Do the Right Thing was “too clean, there’s no garbage, no drugs. Where’s the rape, where’s the crack?” “The questions I get asked by journalists a white filmmaker would never get asked,” Lee told me a few mornings later. “I think those insights just show their racist notions of how black people are. We were not going to have garbage, squalor, and broken glass, and women throwing their babies out of windows. Even in the reviews, the word militant keeps coming up. When white people stand up for their rights, they call them freedom fighters, but if a black man gets up and speaks for his rights, he’s militant! I didn’t make this film so white people would feel guilty. We want this film to further discussion. We think it’s a news item. New York City has become polarized along racial lines. Mayor Koch has been very disrespectful to minorities in his policies. It’s pathetic how he’s trying to do a complete turnaround. But it’s too late. He’s not going to get any black votes.”

I told Lee how a French TV journalist, upon meeting him, had described him as “dangerous.” He did not disagree. “I could see if I was in power and a young black man got in the movie business and he could influence thoughts, I think you’d call that dangerous too.” He flashed a smile. “I can see some of them wondering, ‘How did we let this one get through? How did he get through the cracks? We thought we had it all sewn up.’ ”

Following the awards ceremony, Lee and his family went back to their hotel rooms and drank a little champagne. When he got up the next morning, Lee opened his door to find a banner rolled up on the floor beside it. Its writers were sympathetic to his loss. “Sorry Spike, but you’re black,” they wrote. At the airport in Nice, a woman wearing large sunglasses approached him. “Hi, I’m Jane Fonda. I’m a big fan of your work. My children love your movies.” Lee’s face broke into a smile. “I hear the Europeans didn’t get it,” she said. “Too aggressive.”




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We’ve Gotta Have It: Spike Lee and a New Black Cinema

In his production diary for Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee refers to the look he wanted for his film as “bright… Afrocentric bright.” Like all of Lee’s films to date, DTRT is afrocentric — not only in its look, but in its language, rhythms, humor, and most important, its worldview. The film chronicles the events on the hottest day of the year on a block in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy­ — events that jostle and collide with one another and finally erupt into a riot. It shows the close-knit life of the block, and it is very real. Lee gets things right, the cacophony of the street, the intimate wranglings that burst into public view, the small hurts and slights at the store counters and from the neighbors. And most of all, he captures the embattled attitude people carry with them at home or at work or in the street.

Early in the film a character named Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith) appears in front of a church, strug­gling mightily to express himself through an uncoopera­tive stuttering voice. He is selling postcard photos of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. and trying to give voice to what those images mean to him, a black kid trying to survive. It is a stunning evocation of the inexpressibility of black lives these days, or any days. After he appears, all that is articulated throughout the film takes on additional layers of frustration.

Only one character in the film escapes the miseries of being downpressed over food, clothing, shelter, and respect — Mister Señor Love Daddy (Sam Jackson), an omniscient, 24-hour, knows-no-sleep block radio jock, a Brooklyn love Baba, chanting hip sutras that usually end “and that’s the truth, Ruth!” The heat doesn’t get to him either. His very 24-ness there in a storefront win­dow is one of the touches of mojo, or Yoruba bush magic, that identify Lee’s vision as a step outside the melodrama of many naturalistic black films. Lee nods to those films, too, with the inclusion of two Mom and Pop characters, “Mother Sister” and “Da Mayor,” played by Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, that will be familiar to everyone. Like the coach and the college president in School Daze, they are staples from movie iconography, in this case surrounded by a whole block of folk you almost never see.

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DTRT is also very funny. The film’s humor is Lee’s most effective tool, embracing the characters and cajol­ing the audience. It allows us to deal with the disagree­able in ourselves, as humor should; it does not sell people off while selling jokes. The film is perhaps most provocative, though, for breaching its narrative to show you the perverse but common kinds of prejudice har­bored by characters from all sides of the story. They literally face the camera as talking heads, just as the “dogs” gave their raps in She’s Gotta Have It, and recite the racial slurs lurking in their minds before those feelings come spilling out in the heat of conflict.

It is part of the etiquette of race relations in this country that film does not do this. Whites who are prejudiced are characterized in such a way that their views seem the products of illiteracy or poverty. Blacks who are shown as prejudiced usually have only one operative mode — extreme rage — or they are crazies. In fact, lots of people who see the film will probably get into discussions about whether different characters are racist.

In St. Clair Bourne’s documentary, Making “Do the Right Thing,” there is a preproduction meeting between Lee and Danny Aiello about whether Sal (Aiello), owner of a pizzeria on the Bed-Stuy block, is racist. Lee thinks he is, Aiello thinks not. The white actors in the film do not view the characters they have to play as racist. That is hardly surprising; it’s psychic survival on the job. But they do seem unaware that Lee shows everyone as racist, even Sal — and Lee’s obvious determination to undo a few stereotypes of American film, including the grumpy white guy behind the counter of the local store in a “changing” neighborhood, who really is okay, really. There are two “Sals” in West Side Story, for instance — a candy store owner and a well-meaning social worker. People will want to decide if it is justified for Sal to be ruined, based on whether he is a good guy or a bad guy — that’s the way we’ve been taught to think.

But DTRT, perhaps even in spite of Lee’s intentions, suggests another way to look at the emergence of violence in a community. While Lee clearly believes that race views result from acculturation rather than economic stress, and he shows us the commonly acquired varieties of racism that we all have, the film itself makes clear that the pressures that can create violence are often responses to generalized frustration or fear, unrelated to any clear analysis of individual culpability. This fact was learned or relearned when insurrections erupted in the ’60s. That the pressures still exist is the film’s raison d’etre. This is the link to Howard Beach. In the real-life incident, of course, lawyers and media people attempted to pin various kinds of guilt on the victims of the violence. Those sympathetic to the perpetrators tried to take the edge off the deed by suggesting it could somehow by justified. Look, those guys were bad guys, even if they hadn’t done anything.

Talking about Sal being a racist or not is irrelevant. If Lee’s Mookie, a black who is just trying to get by, as Lee says, “while doing as little work as possible,” harbors untapped rage against the society he lives in and is capable of starting a riot, that is one of the underpinnings of everything that goes on between people in our society. That is the point. Again, I don’t know that Lee meant to say that, but it does get said in the movie. If you leave the theater wondering about the troublesome, seemingly ambivalent ending and the apparently contra­dictory quotes cited from Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, it is because you are looking for good guys and bad guys.

To show these layers of racism in the interaction between people in a place like New York, Lee had to show his own — our own — forms of race hatred. And he had to be honest. When asked why Mookie takes some money from the ruined Sal at the end of the film, providing its not-so-sweet ending, Lee answers, “Be­cause this is not a Disney movie. He’s not an idiot. He knows it’s gonna be a while before he gets another job. To do it the other way would have been the Hollywood movie.” (Also not from Disney is the Malcolm/Martin coda.) There are several reasons such honesty may make people uncomfortable.

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It will no doubt make some whites happy to know that a black filmmaker would implicitly criticize blacks for the arbitrary and foolish hostility towards them that sometimes occurs. He shows one of those pointless but utterly commonplace confrontations on a street, a white surrounded by blacks who want to know what he’s doing on their turf. He responds by saying he owns a building there, which any viewer will instantly recognize as a stupidly provocative remark, likely to inflame the al­ready touchy folk who have cornered him. It’s so stupid, you laugh. But it goes to the heart of white indignation — and silence — and black paranoia. Is honesty likely to be turned into a political weapon and used against us? Some will say yes, that kind of honesty; others will say that’s not really honest, because it doesn’t explain the causes of the behavior. It does not show our actions, actions which do not seem justified. His characters are not heroic in the way that we used to understand that word — more kin to Brecht’s folk than John Ford’s. Welcome to the ’90s.

The misanthropic Reagan era, a time of backlash and recrimination, has produced the new thinking that blacks must be more self-critical in looking at the prob­lems in our communities and that we must solve them ourselves. This is quite different from thinking in the ’60s. Blacks too have become susceptible to the neoconservative line that blacks are the creators of their own dilemmas. Even though Lee does not buy this line, his work still reflects the presence of these ideas. He may view his films as nationalistic, but they are hardly ’60s films; in fact they might have met with some serious opposition then and been viewed as loose canons in the politics of the time. But now Lee sits comfortably within a pantheon of African-American artists who came to prominence in the ’80s breaking the ranks of traditional protest art. Recent debates about the work of black writers like Alice Walker have certainly centered on the same question of the uses made of an artist’s unfettered personal honesty.

But have the times made white filmmakers more honest? With the exception of one or two filmmakers, like John Sayles, whose Matewan and The Brother From Another Planet reveal uncanny insight, this is a step white filmmakers have not been bold or interested enough to take.

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While the look and sound of black America often are imitated or appropriated, they usually pop up in a context that basically has nothing to do with how African Americans live and think. The same can be said of Latins and Asians, of course. Some producers may want to claim that they still believe films about blacks, or Latins, or Asians, won’t sell and therefore they must approach stories that may concern us through charac­ters the audience can identify with, but it’s much easier to imagine that white filmmakers are more interested in people like themselves.

In most cases white films use the National Geographic approach to the rest of us: showing nice pictures of beautiful people doing what they do in the broadest manner possible, and in a public forum. You see us break-dancing, cutting, strutting, or doing dope on the street. DTRT is one film I would have said could not be made by the industry in Hollywood.

In recent films blacks have taken on a new allure as background (Married to the Mob, Something Wild, Working Girl, and do you remember The Cotton Club?), and occasionally as objects of desire (Angel Heart, or the British Scandal). Even films like Bird, which purport to be about some particularly black aspect of the culture (popularly including jazz, army duty, or life in jail), not only perish from misguided perspective, but they are really about white people caught up in a fictional black world. Movies have so determined what that black world is like that Lee had to point out to reporters at Cannes that it just might be racist to ask only a black filmmaker why drugs do not appear in his movies.

While shooting Mississippi Burning, a film that uses black people almost exclusively as visuals, Alan Parker told me of his conscious, short-notice decision to shoot a scene of black people in their home. As he told it, the idea seemed to be a breakthrough for him — it usually isn’t done, he explained. The National Geographic cameras go in from the public forum to show you what they’re really like. The great flaw in this method is that it also undoes the logic of the film, because nothing is revealed by the people. When a riot unaccountably breaks out in Parker’s tiny Mississippi town, for instance, the black viewer, at least, is jarred into reality. If you are content to view blacks as inexplicable anyway, you move on; otherwise you come up with the racist notion that blacks just break out into riot every now and then. While Lee has made it a point in all of his work not to explain black people, but to let them be, it is very clear in DTRT what troubles each of the characters, black, white, Latin, or Asian. The assumption here is that that people matter, or as Lee puts it, that “Black life is as important as white life.” It is a tragedy that this must be one of the unique contributions of a black filmmaker to American culture.

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Black perspective is so precious a commodity in film that even a novel written by a black person (take Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place) and produced as a film for TV by a black person (say, Oprah Winfrey) can come up with images and stereotypes more tired than the normal fare with a director (say, Donna Deitch) who seemingly knows nothing more than clichés. Perhaps you also thought of another black woman’s novel (say, The Color Purple), and another director (Steven Spielberg). I doubt if even The Color Purple‘s most ardent supporters would say the film reflected an African-American way of looking at life. (Heaven help us. What will become of Beloved or Their Eyes Were Watching God, which are similarly situated to be made into films?) The process of filming any life is one of a thousand decisions about character, character understood from the inside out. The often filmmakers draw on how people of color have appeared in other films — films that denigrated even how we look.

But black filmmakers have begun to throw down the gauntlet where everybody can see it. Independent black filmmakers have made movies that deal with black life from the inside out for seven decades now, yet only a few have been widely viewed across America. And only DTRT has brought American critics back from Cannes — where it was snubbed by the awards jury — feeling chauvinistic about American film and ready to tough it out in the papers over a film that won’t make people happy. Even before it has opened, DTRT has put people on notice that African-American cinema is entering a new era.

While we will have to remind even Lee’s champions in the press that they are still comparing him to other black filmmakers (Van Peebles, even Sidney Poitier!), it will be possible to show how black cinema challenges the American film industry to do the right thing. No matter how small the coterie of black directors and stars with the clout to make movies happen, they put out the word that certain possibilities exist. DTRT is that rare dramatic film about black people that raises serious questions and has the potential to be big at the box office.

The model in the past among Hollywood execs has been the blaxploitation film, and the trend among self-­starting black filmmakers has been comic (Hollywood Shuffle, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka). While these films may be good fun, I also think opting for comedy is a survival technique. Prayers go up, of course, for the full universe of black life — tragic, comic, and in-between — to make it to the movie houses.

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And I hope too that DTRT will open the doors wider among black film viewers as to what they can expect from black filmmakers. We tend to lay down the param­eters of what is acceptable in the way of black images, because, as Lee says, “We have been dogged out in the media.” We have spent many hours in panels and boy­cotts of films made by whites about us. It’s time we talked about what we can do: how black films can break down some of the taboos — like the exclusion of brown­-skinned women from lead roles, the omission of normal relationships, reasoned militancy, or intact family life from black appearances in film. I could go on.

The fact that filmmakers can show our sense of com­munity, without prettying up the picture or feeling obliged to insert unnecessary material to placate certain people, needs to be discussed. The politically-minded may want to talk about whether nationalism is enough, or if filmmakers have to have a particular political line. Lee plays to his audience, too, in this film nodding to what he views perhaps as popular black opinion on figures like Minister Louis Farrakhan and Tawana Brawley. But at least he is nodding to those who seldom get heard. He shows us in a number of instances that black communities commonly reject mass-media banal­ities about events that affect us. This is an important idea.

Next year promises to be a boom year for black cinema. Lee is already in preproduction on a jazz film, A Love Supreme, to star Denzel Washington as a contem­porary trumpet player. Robert Townsend’s doo-wop film Heartbeats will be completed, and Charles Lane’s Side­walk Stories is soon to appear. Also due are films by James Bond III, Melvin and Mario Van Peebles, Reggie Hudlin, and Julie Dash. For all of them, the next battle­ground will be distribution. Will these films be released to more than two theaters in Detroit and Washington? Lee’s School Daze opened in 220 theaters last year, while most summer films open in 1500. Keenen Ivory Wayans’s I’m Gonna Git You Sucka was treated the same way. If you weren’t on the black grapevine, you wouldn’t know it was happening in time to get down to the theater. Earlier this month the Black Filmmaker Foundation honored a decade’s worth of films from these and other filmmakers. The film showings alone took several weeks. The release of Do the Right Thing is as worthy a landmark as any of the next wave in black cinema. There’s a whole gang of folk who know how to do the right thing, and that’s the truth, Ruth.

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Say the Right Thing
By Renne Tajima

Actor Danny Aiello has the no-bullshit affabil­ity of someone just off the street. And here, in a West Hollywood hotel called Ledufy, where Parisienne-sounding operators answer the phone “Oui, mademoiselle,” he seems a home­-boy who has wandered onto the wrong turf. Aiello is ensconced in Los Angeles to shoot Eddie Murphy’s $40 million picture Harlem Nights, a far cry in both budget and bankability from Spike Lee’s $5 million Do the Right Thing, which gave Aiello a coveted lead role as Sal, the entrenched and ultimately embattled owner of a Bedford-Stuyvesant pizzeria.

At 50, Aiello is tall and tattooed, with a solid build but enough of a gut and gold to suggest a paisan who has done well for himself. He remains a quintessential actor from New York — not as city, but as neighbor­hood. Directors have cast him accordingly: the aging mama’s boy in Moonstruck, the abusive Depression­-era husband in The Purple Rose of Cairo, and the bad cop in Fort Apache, the Bronx, set in the 41st precinct of the South Bronx where Aiello grew up a self-de­scribed “skinny, tough kid with a lot of heart.”

Aiello was the sixth of seven kids born to a de facto single mother and an absentee father “who came home once a year to make a baby, and then he’d be gone.” At the age of 16, Aiello married a local Jewish girl from the neighborhood and began a three-year stint in the service. While still in his twenties, he parlayed a job as a starter for the Greyhound bus line into the presiden­cy of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1202, making him the youngest union president at that time. Ousted after a 1967 wildcat strike, Aiello, then a father of four, went for five years working odd jobs, variously a bouncer and part-time master of ceremonies in after­-hours clubs around the city. He turned to acting at the age of 35.

Aiello’s working-class roots are crucial to his effec­tiveness in the role of Sal: Director Lee was certainly tapping elements of character far deeper than casting for type. The two couldn’t be stranger bedfellows: Lee, who directed commercials for Jesse Jackson, endows his films with motifs of black struggle; Aiello is the type of postwar working-class hero that put Ronald Reagan in office. Name an issue and the two are likely to be on opposite sides, from Jimmy the Greek’s gaffe about black athletes (Aiello: “It’s a dumb thing to say, but he should lose his job over that? Come on.”) to racial killings. (“You look at Howard Beach, Eleanor Bumpurs. Then you look at a white woman running in Central Park, and I understand that one black kid said, ‘Let’s get the white bitch.’ I mean, is that racial? We heard a racial remark made; should we judge them on race? I don’t know. Now someone in Howard Beach said, ‘Let’s get the black bastard.’ Does that make it racial? I don’t know.”)

Aiello himself embodies the perplexity of racial atti­tudes on a street level: the street being the place that erupted into the Howard Beach incident, and, in the movie, the place that erupts into the racially charged blow-out between Sal and Radio Raheem, where pizza and ghetto blasters say more about the day-to-day schism between black and white than any sociopolitical analysis could. For Aiello, words are a part of street culture he readily admits to participating in — “playing the dozens” as kids in the Bronx, cursing each other with whatever will hurt, whether it’s your mother or your race. He explains, “If a black man called me a guinea, that was the biggest insult you could give me­ — or a dago. I wanted to fight. And if I called a black man a nigger or something like that, he would want to fight. It wasn’t because you hated every person or you were racist. It was the thing that provoked people to fight. It’s like, put this chip on my shoulder and you throw it off… Now you’ve got people running around, some sort of psychologist or psychiatrist saying that if you say a word like that, you’re prejudiced. Well, I know I’m not prejudiced. If I was, I wouldn’t sit down with Spike Lee.”

Lee understands Aiello’s culture. Do the Right Thing explores, in a profoundly honest way, the range of individual and collective experience and emotion that lies behind a racial slur. Lee knows the difference between racism and prejudice: No nationality is inno­cent of bigotry, but in America today, white prejudice combined with economic and political power equals racism. He also knows that to a working guy like Sal, who has busted his behind for years just to scrape by, that distinction is an elusive one.

Aiello interprets the movie not as a movie about racism, but one that shows how meaningless a racial slur, and the attendant hoopla over it, can be. To him, like Sal, racial slurs are only words — deeds make the man. So, despite Louis Farrakhan’s views on politics and race, Aiello feels deep respect for the Fruit of Islam, which provided security on the movie’s set in Bed-Stuy: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen, individually or collectively, a group of people who are so polite, so clear-eyed, so full of knowledge as to what they were there for, and they were there to make sure that the movie would be made with no problems.”

Aiello’s views are enough to make most Hollywood liberals shudder, but he may well be one of the last honest men in the public eye. In conceptualizing his role of Sal, he explains: “I kept saying I don’t want my character to be lily-white every minute. I don’t want to be right every minute. I want them to have frailties. I want him to make mistakes. I want him to say ‘nigger.’ I want him to do that, and then at the end when they interview me and they say to me, ‘Are you prejudiced?’ I’m going to say, ‘I use those words in life.’ Spike knows that, and I said, ‘Look, if I told you I didn’t use that word before, Spike, I’d be a liar. But I’m not prejudiced, Spike, and I use the word.’ And I use words worse than those pertaining to race. But I’m not, I live and let live… If people are prejudiced, fuck ’em.”

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Standing Still
By Donald Suggs

Playing the roles of the neighborhood wino and the stoop-front matriarch in Spike Lee’s new film, Do the Right Thing, actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee look like they wandered into the South Bronx from some all-black musical. As Da Mayor, Davis weaves down the block in his straw hat and soiled dress clothes like the Ghost of Christmas Past, dispensing good cheer and old folk wisdom to the rare homeboy who’ll listen. Dee’s Mother Sister, the eyes and ears of a neighborhood preoccupied with mobility, rarely ventures further than her front stoop. As the only parental figures in the film, and the most experienced actors, Davis and Dee couldn’t seem more disconnected from the rap-filled world the surrounds them And that seems seems to be precisely the point.

“It’s hard to accept that your way of life is gone,” concedes Davis. “We’re products of institutions that were destroyed by their own success, for example the black theater where we both were trained. When Broadway and Hollywood opened their doors, we both went. But we try to put back that seed, show by our example that it’s a tradition worth saving.”

It’s not just the role they’ve played in the black performing community that makes this married couple’s presence in the film so significant; it’s also their commitment to activism within the film industry. “We’ve always been active in trying to help Hollywood see the light as far as black people are concerned,” Davis points out. “We’ve picketed, demonstrated, appeared as witnesses before Congress, talked about the dearth of roles for blacks both in front of and behind the camera. And also the kinds of roles available to us.”

“What’s glorious is seeing young people working together,” adds Dee, her eyes wide as she makes a sweeping gesture with her arms. “Blacks, Asians, the handicapped — they’re all working together, and working beautifully. What excites me about Spike is the movement, the energy, the sheer bodaciousness of his filmmaking.:

In one particularly painful scene from the film, a group of young kids confront Da Mayor with his derelict ways, demanding to know why he deserves even minimal deference. It made me wonder how Dee and Davis feel about some of the attitudes depicted in the film — the ignorance of the past, the last of respect for tradition.

“The life available to young people today doesn’t always appeal to me,” Davis admits, “but it does intrigue me. What’s interesting in this scene is that it makes us think about what’s brought us to this point as black people, about what’s changed about our values. The institutions that gave us our continuity — home, family, church — no longer exist in the same way. And it’s not just black people, but American culture in general.”

Though the film criticizes the older, stereotypical characters that Davis and Dee evoke for their small-mindedness and passivity, Lee clearly regards them as integral to the black community. In the movie, the morning after the climactic racial confrontation, Da Mayor asks Mother Sister if the block is still standing, and she simply replies, “We’re still standing,” as if the two were synonymous.

“We help define what is valuable and worth saving,” Davis tells me, “because there are certain things that the community still needs. Is the neighborhood still standing? Yes, because we are.”

Dee seems less comfortable with this idea, squirming as David responds. “Don’t put Ossie and me on any pedestal,” she says, laughing, “because then you’re left there for the birds to shit on.”

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Do the Stuy Thing
By James Earl Hardy

I’m in the part of my neighborhood, Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, where Spike Lee filmed Do the Right Thing, talking to the residents about Spike and the movie. One mention of his name and everybody grins like crazy, the girls going, “Ooh, ahh,” the fellas giving each other high fives.

“Yeah, I was there when he was making it,” says Jamal Webber, 16, who lives on Lexington. “He’s no joke.”

“Did you see me?” asks Cassandra Ellis, a 16-year-old sophomore at Boys and Girls High School. “I was what I think you call a walk-on.”

“Yo, cool, are you related to him?” questions a fella who gives his name as Ice, commenting on the slight resemblance in height and looks between Spike and me.

Mildred Reeves, a nurse at Wudhull Hospital and mother of two, dismisses the teenagers’ excitement over having the movie filmed here.

“You know, I’ve lived here all my life, and never did I think somebody would make movie here. I mean, why would they; this is a bad neighborhood, right? But like the old saying goes, there’s more to something than meets the eye. And one shouldn’t always believe all they are told about things. Check it out for yourself. This is a beautiful community, you know. We have areas that make parts of the suburbs look like real ghettos.”

Spike shot DTRT on Stuyvesant Avenue between Quincy Street and Lexington Avenue — three blocks from where I live, a block from where I grew up. I almost went into cardiac arrest after seeing on screen the streets where I learned to ride a bike, went to school, and, like the characters in the film (or should I say neighbors?), ran after the ice cream man, slurped on ices, played in the streets, opened up a fire hydrant so we kids could go “swimming,” and purchased slices of pizza from a person who didn’t live in the neighborhood. The film had so many familiar faces, like “The Cornermen” (you know, those old gents that sit or stand on the corner all day, gabbing about everything and everybody) and “Miss Busybody” (the eyes, ears, nose, and throat of the whole block, who makes everybody’s business her own).

I’m not used to sitting in a movie theater and seeing ordinary black folks doing ordinary things — we’re either walking stereotypes or invisible. And this is the first time I’ve even seen my community shown as a community. Bed-Stuy, just like every other African-American community in this land, gets a bad rap for being a haven for crime, poverty, drugs, and despair. The media infiltrates these communities’ streets to cover the negative issues but not the communities themselves. Yup, they go for the hype, and you, the uninformed outsider, believe it.

With bad PR like this, you’d think the people living in these communities are just here, sitting and waiting for the inevitable. The folks in Do the Right Thing, though, are shown just doin’ their thang — living. Dealing with relationships, friendships, entanglements, commitments, conflicts, crises. As a result, the characters come off as being almost real, not one-dimensional stick figures. Spike didn’t make this movie to please me or any other black living in Bed-Stuy, but I’m sure one of his goals was to create characters and a setting that people could look at and say, “Hey, that’s me up there,” or “Yo, looks like my neighborhood.”

This film reinforces my feeling that there’s no reason for me to deal with the many ridiculous, ignorant, often racist comments people throw at me when I tell them where I live (“Isn’t that a bad neighborhood?” “You don’t look like the type [read, type of Negro] who would live there!”) And, no, white folks ain’t the only ones guilty. Just ask a homey from Queens to visit my spot, and I’ll get “No, man, I’ll get snuffed out there.” Contrary to what the media says, dilapidated buildings, crack houses, and Uzi submachine guns do not a community make, nor do they represent it. People do.

Mildred Reeves surveys the area. We’re standing on the corner of Lexington and Stuyvesant between two painted murals that are featured in DTRT. One says, “Brooklyn’s Own Mike Tyson,” with an image of the champ in a fighting stance. The other is a pictorial of the many things that go on in Bed-Stuy with an overhead caption that reads, “Bed-Stuy… Do or Die.”

Reeves laughs as her hazel eyes set upon that mural. “Yeah, do or die. A lot of us are doin’, you know. But you wouldn’t know that; the media doesn’t like to say anything positive.” When I mention that Spike doesn’t do an exposé of the problems that do plague the community, her dark chocolate complexion gets a shade brighter. She smiles, saying, “That’s great. People think that Bed-Stuy is nothing but a problem place, but if it was, how could we live here? Sure the drugs and crime and all that are here, but they’re not the only things.” She stops, catches her breath, and says with a sigh, “Thank God for Spike Lee.”



On the Set, the Street, and at Dinner with ‘Malcolm X’ director Spike Lee

Picture This
On the set, the street, and at dinner with X director Spike Lee
November 10, 1992

At 6:58 on Tuesday, September 29, the Odeon, a Tribeca institution since 1980, played host to relatively few patrons. There was the sudden cold spell to consider. There was Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Grill to consider, too. The modicum of quiet blanketing the restaurant like so many snowy white tablecloths was not unusual. Still reeling from the blissful consumerism of the ’80s, art world people, film people, writers — in the main, the Odeon’s star clientele — dined late and sparingly on mashed potatoes, spinach, and martinis.

A busboy flicked a napkin in the direction of one or two flies. At table number 25, Sylvester “Spike” Lee, filmmaker, sat alone, making notes in his agenda at the time of the first public (but very private) screening of his long-awaited epic, X, a film that, having been nearly 10 months in the making, and with a $33 million budget, has generated more advance publicity, criticism, and debate than any “bio-pic of a slain leader” (as Variety termed it) since Conspiracy became a movie nexus.

The avalanche of press — “Spike Lee Hates Your Cracker Ass” (Esquire), “Do the Wrong Thing” (New York Post), “Spike’s Pique” (Vanity Fair), “Spike Lee’s X Factor” (L.A. Style), “We were gonna call [my book] X…but I realized…it might look like I was copying Spike” (Madonna) — didn’t affect the bored insouciance of the Odeon’s maître d’ leaning at her station, or Lee himself, who, from the distance of the street where I stood looking as I fumbled with the overcoat of the Observer, seemed small and separate from the near meta controversy that’s sprung up around his film, a film Lee has described as “a spiritual journey… three hours and 21 minutes [the opening of which] should be considered a holiday for black people and their families.”

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That Lee’s statement did not insist on Malcolm X’s birthday as the appropriate day for national celebration was an indication of just how much X might become intertwined with its creator’s image — the black Woody Allen, a camera-wielding Sharpton, a gifted charlatan, an inspiration, a generous sort, a media hound (or barker). So much so, in fact, that Malcolm X — “Our shining black manhood” (Ozzie Davis), “A father, my brother” (James Baldwin) — might pall in comparison. Under the media’s remitting X watch, Malcolm has become a cardboard icon of sorts. Very little reference has been made in the press to what it is he actually did, believed, or said, besides what Lee has appropriated as a moniker for his company, 40 Acres and a Mule: By Any Means Necessary.

Nor does Malcolm seem as vocal as his filmographer.

“The media has tried to poison me. That woman from Esquire who did that piece,” Lee says, referring to Barbara Gruzzuti Harrison’s smarmy, I’m adorable and who’s Spike Lee? brand of old New Journalism. “She spent three days with me trying to prove how liberal she was. That’s all she wrote. She kept telling me how liberal her upbringing had been, like I give a fuck. I called Esquire and told them I didn’t like it. I never said I hated anyone’s cracker ass. How many times do I have to say I didn’t say it!”

Lee’s locution, his “I was robbed!” and “White America is responsible for the racism in this country” speech, contradicts the need fans and critics have for him. And not just as a cultural necessity. In the last several years, as Lee has evolved, more and more, away from the loud ineptitude of his early Jerry Lewis–like screen persona — I’m skinny! I’m funny! I’m a geek! — and into the goatee-sporting, public image unlimited voice of black male rage, he has become something of a father figure.

Spike Lee and Denzel Washington in “Malcolm X”

We have watched Lee grow up with a certain misty nostalgia. His rise from street urchin to adult has been the story of boys we used to know who’ve left the neighborhood but haven’t left us. Perhaps reversing the “truth” in many black homes: that Dad doesn’t exist at all, that’s he’s a long way from home. Not anymore. There he is as Spike Lee, filling the void on TV, in the news, with unequivocal authority. The subject? That the black male is a great, untapped American subject. And regardless of what Lee says about it — sometimes trenchant, sometimes stupid — he says it like Dad would, sound mixed with fury. Whatever one may think of Lee, he owns his authority.

“Next year, after X, the belt is mine,” he’s said, throwing the gauntlet down at the feet or our Dionysian Mom, Madonna. It is Lee’s complaining the public minds; it is as disjunctive as anyone’s Dad crying over the milk he hasn’t spilled — yet.

Which raises the question: Can Lee get out of his own way well enough to be specific and distanced about Malcolm X’s tale of stoicism and petty bigotry, the personally transformative effect and power of prayer, the self-reflective gaze of the truly isolated, one who was reviled, believed, feared?

“Listen, he’s a genius,” one former Lee acolyte has said. “But at exactly what, I can’t tell you. As a producer, yes. Definitely. But I’m not sure if Malcolm can survive a Spike Lee movie, especially if Spike’s in it. He can’t not compete. What’s happening with all this X press is backfiring. It’s beginning to look like Costello working Abbott over for top billing.”

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Over X lines have been drawn, turning it less into a film than a condition of the community out of which it is born, a community that, notes theologist James Cone, has “three characteristics: the tension between life and death, identity crisis, and white social and political power.” This community has become part of the image world too. And it is a bumpy montage that includes Rodney King, the debacle in Crown Heights, white shoe polish being thrown on black schoolchildren in the Bronx, Anita Hill — the greatest story never told. It is a parade of images that calls out for one voice, one vision — that of the Great Black Father — who, upon removing his glasses and never donning cape fear, has power. And can put out a word. Loud but heard. Which speaks — hopefully — to and about history. George Jackson and Medgar Evers, Malcolm and Angela Davis, and children wearing X hats, staring at posters: By Any Means Necessary. It’s a dictum Lee has illustrated by having completed X. Sho’ Nuff. Can Ya Dig It?

And which Lee might become the victim of. Should X not fly as anything more than an interesting cultural moment, Lee could become just another Baldwin, especially after The Fire Next Time — Baldwin’s essay on the Nation of Islam and religious conversion — garnered all those magazine covers and lectures and interviews that eventually cowed him as an artist. The clamor that met the piece turned Baldwin into a Spokesman, a public Self who, like Richard Wright and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. before him, became committed to speaking out but could never return in, into that dark and private distanced place out of which one’s art grows, tangled and intense, but one’s own.

Where will X leave Lee who, in the not loving glare of publicity, already looks so different from the movie-loving boy he must have been, sitting alone now at table 25, making notes in his agenda on the person he has to be next week, and the week after?

Outside the Odeon, the traffic lights continued to change. The wind shifted. Pulling my coat even tighter, I entered.

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Lee is excellent at projecting a tone of voice that conveys mock umbrage and other aspects of Dad/boss man disapproval. “You’re late. (Pause.) Again,” he said, as I slid into his booth. To make up for my time-lagged butt — or sensibility — he motioned for a waiter.

In bad French-inflected English with a little early B-boy thrown in, Lee said, “Mon-signor, zee food please. Can we get some attention over here? I mean, like service,” and placed both our orders.

I asked if meeting at the Odeon had been convenient because he was putting the finishing touches on X at the Tribeca Film Center.

“Hell no,” he said with the abruptness he often uses to pull the verbal rug out from any interlocutor. Turning away from establishing even the most superficial intimacy is an aspect of Lee’s speech. Often, he prefers to project the arrogance of the shy, the physically small man, who bullies before being bullied. “I’m mixing the final sound at Magno, uptown. We haven’t finished the final images yet, but people have been coming by. De Niro, as a matter of fact.”


“And what?

“The reaction. To the film.”

Lee paused. He shifted in his seat. No reaction seemed forthcoming except another wave of his shyness, the artist’s reluctance to pass judgment — even if inferred — on himself. This time, and for more than a moment, his defensive tone could not shield his quietness as he said, “He liked it.”

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Then, “Scorsese came too.” Scorsese, in his collaborations with De Niro — especially Mean Streets, that ode to the dream and ultimate failure of re-creating some life with father — has had a seminal influence on Lee.

“I sat in back of him while he watched the movie. I could feel the way he watched it — this man who loves cinema the way I love sports. And I could feel what he thought. You know the way he takes a shot and puts it back together for you, so that the audience knows what’s going on? That’s the way he took my film apart.”

Dinner was served. Lee picked up his fork, and held it, on an angle, in his left hand. He attacked his food with great relish. He did not use a knife. Bits of perspiration collected on his sparse, dark mustache. He ate, by turns, his mashed potatoes from one plate and salmon from another, using long slow strokes. His thin shoulders and slight frame floated somewhere inside his oversized denim shirt, over which he wore a red tie with diamond patterns. Gone were the Malcolm X–style glasses seen in one or 10 or 50 photographs; they had been replaced by elegant black tortoise-shell frames, through which Lee’s gaze, his large and unblinking eyes, like Baldwin’s self-described “frog eyes,” were the most physically forceful aspect of his person. This gaze did not disturb the vulnerability one feels is wrapped around him clearly, like plastic. The signature diamond stud was in his left earlobe. His earlobe seemed to signify so much, so nearly naked and delicate, I had to think twice before deciding not to stroke it.

Lee, whose eyes miss nothing, said, in his best guerrilla filmmaking voice, “We had so much shit to get through to bring this off. We have to bring it off. There was the pressure of not messing Malcolm up. ‘Don’t mess Malcolm up,’ is what me and Denzel heard all the time. We had to respect Malcolm. And Dr. Betty Shabazz and Shorty, Malcolm’s real close friend from the Boston days, whom I play.

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“Then you had the people who thought I was trying to bumrush the show all the time. Like, when Norman Jewison was chosen as this film’s original director.” Lee smiled at the memory. “I said, ‘Hey Norman, you might have to give this one up.’ He very graciously bowed out when I had a talk with him to explain how maybe he wasn’t the best person qualified to do Malcolm.”

Before I could raise the question with Lee of whether or not he was qualified for the job, he silenced it with more speech, continuing his X travails narrative. This is a recognizable device used by artists to protect themselves against the public’s judgment on their work. The enormity of the judgment facing Lee accounts, in part, for the intensity of his criticism of the press — another power. As Lee talked, his eyes blinked slowly, more than before.

“People said, ‘Look at Spike trying to take credit for James Baldwin’s script,’ ” he continued. “The script was written 25 years ago when Marvin Worth, our producer, hired Baldwin to translate Malcolm’s book to the screen. I never didn’t want Baldwin to have credit, but his sister, Gloria, his executor, didn’t want to have anything to do with this project. Don’t ask me why.

“There have been a million scripts done. I mean, David Mamet did a script. He put Alex Haley, Malcolm’s coauthor on the Autobiography, in as a character in the film. We finally have a credit that reads: Arnold Perl and Spike Lee.”

Denzel Washington in “Malcolm X” David Lee/Warner Bros.

The making or not making of X has been chronicled for years, most notably by James Baldwin in his essay The Devil Finds Work. “At the top of 1968,” he writes, “I flew to Hollywood to write the screenplay for The Autobiography of Malcolm X.… I think that I would rather be horsewhipped, or incarcerated in the forthright bedlam of Bellevue, than repeat the adventure.”

Baldwin’s screenplay, published as One Day, When I Was Lost, is a masterpiece. Adapted for the screen in a series of flashbacks and other time jumbles, it is presented as cinema verité but very precisely structured. Although Baldwin originally intended to adapt the book for the stage as a collaboration between himself, Haley, and Elia Kazan, the play, like the film, was never produced. What did eventually make it to the boards, nearly 20 years later, was Anthony and Thulani Davis’s X, an opera that enjoyed a brief success d’estime. While noted for the subtlety of its language and harmonic structure, the opera was limited to just a few performances. At the time of its New York premiere — 1986 — there was no Big Moment to help sell it: no public bloodletting, no Rodney King, no X hats, no Spike Lee.

As Lee’s voice went on describing, with the chilly but fascinated detachment of the survivor of a bad dream, the film’s financial problems — its takeover, at one point, by the Completion Bond Company when X went over budget; the $3 million fee he reduced to $1 million to help keep the film afloat; his eventual call to a number of black entrepreneurs (Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Prince, Janet Jackson, Michael Jordan) for “a gift — not a loan, not an investment” to retain his right to final cut; his commitment to “never financing a film like this again. If anyone asks me to, they can kiss my black ass two times” — I wondered what the aesthetic demands of the film might have been. I wondered about Lee’s handling of his actors. I commented on having seen Cynda Williams in Carl Franklin’s One False Move and how, well, different she seemed in Mo’ Better Blues.

“That girl just walked in off the street!” he said, folding in on himself in the booth. It occurred to me then that Lee’s vulnerability, the turning away of a shoulder, a sidelong glance, a bark, may account for his more preposterous public statements. Rather than appear in the least vulnerable and therefore open to criticism, he had decided to appear as invulnerable as possible, the angry laughing figure beyond reproach, beyond comment.…

I had heard a great deal about Malcolm…and I was a little afraid of him.… I saw Malcolm before I met him. I had just returned from someplace…I was giving a lecture somewhere in New York, and Malcolm was sitting in the first or second row of the hall, bending forward at such an angle that his long arms nearly caressed the ankles of his long legs, staring up at me. I very nearly panicked.… I stumbled through my lecture, with Malcolm never taking his eyes from my face.  — James Baldwin

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Looking into Lee’s face for some further point of connection between Baldwin’s image of Malcolm and the reel-upon-reel image of Malcolm created by Denzel Washington, I asked Lee about directing him.

“We got to know each other better on this project,” he said. “And Denzel had played Malcolm before, in When the Chickens Come Home To Roost, a play — I never saw it.

“It was amazing for me to watch his absolute dedication, especially during Malcolm’s religious conversion. I watched him humble himself, kneel and atone, just like Malcolm did. We knew our careers were not just at stake on this one, but our lives.”

“Is this going to lead to another collaboration? Like Scorsese’s with De Niro?”

Spike (with a smile): “This is only our second film together. But wouldn’t that be nice?”

For those with no vested interest in its process, movie making is a tedious undertaking. On a set, the eye is inclined to drift. Before a director yells “Print!” and the crew applauds at a scene’s completion, time yawns. Very little happens as everything happens. Everyone wonders what the dailies will look like. No one knows how the scene will look. Everyone has an idea, though. The hyperreality involved in being what one is on a movie set — actor, sound engineer, reporter — elicits a certain self-conferred authority but not the authority: the director’s.

On X’s set, it was interesting to watch Spike Lee. This for a number of reasons, the primary one being the freedom inherent in his pivotal role as Authority. He never seemed to doubt this authority, nor did he seem especially aware of its effect in relation to the rest of the crew who were generally watching themselves watch him, as if for a cue.

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On certain days, Lee’s marcelled hair stuck out from beneath his X cap (“I had it conked to play Shorty”). On other days, his turned-in feet and loping stride carried him to this place: To his cinematographer, Ernest Dickerson’s side. Sometimes Spike Lee smiled. More often, though, he didn’t. More often, as Dickerson or someone else talked, Lee would listen, offering no more than an inscrutable nod. It became clear, as Lee did these things, that one of his principle responsibilities — aside from directing, running interference with producers, fielding questions from actors, being sure script rewrites were in place for the next day’s shoot, and interviewing caterers — was to appear as if none of this was of particular concern. On Lee’s face, it was not clear whether any of this was cause for stress. Mostly, he maintained a relatively impassive veneer. Sometimes members of the crew imitated this stance, especially when approached by members of the press. When crew members approached Lee, this stance was dropped. Lee preferred his face to be in repose.

These were the things I saw on my first visit to the X set, late on December 4, 1991, a bone-chillingly cold evening.

It had taken some months of negotiation to arrange that visit. Lee was not directly involved in this. My request was fielded by the publicist hired expressly for part of the shoot (“Spike wants to know what kind of story you’re planning to do. Is it major or can we back burner this?”) and Lee’s assistant Desirée, a pleasant young woman. “You want to see a script?” she asked, with a giggle, in response to my request. “I don’t think so, but I’ll ask him.”

I did not receive a script. I did, however, receive the call sheet for December 4, which read, in part, like this:

DAY: 58 OUT OF 75

This was rather a lot of shots for one day, amounting to a 13- to 24-hour work day, costume changes, and a considerable amount of tension.

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“Yes, yes,” said the unit publicist emphatically, crankily, into her walkie-talkie as she stood outside the Museum of Natural History’s basement entrance. “Jesus,” she said as I approached her, having first walked past the Winnebagos lining Central Park West, directly in front of the museum. In the cold dark the white trucks with white lights in them looked like white, frozen, prehistoric things, guarded by young men in dirty brown parkas, a nose ring or two and big Negro hair.

“They’re shooting the scene in which Malcolm begins courting Betty Shabazz,” said the unit publicist, leading me indoors, past the museum’s great hall, past the aimless techies and gofers — primarily black — circling the floor or sometimes sitting dazed and huddled on it, X hats discarded here and there, X jackets used as pillows for those who had been felled by the re-creation of history, or making of it.

“Here we are,” she said. “Here we are, getting back to the two of them the way they were, authentic. This is part of where it happened.”

The room in which the scene was to be filmed was replete with large, glassed-in environments featuring stuffed bears, a boar in the woods, struck dumb in perpetuity. The set was not “dressed.” It was, however, stiflingly hot and weighed down by a large crane, a 35mm camera, now big and dumb with nothing to show for itself. A video monitor off to one side flickered blue and then white, a further refracting of reality in the playing of scenes as they maybe didn’t happen. Nothing appeared on the monitor for some time. Nothing happened. Extras drifted around the space in early ’60s summer clothing, in Stay-Press suits and black hats with small brims — brims too small for most of the men’s heads. The women, some of whose hair was not processed but covered in ill-conceived or ill-fitting wigs, studied their nails or the boar. Their hats on top of wigs were of no period I can recall.

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Principal actors were being called to their places. Denzel Washington, with reddish brown hair, cut short, combed back, Malcolm glasses in place, entered followed by one or two or three men, each of whom held these things: a bottle of water, a down parka, and a script. Dressed in a black suit and white shirt with black tie, he appeared trim and grim as he stood on his mark, making round O shapes with his mouth, intended, I assumed, to talk and talk.

Ernest Dickerson stood huddled near the video monitor, the blue images flickering in his face like the electronic light from an electronic fireplace, waiting for something to appear. Something did as an assistant yelled “Picture!” and Lee assumed his customary pose — arms draped across his chest, right hand cupping his chin — as the crane snaked down and nearly onto Denzel and Angela Bassett as Betty Shabazz, who took her place moments before. Bassett seemed amused watching herself play Betty Shabazz, nodding and smiling and nodding again as Denzel-as-Malcolm talked on and on. His body language conveyed, by turns, and in subtle ways — a flick of the tongue, a sidelong glance — an innocence, an awkwardness, that reminded one of Spike Lee at social gatherings.

Shot, from my medium distance: The video monitor showing Denzel-as-Malcolm motioning toward the white bear, his arms then crossed over his chest, his right hand cupping his chin. Bassett on video monitor: amused. Denzel: solemn. Cut. No take. Lighting not quite right. Lee confers with Dickerson. Some standing around. Extras bored. Two make-up people come up to Washington and Bassett and dab at their faces. Angela looks up as her cheeks are patted. Angela smiles. Denzel laughs at her smiling.

Angela Bassett and Denzel Washington in “Malcolm X” David Lee/Warner Bros.

It was interesting to watch Lee — attired, besides X cap, in jeans and X T-shirt (which he sold on the set at somewhat of a reduction) — grapple with this bit of technical problem solving. There was his impassive stare again, the calm of a Yogi whose enlightened space was a movie set. One or two or three minutes pass before another A.D. yells “Quiet!” and another yells “Sound!” and someone else says “Picture!” Everyone began again, as if nothing had stopped and everything had to be started.

The scene, which was about three minutes in length, took about three hours to record. After its completion, a source close to the production told me in the men’s room, during the set-up of another scene, that the contretemps between Lee and Dickerson had reached epic proportions. They have remained polite, though, says the source, committed, as they are, to the project, although it is known that Dickerson is exhausted by his work on Juice, his first feature, which he’s in post-production with. Lee, the source then says, wiping his hands, is nervous for and about Dickerson, the future of their collaboration, wondering if Juice or X will survive their anxiety about their separate projects.

The source, a young man, whispers all this to me in the most hushed, most anxious of tones, gripped, as he is, by the pervasive HUAC paranoia that keeps most movie sets shut solid, but also because he’s alarmed by what he hasn’t said: The fact that Lee does not demand more of him and seems to rely invariably on just two or three people — Monty Ross, Denzel Washington, and Ernest Dickerson. It was clear, then, that Lee’s offhanded stance left little room for discussion. The thing I heard Lee demand most on the set was quiet. He creates a space by not speaking and in which everyone — A.D.s, actors, caterers — is committed because what Lee wants remains oddly unspoken.

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On whatever location I happened to visit, it was not unusual to see one or four of his or someone else’s personal assistants circle him on sneakered feet, faces imploring to be told what to do. Which Lee would eventually do, slowly, softly, and with a directness that implied that while this idea might work he would have another, in no time, and another and another. Generally Lee’s stance suggested that the success or failure of someone’s ability to execute their task was the success or failure of the project as a whole.

Of course, there were those who reacted to Lee with some bitterness, and expelled this bitterness in a covert remark or two, fearful of identification. It became clear that what Lee dealt with, almost continually, were relationships that had to be negotiated again and again in order to see the image of what he wanted to see, in the picture.

Like in the interior of a hotel a few, still bone-chilling nights later. The meeting hall of the hotel is flanked by a dais, behind which Malcolm sits with some of his staff, to announce, at a press conference, his departure from the Nation of Islam. It was a heartbreaking scene, played with great restraint by Washington as he considers, publicly, and for the first time, why he is leaving home (the Nation) and Father (The Honorable Elijah Muhammad). The scene is written this way:

Pg. 162 Revised 11/16/91.
181. INT. JFK AIRPORT — DAY. A large PRESS CONFERENCE: mikes of every network, every newspaper and wire service presence. Malcolm sports a beard.

As played by Denzel, the words, the camera snaking in a great low arch before him, were choreographed to great effect, were mesmerizing: as the camera moved to the left, Washington’s head would turn right, his eyes taking in the extras playing reporters, the reporters playing themselves, David Lee, the unit photographer, clicking away, the publicist holding her cup of coffee, and Lee himself, grinning — or the hours this moment took to capture, as Washington took us all in, made his leave-taking a part of our responsibility. When Lee yelled “Picture!” and everyone applauded, an extra turned to me and said, “Wonderful. But why does everything have to be so fucking perfect?”

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The secrecy surrounding X was part of the project’s aura, so much more interesting than the Controversy. In Lee’s not too distant past, so much of this Controversy would have worked to his and the film’s advantage. Regardless of what the critics would have said in the halcyon past, the public knew who he was and was charmed and sufficiently provoked by the creation of Spike the Icon, the only (publicly) certifiable Negro star who was not a basketball player or a rapper, to see whatever movie he was touting.

Not so with Malcolm. X was different. Malcolm X was not an invented subject. Malcolm did not belong to Spike but to history, which always makes an audience approach such a project — a filmography — with some derision. The conjecture — was Lee making a film in the public’s best interests or would Malcolm become another fall guy to Lee’s ambition? — provoked, from one fan, this reaction to the proliferation of X hats and X tote bags: “Does Spike know that now a brother is selling X potato chips in Philly?”

Someone to whom I had applied for X information said, “No one will really talk to you about Spike. Why should they? Let’s face it, Spike is a power. And like most people in power, he has to protect himself. And if he has to protect himself by being vindictive, fine. And if you don’t like X, fine too. You have to know he’s tried to make it about Malcolm, but he couldn’t. That particular bit of subject matter is his biggest competition in the black attention market. Martin wouldn’t have meant the same thing. Black, revolutionary, intelligent — all the things Spike is or wants to be. He’s got the power. Now he has to figure out what to do with it. I mean, everyone wants a job in his business. He’s made black film an industry. He’s an entrepreneur, a brilliant producer, and a not even mediocre filmmaker. Even critically, you can’t touch him without looking like a fool, or a racist.

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Culture needs the “bad nigger” or two — Lee, Basquiat, Naomi Campbell, Malcolm X — but eventually punishes them. For being ornery, a loud mouth, a champion of “kissing my black ass two times” they receive headlines such as “Do the Wrong Thing,” which speak scornfully of the Negro who speaks. If not solely an artist, Dad, or “bad nigger,” what will Lee become to his public? X and the criticism it is bound to provoke will push past Lee’s familiar image. And Malcolm’s.

How has Malcolm changed in our collective imagination since he’s gone before the cameras? In the 26 books slated for release around the time of X’s opening (November 18), he is pictured as angry, unjoyous. He is, in his Denzel-as-Malcolm guise, pictured on the cover of The New York Times Magazine and in L.A. Style or whatever, no longer a challenge. The cult of personality — but dead. Is he a representative of all those mad, mad colored folk not burning the mother down — again?

Medium close-up: A young woman sitting by a pool in L.A. Flat, ugly light off the hills, which are burning. Nearly everyone connected with X has gone to Mecca. I had gone to L.A.

“He makes money,” said the young woman, her back arched. A yellow sheen is emitted from her Bodymap bathing suit. The young woman said, “I mean, he’s in your face with these themes and whatnot, but he makes money. I happen to have liked Do the Right Thing. It had that edge, that New York edge people out here just are not into, being idiots. I mean, writers are paid a million dollars for a script that’s eventually not going to be their vision. What the million dollars is for is to keep the writer quiet as your work goes to shit. What with producers and actors with more power than God meddling in everything, you have to take the money and run. Spike doesn’t do that. He’s anything but complacent about what he means to say. Personally, I hope he tears the roof off of this one.”

The young woman dipped her pink heel into the pool.

“God I hate this place,” she said.

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“The book that goes along with this project is called By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and Tribulations of Making Malcolm X While 10 Million Motherfuckers Are Fucking With You,” Spike Lee said, back at the Odeon. We laughed.

Our relative isolation created somewhat of the feeling that we were sealed off, alone, a feeling Lee, noticing everything and saying nothing, tried to decompress by asking about a film I had been rather closely associated with. Making a stern, protective, big brother gesture toward me — placing his right hand flat on the table with a thump — he gave me advice about the film community, which he has been cultivating for 13 years. I reacted to this advice as comfort. And since this comfort had taken so long to establish, I asked him about his. Where did he find it?

His mother, as I knew, had died relatively young, of cancer.

“My mother was responsible for my love of cinema,” he said. “She took me to see West Side StoryAn American in ParisCarmen Jones when I was a kid.”

“All of those films are about the hope of integration still existing in foreign, hostile environments,” I said.

“Yeah, I guess so. I didn’t know cinema was about making it back then. I didn’t know it was something anyone could do.”

Spike seemed enlivened by the memory, the internal picture of this: Spike in the dark, looking at the screen, unaware and then aware of its possibilities.

“For a long time, I didn’t know anyone did it, making pictures,” he said. He put on his X hat, his X jacket.

“Which way are you going?” I asked.

“Brooklyn!” With a feigned growl that put us both at ease, we were suddenly at the end, in close-up, nervous and expectant, as directed by Spike Lee.

He said: “Maybe I’ll go home and watch one of those movies.”


It’s OK to Be White, but It’s Not Enough

Toward the end of Spike Lee’s staggering new film, BlacKkKlansman, there’s a revelatory sequence in which two speeches are placed in juxtaposition.

One is an oration by David Duke (Topher Grace), then grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, as he initiates a number of new members into the organization. The other is a haunting recollection of the real-life lynching of a young black boy, Jesse Washington, as told by weathered activist Jerome Turner (Harry Belafonte) to a riveted audience at the Colorado College Black Student Union.

The camera intercuts between the two speeches — Duke declaring the need for racial purity, Turner describing the devastation the policing of that spurious purity has caused — and serves, as much of the film does, to offer a lucid appraisal of the violent boundaries of whiteness, and the sucking, vacuous nullity at the center of that concept. “White power,” as championed by Duke, is the urge toward violence for the sake of the preservation of unearned dominance. “Black power,” as spoken by the young activists in the film, is the reclamation of strength stolen by an oppressive state, a celebration of physicality denigrated as undesirable, degenerate. That much hasn’t changed in the decades since the incidents that inspired the film took place in 1979. But in a time of social upheaval, the grim little soldiers of white power have re-emerged emboldened.

It has been just over one year since the “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally was held in Charlottesville, Virginia, at which one counterprotestor was killed and several more were injured; an anniversary event organized by the same white supremacist who led last year’s rally, Jason Kessler, fizzled into infamy last weekend. But all over the web, in the fetid corners where race theorists gather, the ideologues for whom whiteness is the only source of pride have been gathering for years. Since Donald Trump’s emergence on the national political scene, with his persistent and undeniable denigration of Latinos, immigrants, and black people, these running hounds of whiteness have been howling. In the havoc of a tempestuous presidency, the dogs of race war are ready to sink their teeth into the flanks of anyone they hate — and their hatred is broad and immense.

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As a researcher on extremism, I’ve learned the ins and outs of how whiteness is both constructed and defended online, through bad-faith campaigns on social media, and on sites and message boards devoted to the amplification of hate. I’ve studied the white supremacist candidates running for GOP seats all over the country, a group whose numbers extend well into the double digits. But it’s worth examining the concept of whiteness beyond our explosive moment, as it has existed throughout American history.

The idea of a “Caucasian” race dates back to the late 1700s, when the German anthropologist Friedrich Blumenbach examined the skulls of Eastern Europeans to build a taxonomy of the races, dividing humankind into five groups; white Caucasian, yellow Mongolian, black Ethiopian, red American, brown Malayan. Although Blumenbach himself didn’t posit a hierarchy of the races, his work was used as the basis for racist pseudoscience that emphatically did, such as that of the Dutch anatomist Petrus Camper and the American doctor Josiah Nott, who sought to create a scientific basis for the inferiority of those with nonwhite skin.

This scientific veneer served to prop up a status quo that was already violently racist; the Middle Passage slave trade that trafficked in African bodies had been prospering for centuries. The slavery that allowed the early American economy to flourish as a producer of textiles was based on a thin scrim of justification that drew on both race science and the Bible — Africans were descendants of Ham, a cursed son of Noah — and was driven by greed. Human bondage was the economic engine of early America; race science, and the violent rhetoric of racism, was the grease that allowed the bitter machine to function. Slavers purposely separated Africans from the same town and culture, who spoke the same language. In this way they created blackness: By thieving individuality and heritage from those whose bodies they exploited, they created a category of people who could only be identified by the color of their skin. There were many who did not survive the onslaught of white greed and the terror that upheld it; but those who did, did so together, in solidarity.

When the Civil War ended, racist terrorism — the lynching and brutality white Southerners called “the Redemption” — and the quieter but no less consequential racist policies of the North conspired to maintain a status quo of black poverty and white supremacy.

For all the rigidity with which its bounds are policed, whiteness has been a surprisingly elastic category. Immigrant groups — Irish and Italians in particular — who were initially cast as ethnically inferior found themselves assimilated into whiteness over the course of the twentieth century. Whiteness expands and contracts as necessary to police its bounds, and keep its enemies subjugated. Even Jews, in the last decades of the twentieth century, found themselves conditionally admitted. The elasticity of whiteness is rooted in its essential lack of substance, its existence as a negation of the other.

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At its hollow core, whiteness is nothing in particular: It’s an airless vacuum, bereft of any affirmative quality. To be white in America is merely to benefit from the absence of racial discrimination. To be white in America is to walk a path that contains no hurdles based on the color of one’s skin, one’s name, one’s outward presentation to the world. To be white is to benefit from a history of slavery, theft, and colonization that transpired before you were born; it’s to reap the harvest, without any effort on your own part, of centuries of religious and intellectual justification for violence. It’s playing life, like a video game, on the easiest setting. There’s no shame in being born white, but there’s no pride in it either, because it is by definition a category bereft of specificity.

Whiteness exists to punish blackness; whiteness exists to hurt those who are not white; whiteness exists to exert its own supremacy, in a great feral and bitter taunt against those it loathes. Whiteness has no language of its own; whiteness has no homeland, no cuisine, none of the markers that distinguish a culture worth celebrating. “White pride” — the notion that whiteness itself is something to boast about — is rooted in this vacuity, and that’s why it manifests as violence. White pride is a license to patrol the boundaries of whiteness, to inflict violence on those who seek to live, as white people do, unencumbered by racial prejudice. And the “White Power” of David Duke and his contemporary analogues is precisely this power: the power to inflict harm and to create fear. That’s what Spike Lee hammers home so well in BlackKlansman: If black power is about the reclamation of a stolen history, a stolen sense of self-esteem and worth, white power is about perpetrating that theft over and over again.

If you are white in America, you have nothing to apologize for — but you have much to learn. If you wish to celebrate yourself, to feel part of something bigger, to express pride in a heritage, you can do better than the cruel sucking nullity of whiteness. Surely you were born somewhere; surely your ancestors came from somewhere; surely your hometown has a history you can plumb; surely there is music in its annals. Perhaps you can be an American; or you can be a Pole or an Irishman, a Scot, a German, a Finn, or bits of each rolled into a delicious composite that is you. Love your family, love your ancestors. Love where you live and your neighbors.

White pride and white power seduce by means of an easy solidarity, a call to arms against a formless threat, an appeal to inchoate anger. But they are essentially empty; they have nothing to give you but rage, and in this world rage is bountiful enough.

Work toward justice, and center yourself in the movement to create a better world, so you can be proud of the work of your hands, and not merely their color.


Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” Is Every Kind of Movie It Can Be

Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman is a tonal roller coaster, and therein lies much of its unique power. It’s alternately comic, heroic, tragic, horrifying, ridiculous, dead serious, clear-eyed and confused; it shifts into moments of documentary and even essay film, but it’s also one of Lee’s more entertaining and vibrantly constructed works. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a movie exploit its tonal mismatches so voraciously and purposefully.

Based on a crazy true story (or, as an opening title puts it, “some fo’ real, fo’ real sh*t”), BlacKkKlansman follows the efforts of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), an African-American detective in the Colorado Springs police force. He infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the mid-1970s, passing as white over the phone, with fellow cop Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) posing as Stallworth’s white avatar at actual Klan meetings. Lee seizes every opportunity in that startling setup to play with the notions of identity and belonging that have always fueled his work.

Before his Klan investigation, Ron’s first assignment is to go undercover at a Stokely Carmichael speech. (“They say he’s a damn good speaker, so we don’t want this Carmichael getting into the minds of the good Negroes of Colorado Springs,” his fellow officers tell him.) There, he meets and falls for local college activist leader Patrice (Laura Harrier), and even as he woos her, he tries and fails to stop her from using the word pig to describe cops. Ron remains loyal to the force, but he’s also moved by Patrice’s passion and righteousness. In some ways, the investigation of the Klan feels like Ron’s attempts to solve this tension between his dedication to police work and his growing activism. Ron wants to reconcile his two tribes by going after a common adversary.

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This awakening awareness of identity goes beyond just Ron: Flip repeatedly gets asked by Klan members if he’s a Jew. He later confides to Ron that, while he is Jewish, he wasn’t raised with any real religion or sense of difference. “I never thought about it before,” he says, but now, thanks to these constant accusations and hatred, “I’m thinking about it all the time.” That’s just one of the great truths about today that the film casually tosses off with such seeming effortlessness. Lee is the rare director who can maintain the integrity and beauty of a film overstuffed with ideas. He prefers vigor over rigor; he’s an artist of chaos and energy, of blurred character lines and narrative curlicues. That’s not just because of the boundless vitality of his style, but because he understands that, on some level, all these seemingly disparate elements are connected.

Identity throughout BlacKkKlansman can be a disorienting, ever-shifting thing — acted upon by one’s allies as well as one’s enemies. The movie embraces this aesthetically as well. Lee adopts contrasting styles for each of the tribes that Ron moves through in the movie — the police, black activists and the Klan. The Klan are usually shown as a bunch of bozos, a dangerous but also often hilariously incompetent collection of ignorant brutes and slack-jawed yokels. Meanwhile, Patrice and her fellow activists are often presented in essayistic, almost agitprop fashion. During Carmichael’s speech, in which he talks about white standards of beauty and the racially disturbing aspects of Tarzan movies, the edges of the frame go dark and we see his listeners in soft spotlights, highlighting their features; when Patrice and Ron argue over depictions of heroism in blaxploitation movies, the screen fills with movie posters and clips. (Among other things, BlacKkKlansman stands as an urgent essay on cinema’s depictions of blackness and racism over the decades. As noted above, it’s all connected.)

Later, Lee intercuts between a speech by Harry Belafonte about the 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas, and one delivered by KKK Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace, giving another of his insincere, aw-shucks nice-guy performances, which in this context is both chilling and surreal). “Give us true white men,” Duke declares, while Belafonte goes through every agonizing detail of the horrors visited upon Washington’s body. It’s a terrifying juxtaposition, and watching it, I got the sense that Lee had laid a kind of brilliant trap for us with his earlier, satirical depiction of the Klan: Laugh all you want, he seems to say; you laughed at Donald Trump, too, and look where that got us.

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As you might expect, Trump and our current predicament hang heavily over this film, and the script (credited to Lee, David Rabinowitz, Charlie Wachtel and Kevin Willmott, based on Ron Stallworth’s own book) goes out of its way to make the connections. At one point, Duke declares, “It’s time for America to show its …” — briefly struggling to find the right word — “greatness again.” That’s one of the subtler references, and while most movies about the past botch this sort of call and response with the present, Lee generally achieves this with panache; he’s rarely self-important about it. He knows he’s making points that are obvious to many in his audience, and he embraces it with a combination of exuberance and despair.

And within this heavy-handedness can lie a kind of ambiguity. Without giving too much away, I must report that some of the film’s close-to-final scenes have an almost utopian, wish-fulfillment quality to them, with bits that are sure to get roaring audience responses. But Lee then quickly cuts to images of such raw, disturbing power that any momentary sense of triumph is sure to catch in our throats. The film is being released on the one-year anniversary of the white supremacist violence at Charlottesville, Virginia. BlacKkKlansman resists closure, reconciliation, or catharsis, and Lee has no interest in keeping this thing formally unified. What use is that kind of unity in a society that’s falling apart? Fo’ real, fo’ real sh*t, indeed.

Directed by Spike Lee
Focus Features
Opens August 10
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Wide Awake: Song of Summer

I was born the summer Nixon resigned. I know this because in my family it was always spoken of as if the two events were somehow related. My ex-hippie mother used to say, “Thatbastard Nixon” (he was always Thatbastard in our house, never Richard)… “Thatbastard Nixon got what was coming to him. And we got you.”

I always took a kind of pride in this. Not so much because I thought he resigned because of me, but because we were both the results of one long, hot summer when everything changed.

For Nixon, the summer of 1974 was an ending. For me, a beginning.

It was a heady time for music, a summer when new genres were just taking form and competing for national attention. In the cities, disco was rearing its head for the first time, at the same moment the Ramones were making their CBGB debut. Outside the cities, “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Annie’s Song” by John Denver dominated jukeboxes and car radios.

Classic rock, folk, disco, and punk were all facing endings and beginnings that summer.

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Ironically, the song that dominated the pop charts that year was the treacly Barbra Streisand ballad “The Way We Were.” No matter your opinions on Streisand, the song was huge and the movie of the same name — a love story about a Marxist Jew (Streisand) and her WASP-y writer boyfriend-then-husband (Robert Redford) attempting to find love in the face of idealism, betrayal, and McCarthyism — inspired one perfect line that applies as much to the summer of 2018 as to the summer of 1974, as we once again find ourselves caught in the brouhaha of presidential scandal:

Streisand: Wouldn’t it be lovely if we were old? We’d have survived all this. Everything would be easy and uncomplicated, the way it was when we were young.

Redford: Katie, it was never uncomplicated.

I like to imagine those words reverberating quietly behind the public longing for simpler times, an echo of past sins mocking the idea that a once-slave-owning country longs to be “Great Again.” It’s just the kind of willful ignorance at which America excels.

The song that was everywhere in the summer of 1989 had no such rheumy-eyed notions of the past. “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy was as angry, sweaty, and claustrophobic as the Spike Lee movie (Do the Right Thing) that made it famous.

I had just finished ninth grade at Westchester High School in Los Angeles, where I would hide out in my Morrissey T-shirts and twelve-hole Docs in hallways dominated by Bobby Brown (“My Prerogative”), De La Soul (“Me Myself and I”), and the few white kids belting out “Love Shack” by the B-52’s.

“Fight the Power” was a revelation, a glimpse into something forceful. With one righteously pissed-off line after another, the song inspired phrases that survive to this day in the modern lexicon of resistance. To wit: “Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps.”

The heroes in question — Malcolm X, Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver — found themselves brought by the song into the American mainstream 25 years after their heyday. Tragically, that same summer, Huey Newton was gunned down in cold blood, a victim of a drug crime as much as the white racism he spent a lifetime fighting. 

This was also the summer of the Bensonhurst riots in which Yusef Hawkins, a sixteen-year-old African-American boy was killed by a white mob because the mob (mistakenly) believed he was dating a local white girl. (The Public Enemy song “Welcome to the Terrordome” includes a dedication to Hawkins.) The race riot came just two months after the release of Do the Right Thing, which itself featured a race riot in Brooklyn in response to the killing of an innocent black man. 

So here’s Chuck D and Flava Flav broadcast into the bedrooms of the American suburb (in a video directed by Spike Lee), angrily pointing out the history of “nothing but rednecks for 400 years if you check,” as the white kids raised their skinny white fists, timidly placing a toe into the raging waters of American racial anger while quoting Spike Lee’s powerful lines: “Hey, Sal, how come you got no brothers up on the wall here?”

It was a long, hot summer when everything changed. It was never uncomplicated.

In fact, had social media existed in the summer of 1989, there no doubt would have been a series of righteous hashtags (#myheroesdontappearonnostamps) followed by an inevitable backlash (#Elviswasntracist) followed by the backlash to the backlash (#FuckJohnWayne), in which we would organize ourselves into the neat camps of allies and adversaries that are the trademark of modern political discourse. 

When I posed this question to my Twitter feed, with just these ideas in mind: “What is the all-time best Song of the Summer?” I was surprised to find an inclination toward, well, sunnier songs.

People tended to view the question in one of three ways: Any song that has the word “summer” in the title; a song that dominated the charts and airplay for a summer; or a song that simply evokes the feeling of summer.

“Summertime” by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince was the most popular answer, and it was probably because it checked all three boxes. As one commenter put it, the song puts the listener mentally and emotionally into “a perfect summer day.”

Other songs that fulfilled all three requirements: “Hot Fun in the Summertime” by Sly and the Family Stone and “Summer in the City” by the Lovin’ Spoonful. These songs share the idea of summertime as holiday — both literal and figurative — from the existential grind of the fall and winter.

“Cruel Summer,” the 1984 hit from the all-woman pop band Bananarama, was a popular choice, an angsty take on heartache amid the heat of summer. (For my money, the summer of 1984 belongs to “When Doves Cry” by Prince, when His Purpleness blessed us with the best bathtub vocal performance until “Stay” by Rihanna).

“Smooth” by Santana/Rob Thomas and “Summertime” by Janis Joplin seem to share a spiritual connection to “Fight the Power,” a kind of slinky, sweaty feeling about summer that eschews the explosiveness of explicit politics but embraces the anxiety of heat in close quarters.

It’s hard to talk about these songs outside the events, both personal and political, which surrounded them. There’s a necessary nostalgia to such things. Where were you when you first heard “Brown-Eyed Girl”? And who was the brown-eyed girl that loved you for loving it? Were you dancing at your cousin’s wedding to “Crazy in Love?” in the summer of 2003? Do you remember your date? The smell of the spilled champagne on your tux, the mud you noticed on the heel of your shoe from dancing in the grass because your brown-eyed girl was too shy to go to the dance floor?

Were you belting out “Free Fallin’” in the front seat of your best friend’s tattered old Plymouth as you made your way to another lazy summer day at the beach, the park, the river, the lake, the shore, the parking lot of the Dairy Queen one shoeless summer before Everything Changed?

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I like to think of the talk I would have with my past self if I could. I like to imagine just what I’d tell me about the future. “It’s totally different than you think it’s going to be. You turn out all right, man. But you don’t get jetpacks, and there are no flying cars.”

Instead we get this. We get social media and computer screens. We get a worldwide metaphor in which we pose these questions to each other, the ones we, as humans, really care about: Who am I and Who are you and What do I like and What do you like and Do you like me and Do I like you and Are we on the same team? Like the beak of a hummingbird, our adaptation to the world is this networked computer metaphor in which we’ve all agreed to participate, an extension of our freakish brains that we use to pose and solve the social questions we really care about.

So instead of flying cars, we got social media. Instead of jetpacks, streaming pornography. How disappointing.

But maybe there is hope in this because at least, perhaps finally, we see ourselves clearly for the cloying, needy, angry, imperfect things we are. Nixon resigned. He resigned because he broke the law and got caught and still people forgot, choosing instead to wrap themselves in American flags, to long for an American innocence that never existed. And despite the utter morass of immorality, the racist, thieving, lying shitshow that is the long, hot summer of 2018 — the disappointment with American promise, with American discourse, with American tribalism, with America — the effect of all this daily conflict is that we no longer have to carry the burden of a past innocence betrayed.

Perhaps this is why the song that best defines this particular fucked-up summer — the one we’ll remember forty years from now — is likely the viral phenomenon “This Is America” by Childish Gambino, which is as violent, tragic, contradictory, and angry as the country at which it takes aim.

Maybe it’s the summer we finally realize it was never uncomplicated. We were just young.


“Wide Awake” is a new column from Mikel Jollett, who you should be following on Twitter.