Spike Lee is lauded, his movies ignored

As `She Hate Me' opens, the director sees progress but much still to be done

September 24, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Spike Lee is 47 now, and he's been making movies since 1986, when She's Gotta Have It announced the arrival of his new and uniquely African-American voice to a Hollywood where voices of color had generally been ignored.

Eighteen films and all sorts of critical accolades later, Lee is no longer the only African-American director in town; there's F. Gary Gray (The Italian Job); Antoine Fuqua (Training Day); the Hughes Brothers, Albert and Allen (From Hell); Clark Johnson (S.W.A.T.). Still, ask the average moviegoer to name a black filmmaker, and chances are Lee's is the only name that comes to mind.

As his latest film, She Hate Me, (see review on Page 6D) opens around the country, Lee, long at the forefront of efforts to have African-American life depicted in movies that go beyond the stereotypes, hardly finds that uniqueness flattering. While he's glad to see more of his black brothers getting work ("The studios hire African-American directors, and they should be commended for that," he says), he's still pushing for Hollywood to pay more attention to the black experience. Until that happens, he says, African-American interests will continue to be under-represented on this country's movie screens.

"The studios are giving the opportunities, not necessarily to African-American women, but to African-American men, to direct films," Lee says, "that really aren't African-American subject matter. ... [The studios'] viewpoint of the African-American experience is very limited. They only see African-Americans in specific types of roles, obviously stereotypical roles."

Although critically lambasted ("It's hard to say what's most disappointing about She Hate Me, Spike Lee's absurdly and arrogantly overlong comedic drama," wrote Elizabeth Weitzman in the New York Daily News. "But there are plenty of options to choose from"), his latest film continues Lee's pattern of placing blacks in roles far removed from the drug dealers, trash talkers and ghetto habitues normally depicted in major-studio films.

"I see African-Americans as much more than just rappers, crack dealers, crackheads and clowns," says Lee, chatting amicably but guardedly in a Georgetown hotel room. "I just see us as so much more."

Which is why Lee has made films where the central characters are African-Americans who are educated, middle-class and unlucky in love (She's Gotta Have It), Brooklyn residents who don't revel in street life, but struggle with its realities (Do the Right Thing), advertising agency executives (Bamboozled), jazz musicians (Mo' Better Blues), phone-sex operators (Girl 6), even civil rights leaders (Malcolm X) and martyrs for the cause (4 Little Girls, a documentary about the young victims of a 1963 church bombing in Montgomery, Ala.).

Lee's work, his refusal to kowtow to convention and his willingness to continually put his reputation on the line for projects he believes in have made him a force for change, not only in the African-American community, but among filmmakers as well.

"He's an icon," says Kerry Washington, one of the stars of She Hate Me. "As a black filmmaker, obviously, he's a hero. There are some filmmakers you don't say `No' to. You don't say `No' to Steven Spielberg, you don't say `No' to Woody Allen, you don't say `No' to Spike Lee."

Adds Jada Pinkett Smith, who acted in Bamboozled, "Spike Lee has made real classic movies, his work speaks for it all. We haven't had too many black filmmakers do that. ... [He] happens to have a great marriage between the artistic world, the commercial world and the world of controversy."

And yet, for all his fame, for all the quality of much of his work - few films in recent memory have been more universally acclaimed than 1989's Do the Right Thing - box-office success has largely eluded Lee. His biggest money-maker was 1992's Malcolm X ($48.1 million), more than the total of his last three films combined (1999's Summer of Sam, $19.3 million, 2000's Bamboozled, $2.2 million, 2002's 25th Hour, $13.1 million).

Not that Lee measures success by turnstile counts. Still, he realizes that nothing speaks louder in Hollywood. And any efforts to upgrade the depiction of African-Americans in the movies ultimately depends on showing the big-studio power brokers that such movies can turn a profit.

So far this year, the chances of that happening don't look encouraging. While Mario Van Peebles' celebratory and insightful Baadasssss has struggled to bring in even $1 million (it's earned only $365,000 so far), a puerile African-American comedy like Johnson Family Vacation has earned more than $31 million.

Black audiences, Lee suggests, need to be more choosy about how they spend their entertainment dollar.

"They need to understand that these are small, independent films, and they've got to show up the first week," he says. "They can't say, `I'll see it eventually,' because if nobody shows the first week, when they finally decide to go, the film's gone. ... They might have to do a little more work [to find them], might have to drive a little bit farther, they might have to look at a newspaper."

Until that happens, studios are going to keep pandering, condescending to black audiences, Lee believes. Merit alone is not an argument that holds sway in Hollywood.

"When the studios see a film like Baadasssss not getting the grosses, that makes it much harder for them to justify why [they] should make a film like that, because black people aren't supporting it anyway. It becomes, like, a self-fulfilling prophecy."

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