Saturday, November 25, 2017

Girl Week 2017: Girl 6

Here we are on Day 6 of Girl Week 2017 and today we're talking on the phone...sorta.

Directed by Spike Lee.
1996. Rated R, 108 minutes.
Theresa Randle
Isaiah Washington
Spike Lee
Jennifer Lewis
Debi Mazar
Naomi Campbell
Michael Imperioli
Peter Berg
Dina Pearlman

Many years before I reached full-blown movie buffdom, I took a trip to the theater with the future Mrs. Dell to see Spike Lee's latest film, the much-hyped Girl 6. By this time, 1996, his filmography already contained movies that would remain among my all-time favorites, and his most recent effort was the sizzling, yet underrated Clockers. there was no way I was missing this. I sat with bae, held her hand, rode the roller-coaster Mr. Lee set us on, and left utterly disappointed a few minutes before the closing credits when telephones started dropping from the sky.

Fast-forward to the present day. While looking for an older film to include in Girl Week 2017, and frankly, one about a woman of color, I came across this title and paused. Since my tastes in and understanding of film has evolved over the ensuing two decades, I decided it was time to revisit Girl 6. I was curious to see if I would still think it's a bad movie, or if I just didn't get it all those years ago. Honestly, it's a little bit of both.

The story is about a struggling New York City actress often referred to as Lovely (Randle). However, that's a character name she adopts rather than her real one. The film's Wikipedia page has her listed as Judy, but I don't recall hearing her ever called that. Anyhoo, we meet her during an audition for a Quentin Tarantino movie, in front of QT himself. Things get uncomfortable when she's asked to remove her top because the role requires nudity. She does, but quickly thinks better of it and walks out, much to the chagrin of her agent. She also finds herself at odds with her acting coach. To put food on her table while pursuing her dream she works several jobs and is looking for another. She finds one as a phone sex operator where she is given the moniker Girl 6. Her new job competing with her aspirations, her cleptomaniac ex-husband trying to get her back, and the attentions of her reluctantly banished to the friend-zone neighbor ensues.

Before going any further, I have to comment a bit more on Mr. Tarantino's appearance. It's jarring for anyone who knows the war of words he and Lee have waged during this century. Though already a media and industry darling in 1996, Tarantino was still a fresh face in Hollywood. He was in the midst of changing filmmaking, in particular the way dialogue was written. A decade earlier, Lee helped spearhead a sea change of his own. His do-it-yourself success placed him at the forefront of an independent film renaissance by proving there was a market for voices that weren't studio-funded. It also made it easier for black directors, independent or otherwise, to get projects greenlit and financed. He opened doors for the likes of John Singleton, the Hughes Brothers, and a number of others. So, twenty years ago, Tarantino showing up in a Lee flick felt like a nice passing of the torch. However, the strangeness doesn't stop there. Tarantino plays, at the very least, a sleazy version of himself. It was uncomfortable to watch back then, but even more so given the current climate in Hollywood (and in the political world) of almost daily reveals of rich, powerful men as sexual predators. Add to that, the friendship Tarantino is known to have shared with the first fallen domino and the entire opening is has a cringe factor of 10. It's a moment that instantly grabs our empathy and gives our heroine something to come back from.

Approaching the opening the way he does is a bold move for Spike Lee. He is often maligned for the weakness of his female characters. The criticism is justified when it comes to films he's written himself. Here, as he had in 1994's Crooklyn, he relies on a female writer to pull him through. In that case, it was his sister Joie. This time, it's playwright Suzan-Lori Parks who would go on to become the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for drama for her 2001 play Topdog/Underdog. In both cases, the decision pays off as Troy from Crooklyn and this film's eponymous Girl 6 are clearly the two strongest and most three-dimensional women in Lee's canon. The possible exception is Nola Darling of Lee's debut, She's Gotta Have It. Star Theresa Randle had been around for a little while before this, including some appearances in other Spike Lee joints, but this was her first crack at being the protagonist. Perhaps sensing that this was potentially a star-making turn, she throws herself into the role and is fantastic. She combines with the writing of Parks to give us a woman who is at once strong and vulnerable, determined and confused, stubborn and impressionable. While not the best movie on her resume, it's her best performance. To my knowledge, it's the only one where she's allowed room to breathe outside of the best friend, girlfriend, or dutiful wife archetypes and she takes full advantage. Never is she anything less than compelling. Her movie may not be very good, but she is a wonderful character fully deserving of being discussed during Girl Week.

Randle's efforts are not enough to save Girl 6, however. Lots of problems abound. Many of them lie squarely at the feet of Spike Lee, though Parks must share some of the blame. Her characterization of the protagonist is great, the rest, not so much. Lee is in full-blown experimental mode, throwing any and everything at the screen with little concern for how they fit into the overall narrative. At its best, Girl 6 is an examination of black femininity, particularly of black women in show business. Unfortunately, that's too often left in the dust of the wild tangents Lee races off on. We end up with a film that's not sure of what it wants to be. Is it that examination I spoke of? Or, is it a satire on what was passed off as black entertainment before the arrival of Spike himself? To that end, we get riffs on blaxploitation cinema and 70s sitcoms, including a very weird mash-up of The Jeffersons and Good Times. It could also be a romantic comedy or even a workplace thriller. The seeds for all are planted and most are not satisfactorily concluded. Then there are all those cameos. Aside from Tarantino, the likes of Madonna, Halle Berry, Michael Imperioli, Peter Berg, and Naomi Campbell (often wearing a very clever and meta "Models Suck" t-shirt) all show up in cameos or very small roles.

Metaphors are also ham-fistedly slammed into place. Remember those telephones I mentioned? They do indeed have a meaning. So, too, does the numerous point-of-view shots that make it seem like our heroine is falling down an elevator shaft. They would likely work better had they been part of a less busy film. As it stands, they're just another thing on top of all the others. Each is one more straw piled atop the proverbial bull's back. When we get to the point of raining telephones, and I mean old-school, heavy block phones, not modern, lightweight smartphones, that back is broken. To Lee's credit, this scene, along with many others is aesthetically pleasing, both visually and audibly. Of course, how you feel about the audio part depends on your level of love and/or tolerance for Prince. The movie is stuffed full of his catalogue from end to end. That's a major plus for me since I'm a Prince super-fan. Other parts still include those great songs, but are not as nice to look at. Given all of Lee's dibbling and dabbling elsewhere in this film, it's difficult to say whether this is due to artistic decisions or budgetary constraints. A case can be made that its part of the symbolism running through the production. To this end, you'll notice that the guys who call in to speak to our heroine are almost always shown using low quality, very grainy footage. Whether on purpose or not, it's all part of a jigsaw puzzle Lee put together using way more pieces than came in the box. Some of them are really nice pieces. They just don't fit.

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  1. I always liked this film. Flawed but still a fun film. Here's a note of trivia. For the scene of Randle's final audition, the actor she's doing the scene with is John Cameron Mitchell who would later become a revered director himself with films like Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Shortbus, and Rabbit Hole.

    1. I had no idea about that. It also serves as my annual reminder that I've still not seen Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Thanks!

  2. Excellent review! And it really makes me curious about the full history between Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino. The only part of the story I'd ever heard is Lee's very vocal criticisms of how Tarantino handles race in his movies (particularly Django Unchained).

    I'll probably skip this film. Off the top of my head, the only Spike Lee movie I haven't seen yet that I definitely want to watch is She's Gotta Have It. [I've seen Twenty-Fifth Hour, Malcolm X, Do The Right I forgetting any?]

    1. Thanks. I'm also curious about the history between Lee and QT. I'm also curious on how Samuel L. Jackson figures into this, or at least his stance on it. Lee gave him many early roles, and it seems the two are friends. SLJ's greatest successes came with QT, with whom he is also a frequent collaborator. He's even publicly said some things in support of QT in the face of Lee's criticism. I think it would make a very interesting documentary.

      As for Lee's filmography, you're missing about 20 movies, lol. I'm hoping...hoping to revisit and rank them all next year. HOPING. That's nowhere near a sure thing.

    2. When I said, "am I forgetting any?" I actually meant "am I forgetting any Spike Lee movies that I've watched." Yes, my memory is actually that bad. :-) I used to at least have a reliable memory for books and movies, but well... I knew that wasn't anywhere close to his whole filmography (though I didn't know he'd directed 20+ films).

      That would make a GREAT documentary. I don't know much about Lee's objections to Tarantino's movies, but I remember reading that he refused to watch Django Unchained (perhaps he'd seen some clips of it or read reviews?) If that's the case, it seems unfair that he criticized it so harshly. (I would never pan a movie I hadn't seen all the way through. Especially if I were calling it out for racism...context is important.) But I am sure I don't have the full perspective. In any case, I'm definitely a fan of both the directors. Tarantino is a bit hit-or-miss for me. All three Spike Lee movies I've seen are amazing.

  3. Nice review here. I'm with you, there are aspects of this film I like and appreciate, but I wouldn't call it one of Lee's best efforts. That opening scene with QT is one of my favorites as well. As I understand it, the Spike/QT feud started after Spike saw Jackie Brown in 1997. Spike didn't care for the racial language in the film, and took QT to task for it. QT said he didn't care what Spike thought. Samuel L. Jackson got pissed at Spike for being critical of Jackie Brown, so Jackson and Spike had a falling out that lasted decades. Messy stuff!