Back in the late 80s and early 90s, Spike Lee had important things to say, and he made the effective and stylized Do the Right Thing. Since then, he has made other movies, with equally important things to say, but lately his public persona has become one that serves only to criticize other filmmakers for their apparent mishandling of African-American characters and culture. Because of this he has elected himself both the Ambassador of Good Taste and Herald of Racism for everyone that cares to listen to him.
In 2006 Spike Lee criticized Clint Eastwood (who, admittedly, has lost mind since then) of not including black soldiers in his World War II film Flags of Our Fathers. The reason for this omission wasn’t to slight African-American soldiers of the era; the reason is that there simply were no African-Americans present during the raising of the American flag on Mount Suribachi, which is the crux of the story. As a filmmaker Lee should understand how every choice made in production changes the story and tone of the entire piece. Were there black soldiers at Iwo Jima? Yes. But, Eastwood must have had good reason to not include that fact. My guess is that it would have distracted from what he was trying to show. If he had included black soldiers in some of the sequences it would have changed his message, at least for those scenes, simply by including those images – because a black soldier in the 40s, juxtaposed against a literal army of white soldiers has an inherent tonality. It says something without trying, and that specific message, I have to believe, isn’t what the filmmaker was going for. Right or wrong, it was his choice as an artist. I think it is also important to point out that Eastwood made Unforgiven. In that movie Morgan Freeman played one of the cowboys out for a $1000 bounty. However, not once is there mention of the character’s skin color; the character is not treated any different from any of the other characters. He is not treated as a “black cowboy” – he is treated simply as a cowboy. Surely, during that era, a black man riding side-by-side with a white man would have caused quite a stir in a town like Big Whiskey, yet Eastwood kept this out of the world of Unforgiven. How come Spike Lee had nothing to say about this convention?
Skip ahead to Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained – a movie where a black man riding side-by-side with a white man DOES cause a lot of problems – about which Lee tweeted this: "American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust. My Ancestors Are Slaves. Stolen From Africa. I Will Honor Them.” It’s a valid point, and the imagery of “slavery as a holocaust” is accurate. However, he told Vibe that he couldn’t say more about the movie “…’cause I’m not gonna see it. I’m not seeing it. All I’m going to say is that it’s disrespectful to my ancestors, to see that film.”
Antoine Fuqua, director of Training Day, had this to say in defense of Quentin Tarantino: “If you disagree with the way a colleague did something, call him up, invite him out for a coffee, talk about it. But don’t do it publicly.” This response addresses the controversy as an issue of artistic differences, rather than an oversight of taste. He went on to say, “I don’t think Quentin Tarantino has a racist bone in his body. Besides, I’m good friends with Jamie Foxx and he wouldn’t have anything to do with a film that had anything racist to it.” This is a great point: Jaime Foxx is a man that takes great pride in being African-American. If you want proof of that, watch him accepting any of the many awards he won, including an Oscar, for his performance of Ray Charles in Ray. Foxx is a great actor, and when talking about his craft is a consummate and thoughtful professional. Why would he even entertain the notion of taking part in a film that he considers even remotely racist? Certainly a man like Jamie Foxx, who is at the top of his game, doesn’t take roles for the paycheck. And few actors, if any at all I would imagine, work with directors like Tarantino for the money.
Does Django Unchained depict racism? Of course it does – it’s a movie that has a lot to do with slavery in 1858, and the word “nigger” is spoken over 100 times – but does this make the film racist? Barring recruiting films for the KKK, white supremacists, and other hate groups, I don’t believe a film can be intrinsically racist. This is a Tarantino film, remember, one in which he gives a stylistic nod to spaghetti westerns, while still maintaining trademark Tarantino flourishes. There are parts that are difficult to watch – for reasons both graphic and embarrassing (did white people really act and think like that?) – and there are parts that are hilarious, rousing, and touching. Tarantino has given us a glimpse into an ugly era of American history, showing how stupid, egotistical, thoughtless, and faux-sophisticated, white southerners were. And he makes it not only challenging, but entertaining. Also, it’s really fucking cool. The message in the film is clear: white people in the south during that era were buffoons, and those with money and power were dangerous and quite full of themselves.
This is the second time Tarantino has rewritten history from the perspective of giving real-life villains what they deserved. Inglourious Basterds depicts a team of Jewish-American soldiers with a single goal: to kill Nazis. And they kill A LOT of Nazis in that picture. When it was screened at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York the Jewish audience enjoyed seeing Nazis get what they deserved, but they were equally uncomfortable with the fact that they were so delighted. It is an achievement of the highest kind when a work of art can insight such a conflicting emotional response within a single person, while at the same time being entertaining. It is within those moments when we are forced to examine what we truly feel about a subject, and in the process understand ourselves better. Django does the same thing. For a fellow filmmaker to avoid it on any pretense is almost cowardly.
In Spike Lee films (the ones I've seen, anyway) the message is always communicated with preachy on-the-nose exposition, rather than subtext. His characters are more often allegorical in nature, rather than three-dimensional human beings. In other words he puts the message before the story. This isn’t to say that his messages aren’t valid or important. But the means in which he approaches them lack a certain degree of artistic merit (his film Bamboozled, for example, comes off more as a parody of Network, than as a standalone satire of media). It is as if he is so afraid of his audience missing the point that he says way too much, too often, in the most distracting ways. He forgets that his first responsibility as a filmmaker is to the story. It would stand to reason that Spike Lee isn’t really an artist – he’s more of a politician that wears trendy glasses and sometimes makes movies. Of course, it’s unfair to criticize his work since I haven’t seen ALL of his films, but lately Spike Lee is more famous for his criticisms of other filmmakers than for being a filmmaker himself.