Friday, August 24, 2012

Yeah, but is it really like that?

Let me say from the outset that I am a Spike Lee fan. I enjoy every movie of his that I’ve seen (which I think is probably every single one), even if I find his messages a bit heavy-handed. His characters are riveting, even if his stories are somewhat chaotic and hard to follow. His movies are all so personal, and therefore it adds a certain sense of realism (maybe the only sense of realism) to an otherwise completely fictional world.
With that being said, I do have some issues with Spike Lee’s directing style, his characters, and his movies. As I said before, I find his directing to be very heavy-handed. What do you I mean by this? I mean that he consistently uses the same actors, the same character types, and the same settings to beat his audience over the head with his message. This has changed somewhat in Spike’s later career as he’s broadened his cast, his stylization, and his focus to more than just a one-dimensional beat down, letting you know that racism still exists in this country.
It’s understandable why Spike Lee directed his early movies the way he did. For one, he grew up in Fort Greene in the 1960s and 70s; and though this neighborhood may be a contemporary haven for members of the old Brooklyn middle class and yuppy artists, the neighborhood was hit with the same waves of crime and drugs in the 70s and 80s that embroiled the rest of big apple. So Spike probably grew up with some Snuffy’s rolling around the neighborhood, and he definitely had to deal with the likes of Sal, the disgruntled pizza shop owner that Lee’s characters worked for in Do the Right Thing. So his reason for making the movies and characters the way they are is understandable, but it doesn’t necessarily make it right.
Social commentary is certainly made more poignantly with one dimensional characters than with complex, multi-layered individuals. With one dimensional it’s easy to understand who the character is supposed to represent, and doesn’t cloud the overall message with trying to figure out who this character is in the grand scheme of the film. However, one dimensional characters also do not accurately represent the complexity within all of us that is deeply than simply an overtly stated belief. All people are not anything all of the time. Criminals can be kind, drug users can be logical, racists can be thoughtful, players can be trustworthy. It’s important to remember this when we’re pigeonholing people; that though people may openly display seemingly one dimensional characteristics, there is a whole lot going on within that person that we’re completely unaware of.
As a movie watcher, and not someone in the movie industry, my criticism of Spike Lee maybe be somewhat quaint or simple minded, but I think his movie create much too simplistic ill-concieved perceptions of the world around us, especially for people that live in major cities, and especially for people that live in Brooklyn. It’s true that racism still exists, and it’s true that people sometimes (unfortunately) conform to stereotypes instead of create them, but that doesn’t mean that every white cop in Brooklyn wants to bust in the head of a young black man, or that every Jewish club owner is a scheming “shylock” trying to screw over his employees, or that every Korean grocer is hateful and suspicious toward their black patrons.
Spike Lee’s creation of a fantasy world where all black men and women in whatever neighborhood he’s portraying not only get along, but all know one another, is simply a distortion of the depth and nuance that exists within everyone racial or cultural community, and creates the illusion that a) the world is against black people (especially young black men) and that b) there is no way to fight back against it, because the outside forces are too strong to overcome.

As I finished writing this post I realized two major errors that I've made. The first is that I’m criticizing Spike Lee movies that (for the most part) were made around 20 years ago. His perspective has changed a lot, his characters have changed a lot, and his movies have changed a lot. I give him credit for that. The second major error is that while I might want Spike Lee to create a more realistic setting, maybe that’s not what he was trying to do. His intention was not to show reality as it exists, in fact. His intention might have been to instead show reality as it is seem by a specific person or group of people. Therefore, to understand what he was trying to say, you can’t judge against the world we see around us in the neighborhoods we occupy, but instead we have to look within ourselves and interpret the world through our own filtered experiences.


Crystal Marie said...

Interesting post indeed. I remember the first time I saw Jungle Fever. I actually was watching it... with my then conservative roommate, a Southern white young lady who now works for the Mitt Romney campaign. I don't know that I've ever felt so uncomfortable. I felt obligated to explain that while some of what was depicted was a harsh reality, a lot of it was garish and overwrought. She left before the middle of the movie and honestly, I can understand way.

This doesn't take away from the fact that Spike Lee is a genius and I'd love to see more contemporary work from him.

Good post.

mpm210 said...

You know what's funny, after I wrote and posted this, I had a few conversations with friends and I basically kept coming to the same conclusions that I did at the end of the post. I think I'm referring most of Spike's early work (which I still love), because his maturity as a director, and the complexity of his movies has been dramatic over the past several recent years.