Friday, August 28, 2015

Origin of an Auteur Blogathon: Spike Lee

John at Hitchcock's World came up with a wonderful idea for a blogathon. He invited bloggers to explore the origins of an auteur. What exactly an auteur is can be tricky to define. The dictionary definition of the word is "a filmmaker whose personal influence and artistic control over a movie are so great that the filmmaker is regarded as the author of the movie." As writer, director, producer, and often a member of the cast, I'd say Spike Lee certainly qualifies. Before we get into that, John has laid down some rules for us to adhere to:


1. Pick one director and identify his or her first feature film. It must be the first feature film (i.e. over one hour runtime) listed in her/his filmography.

2. While you will be primarily discussing that one film, you should have an understanding at least some of the director's later films, enough to be able to recognize his or her style.

3. Analyze your chosen film in relation to the director's later projects. What elements of his or her style do you see here?

4. Keep in mind that this blogathon is based on critical thinking and analysis, not simply on whether you liked the film. Your post should not be so much on the film itself as what it says about the director.

5. Repeats (i.e. two people writing about the same director and film) are acceptable, but discouraged. If you do choose a topic someone else is writing about, try to find something different to say on the subject.

6. Include a banner and a link back to this post. There are several banners to choose from below, and you are permitted to create your own provided they fit the blogathon's themes.

Okay, cool. I can do this. I think we're in for the long haul, though. Take a deep breath and then we'll get going.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.


Let's go.

Spike Lee is my favorite director of all-time. Do I think he's the absolute best ever? No, but he is the one I like the most. I can relate to his work better than I can with any other auteur, particularly his films set in his beloved hometown of Brooklyn, New York. Though I grew up in Queens and there is a fourteen year age gap between us, with him my senior, Spike's New York is one I know very well. His characters feel like people I know having conversations I've had or have heard dealing with situations I've encountered or are aware of. Nearly every viewpoint espoused in his movies has either been said by, to, or around me. On top of all this, I spent a lot of time in Brooklyn as a kid. The cinematic universe Lee creates with these films is one I feel like I am actually a part of.

There is another factor that simply cannot be overlooked when analyzing the symbiotic relationship between Lee's Brooklyn films and myself. Race. When She's Gotta Have It hit theaters in 1986, I was fifteen years old. Unfortunately, part of being a black teenager in America, especially at that time, is noticing that people who look like you are woefully underrepresented in history class, art class, politics, business ownership, and in pop culture. The whole of black contribution to the betterment of our nation is neatly summed up for us in a story where some lady sat toward the front of a bus prompting some guy to tell everyone about the dream he had and we all lived happily ever after. Sure, more of the details are filled in, but that's the general takeaway. Some of the biggest names in entertainment were of black performers, but there were two problems with this. First, it's just entertainment. Going back to the Reconstruction era black performers excelled whenever they could cross over and gain a healthy white following. Those that did were invariably from the "harmless" arts of comedy, song, and dance. Bringing this to the 80s, having Eddie Murphy and Bill Cosby were huge stars, but only so long as white audiences cared to see them. Second, these names were often anomalies in their field. What other black movie or TV stars were really a big deal at the time? Michael Jackson was the biggest name in music, but there were less than a handful of other black artists whose songs could be found on parts of the radio dial not expressly devoted to "urban" music. And let's not even get into the widely accepted standard of beauty in this country.

For many children of color this causes a sense of otherness. It sets in from a very young age, but it is as a teenager when most of us really start to become aware of it. We see ourselves as outsiders to this wonderful society that we hear about, read about, and see on TV and in movies. All of it is stuff that happens somewhere out there, beyond the borders of our community. One of the side effects of this particular malady is automatically being interested in anything anyone black does that earns praise from non-blacks. Another is taking an interest in something "The Black Intelligentsia," or the handful of African-Americans who take turns appearing of TV when the networks wish to discuss "black" issues, says is a genuine representation of blackness. By the time I sat down to watch She's Gotta Have It" just after it hit premium cable, it had all of these things going for it.

Revisiting the film for the fourth or fifth time, and now that my age has almost tripled, my cinematic horizons have been broadened considerably, and having seen all of Spike Lee's features (save for 2014's Da Sweet Blood of Jesus which I'll see soon), offers a number of revelations. It is apparent that he never went through a period of trying to find his voice. It's evident and full of conviction from the very first frame of She's Gotta Have It (SGHI from here on). Spike Lee makes films with no regard for whether or not white audiences can relate. They are created to display and invoke discussion by black audiences about the problems plaguing our community. He is keenly aware of these issues, the various subsets into which we often group ourselves, and how these subsets are viewed by each other. This knowledge was gained through having been part of a number of groups, himself. He was the proverbial inner-city kid growing up in Brooklyn. Once he set foot on campus at Morehouse College, he became part of the black bourgeoisie simply by being an African-American college student. He then became part of an even more exclusive group when he entered film school at NYU. If anyone knows that being black is not merely existing as part of a socio-eco-political monolith, it's Spike Lee. He knows this even more fully, and more intimately than most blacks.

People who are unfamiliar with Lee's work, or those who have only seen Do the Right Thing and never bother to actually examine it, tend to dismiss his films as militant and (reverse) racist propaganda. What's missed in in this assessment is the amount of soul searching he's asking his own people to do in an effort to solve our own problems. He clearly ascribes to the philosophies put forth by Langston Hughes in his seminal 1926 essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain." Hughes, now known as one of America's all-time greatest poets, let it be known that white approval is not what black artists should be seeking. Instead, they should create work that explores us fully, as a people, even when that means holding up an unforgiving mirror to us. It seems Lee has taken the following excerpt as words to live by.

"We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn't matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn't matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves."

Langston Hughes
In the case of SGHI, Lee explores black sexuality. That, in itself, made it unique in 1986. It would still be fairly unique, even in 2015. A couple of things make it so. For one, it avoids all notions of stereotyped, yet fantasy inducing African-American male prowess in the bedroom. It compounds its own marginalization by making it protagonist a sexually liberated woman. It struggles with the idea of whether or not she belongs on a pedestal, but seeks to present her as a complex human being. We'll talk more about this later.

Spike's mirror became more intense in his subsequent films. His second film, School Daze, is about the division and near hierarchy between blacks on the basis of complexion. It's a subject more fully realized here than in any film before or since. Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever expanded the mirror to include white eyes by examining race relations in general in the former and interracial relationships in the latter. Jungle Fever also touches on strained familial relations of all sorts including a rocky marriage, drug abuse, and raising children in a tough environment. Crooklyn takes an in-depth look at a black family without much sensationalism or being overly melodramatic. Clockers looks at the disenfranchised young, black male while chronicling the life a small-time drug dealer, all wrapped in a murder mystery, no less. He Got Game examines the life a high profile athlete preparing for college and also deals with the effect of absent parents and what happens when one returns. Red Hook Summer takes aim at religion in the black community, especially the lofty positions of authority occupied by the clergy. Time and again, Lee has highlighted one particular issue of importance to his audience while simultaneously touching on a number of others.

From an aesthetic standpoint, SGHI sports the distinctive Lee look despite still being the only one of his features filmed mostly in black and white. It helps that on all of his early films through 1992's Malcolm X he collaborated with cinematographer Ernest Dickerson to develop this look. Though the two haven't worked together since, the fruits of their labor still marks even Lee's most recent work. There are lots of wonderfully framed shots, including some almost intrusive close-ups. During these, there are often characters revealing truths while breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to the audience. It's a technique he most famously put to use in Do the Right Thing with various characters shouting racial epithets and stereotypes into the camera. A couple of things are missing from SGHI, though. While many shots are beautifully composed, they are almost all static. The camera doesn't move much. As his career has gone on, Spike's camera has developed movement and occasionally sits at odd angles to help manipulate viewers. Most notably, he would later develop his famed "double dolly shot" where characters appear to be floating along as they're (usually) walking toward the viewer. It has become his signature shot and been used to great effect in a number of his movies. It's not at all found, here, and would not appear until 1990s Mo' Better Blues. If you want to dive deeper into this particular aspect of Lee's technique check out this post over at And So it Begins..., a wonderful blog written by (hopefully) soon-to-be famous director Alex Withrow.

The music of SGHI exposes another truth in Lee's filmography. Despite what many think jazz, not hip hop, dominates the soundscape of his cinematic universe. The misconception comes from the popularity of Do the Right Thing. In that film, Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" not only underlines every moment, it types them out in all caps in bold red print. The movie is on the American Film Institute's list of the greatest American films of all-time. That his work is overrun with rap has become the perception, but it's one I refuse to accept as reality. The score for SGHI is exclusively made up of jazz. Mo' Better Blues, his first collaboration with Denzel Washington, is similarly scored as its about a jazz musician. School Daze, not quite but close to being an all out musical, mixes jazz with go-go music (a Washington D.C. creation), and even show-tunes. In this and other movies where he incorporates various forms of music, it's usually jazz being played during the most dramatic moments. It is the main ingredient in Lee's crowning achievement in terms of musical selection, the basketball movie He Got Game. In that film, Lee effectively uses the aforementioned jazz, an entire soundtrack album provided by Public Enemy, and classical compositions with none of it feeling out of place.

The way SGHI tells its story reinforces the biggest criticism of Lee as a director: his female characters are poorly written. Here is where we get back to the film's struggle with whether or not she should be on a pedestal, by the way. To be fair it is commendable and curious that a young, heterosexual male would use his debut feature film to tell the tale of a sexually promiscuous female which he wrote himself. It's the daring choice of a youthful director. However, with that youth comes ignorance. Instead of coming from her point of view and peeling back layers to reveal what makes her tick, it practically fetishizes her, making her the prize in a competition between a quartet of suitors. Her name is the almost too-cute Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns), exposing Lee's preference for vaguely allegorical character names. She is a young professional juggling three boyfriends who all know about each other. The ridiculousness of the situation is not nearly as important as what each of them represents. They are all representative of a facet of black existence. There's the upper-class Jamie Overstreet (Tommy Redmond Hicks), the more middle-class Greer Childs (John Canada Terrell), and the lower-class Mars Blackmon (Spike, himself). I did say this was a quartet, though. The fourth suitor is Opal Gilstrap (Raye Dowell), a lesbian who is not romantically involved with Nola. Opal gets little screen time and spends nearly all of it man-bashing or making overt sexual advances. Nola is less a protagonist than she is a sounding board for the various ideologies of these people. At getting those across, Lee proves to be especially adept. He's not so good at conveying what it is Nola sees in or gets from any of them nor what they want from her other than sex. In the end, it comes down to Nola and the director trying to decide which ideology is best. Both tip their hand, showing favor to one more than the other two, but neither goes so far as to fully commit to it. This renders Nola and all others flat characters without a single arc between them.

The lack of development in his female characters is a problem that continues to plague Lee's work. they certainly have a role in his world. Unfortunately, in the films he writes himself, which is most of his filmography, his efforts at making them three dimensional falls short. He did make two more movies with women in the lead, 1994's Crooklyn and 1996's Girl 6. The heroine in both films were far better examples of a full-fledged human being with an actual character arc. It's telling that neither story sprang solely from the mind of the director like the majority of his work. Girl 6, about a phone sex operator, was penned by playwright Suzan Thomas who also wrote the screenplay for Their Eyes Were Watching God. Lee is credited with co-writing the screenplay for Crooklyn, but the original story is a creation of his sister Joie (pronounced Juh-why). I see this as a sign of maturity. He realized where he needed the help of others, got it, and utilized it to enhance his own art.

Lee does have a strong suit when it comes to character development. That's the conversations they have. When debating things, they sound as if they're having natural discussions. Often, it's evident they've had those discussions hundreds of times before even when they are tearing each other down. In SGHI the contentiousness between Mars and Jamie leaps off the screen. This also happens when any of the three men in Nola's life verbally rip into her. This happens again and again throughout Spike's body of work. This happens most effectively during the roundtable discussion of a group of women in Jungle Fever including the wife of the protagonist after she discovers he has been cheating on her with a white woman. Nearly as effective is Queen Latifah's big screen debut in the same movie as a waitress not too fond of the hero's choice in women. These make up a brutally honest and insightful couple of minutes.

Another tactic the director often uses is introducing sports into the equation to reveal something of importance to the story. In SGHI, Lee's beloved New York Knicks are brought up and his character notes that Jamie probably roots for the Boston Celtics in an accusatory manner. It's meant as an insult, suggesting Jamie has lost touch with who he is, proven by his affection for the "white" team. This was during the height of the Larry Bird (Celtics)-Magic Johnson (Los Angeles Lakers) era in the NBA. Rooting interests were heavily drawn along racial lines among basketball fans with whites being far more likely to favor Bird and the Celts. In Mo' Better Blues, Lee's character is a gambling addict who mostly bets on baseball. His character in Girl 6 is obsessed with baseball memorabilia. Malcolm X uses the occasion of Jackie Robinson breaking into the big leagues to point out how his supposed sign of progress was not the cause to celebrate many make it out to be. He Got Game is a full-blown basketball movie that I'll forever maintain says more about the lives of young and gifted inner-city athletes than a million documentaries ever could. However, his singular most poignant moment as a director in Do the Right Thing when his character Mookie points out the hypocrisy of the racist views of Pino (John Turturro) by invoking the name Magic Johnson, among others.

Do the Right Thing is the film that looms large over Lee's entire body of work. It really is a marvel of film-making, but unfortunately overshadows his other accomplishments. SGHI is a good, if deeply flawed film. The acting is amateurish, at best. Spike himself fares far better than his castmates. Both vibrant and polarizing, love him or hate him, its hard to deny he injects life into the film whenever he appears. After I saw this back in '86, and for a number of years following this, I often wondered why our heroine, Tracy Camilla Johns didn't become a star. After all, she was nominated for Best Female Lead at that year's Independent Spirit Awards. By the way, Lee won Best First Feature at those same awards. Upon finishing the revisit, I can see why it didn't happen for her. She's not a natural performer. She's a bit wooden and given to speaking batches of lines in a monotone voice. Story-wise, there's an ill-executed rape scene that plays like its what the victim wanted. Lee has realized the error of his ways and recently apologized for it, blaming it on immaturity.

Still, SGHI is deserving of a loftier status than it currently enjoys because of how influential it was. Lee worked with a budget of about $185,000 to make it, but managed to pull in about $7 million at the box office. In today's money that's about $15.5 million against a $400,000 budget. That's not earth shattering, but an extremely nice return. It's success is often credited with helping to revitalize America's independent film industry. Over the next few years, theaters were inundated with indie-flicks. A fair number of them by African-American directors. This is a big deal because before this film, the only black directors I knew of were the few who were afforded the opportunity to direct their own Blaxploitation flicks. Suddenly, many were given a chance to make the films they wanted to make without too much input from big money folks. A large reason for that is that SGHI did what it did even though there had never been anything like it. People were fishing for the next Spike Lee. The one that everyone assumed to be just that, John Singleton, long ago turned his attentions to more mainstream fare, but that's another subject for another day. What Lee did not only benefited black directors as a number of whites had their projects greenlit on the back of his success, too. Many film-makers were influenced by Lee and sought to tell the stories of their own neighborhoods more thoroughly and personally than had previously been possible. Even now, almost thirty years later, the film is still paying artistic dividends. One of 2014's indie sensations was Justin Simien's Dear White People. As much as I loved it, I must concede that its really just an updated, more polished version of SGHI. For Spike, that this movie became something of a sensation caused others to take notice and afforded him the opportunity to put together a lengthy list of thought provoking films.


  1. That is a film that I want to see as I do like Spike. Sure, his filmography is uneven at times but I would rather see a bad Spike Lee film than most people's work.

    1. I agree. Even in his lesser work gives you something to think about and offer lots of cinematic flourishes.

  2. What a great post! I have really bizarrely only seen one Spike Lee film, and that's When the Levees Broke, but the whole thing no less. I've been itching to see more of his stuff and after reading this I think it should be sooner rather than later.

    1. That's a great doc. Obviously, I'm biased, but I highly encourage seeing more of his work.

  3. Great essay, Wendell. I'm in full agreement with you about SGHI. I appreciate that it's Lee's first film, but it is far from perfect. But hell, I suppose that's the case for many debut films. I like what you said about the cinematography (thanks for the link!) and how you pointed out that this movie looks so different from the rest of Lee's films.

    I remember when Lee was on Inside the Actor's Studio, he said SGHI is the only one of his films he can't watch today. Too raw and unpolished. I'd love to know if he's watched it since.

    1. Thanks! It is really evident that this is a debut film when looking back at it. It is very raw. I'm also curious to know if he's went back to it. I imagine he has since there was (is?) talk of it being turned into a Showtime series.

  4. Thoughtful and passionate essay, sadly I haven't actually seen much of his work apart from the Oldboy remake and Inside Man (the latter which I liked).

    It was also really interesting reading about your early life experiences as young black teenager in 80s America.

    1. Thank you very much. I can understand not particularly caring to see more from him if those are the only 2 of his movies you've seen. Inside Man is good, but both films showcase Lee in a more mainstream mode. For what it's worth, fighting between he and the studio may have ruined Oldboy.

      Glad you were able to get something from this.

  5. I'm sorry I couldn't look at this sooner, but now that I have I should probably say something. I can't claim to be an expert on Spike Lee. In fact, I've gotten him confused with Spike Jonze in the past (a mistake that would probably look very silly to you). So far the only film of his I've actually seen was Do the Right Thing, which I watched about three years ago for my Intro to Film Class. That was a strange movie, but it certainly has a way of making an impact.

    From what you've described of She's Gotta Have It, that does contextualize a bit more of what Spike Lee was trying to do in Do the Right Thing. It sounds like the subject of race recurs throughout his films, if perhaps from different angles. Do The Right Thing dealt with racism but also seemed to show that one can go too far when trying to change society, in this case inciting riots over an Italian Pizza Joint only wanting to have pictures of Italians (funnily enough, nobody even seems to consider the compromise of trying to find some pictures of black Italian Americans). She's Gotta Have It sounds a bit more like there's an effort to challenge stereotypes at work. I didn't even realize "black sexuality" was considered a thing, but it is true that Hollywood has a long history of heteronormativity, which usually involves a sexually active white man (the original James Bond being a great example). You don't normally see female sexuality represented so it is interesting whenever a movie tries to challenge that. Black female sexuality is something you see even less of. I can think of a few really good movies that deal with female sexuality (i.e. Under the Skin) but usually those are done with Caucasians.

    I remember one class I was in once about sex and film, and there was one week where we did a section on homosexuality and watched a documentary about black homosexuals, Tongues Untied. It was a strange movie in the way it conveyed its issues by using the editing of different interviewees to create a sense of rhythm, but I also remember noting after words the strange detail that it only focused on discrimination against black gay men. They showed a variety of injustices that have affected gay men of colour, but not a single word was spoken about black women who were gay as well. This definitely seems like an area that could be explored in greater detail.

    Very good article. This is precisely the kind of thing I was looking for when I started that Blogathon. I know it didn't go quite as I'd hoped, but there were some good ideas involved. Maybe it would be interesting to try revisiting this concept at some point, probably with a free form structure more like my other blogathons. I'm not quite sure the structure I went with there works for me. I've known some bloggers who can pull it off (i.e. Speakeasy or Movies Silently) but I seem to do better with the more open blogathons. For what it's worth, though, I had been thinking about doing a sequel to the Summer Blockbuster Cast-A-Thon, perhaps with the twist this time of focusing on action heroines. I've got a draft for it already and a banner, so if all goes well I can hopefully get that up and running in April.

    1. No worries on the time frame of your response. I understand life happens sometimes. I really enjoyed taking part in this blogathon because it gave me a reason to revisit a movie I hadn't watched in quite a while and to delve deeper into how it fits into Spike's repertoire than I ever have. If it helped you get a clearer understanding of his work then I feel I did an okay job with it. Looking forward to whatever blogathon you have cooked up. The Summer Blockbuster Cast-a-Thon was fun last year. I'd love to do that again.