Metal 'n Bone

ODENDAAL ESTERHUYSE

A Spike Lee Joint?

As an artist, Spike Lee observes the world around him and mirrors his perspective in his films. It can therefore be argued that there is a correlation between the size of the environment he is exposed to, and the richness of the text he produces. In other words, the content of his films is determined by his experience and the research he conducts. As an American citizen, Lee is unavoidably affected by globalization. As any human being who has access to online media and television, the mountain of information available to Lee is limited only to his time and resources. This essay will argue that the change in form and content of Lee’s more recent films are due to an on-going, reciprocal relationship with his growing environment through globalization. Additionally this change does not suggest movement away from racially conscious content but rather just a more informed, more global perspective. Earlier films like Do the Right Thing (1988) and Jungle Fever (1991) are both focused on specific urban settings and they both deal with definite racial issues – of the time – in America. In contrast, later films like 25th Hour (2002) and Inside Man (2006) although still set in New York; broaden the scope to consider the effect of globalization on America and its hybridized culture. Here Lee does not limit his topic to black – and white racial politics, but reflects on more ethnicities and their social realities in the globalized America. Furthermore Lee references the 9/11 tragedy as an example of the consequences of globalization to create awareness in the American public who ignorantly places the blame on the other. As an always growing auteur, Spike Lee’s films have therefore not become less didactic, but rather he has adjusted his lens to include a wider view of humanity in the wake of globalization. His films are not less obviously about race, but rather they reflect on a larger spectrum of races to echo the diversity of a global community. I will demonstrate my point by exploring how Lee’s more recent films, 25th Hour and Inside Man still deal with racial issues, be it in a different form than Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever. The latter few are just more limited in their scope.

When considering the four films mentioned above, a noticeable common feature is that they are all set in New York, Spike Lee’s hometown. They are different, though, in the issues they explore, as his earlier films clearly focus on American racial issues between black and white social groups and individuals. His later films, however, focus on global racial issues that include many different races beyond African American and Latino American. Still, they are set in the same location, but roughly ten years apart. Even though globalization is a process with no clear beginning and ending, the ten years that separate these films have produced a remarkable growth of online, global media. This period of time also included the 9/11 attack on the world trade center in New York. Lee’s films are reflective of the possible change that a city like New York can undergo as it entered the 21st century. His more recent work reflects on the consequences of globalization by including references to the 9/11 attack, as is evident in 25th Hour (Haupt, 2011). This theme does not directly address racial issues, but they are still at the core of many social tensions in the narrative of both his more recent films. It therefore shows that race is still an issue in the American society, even though it has been diluted by alternative perspectives and expanded upon with the addition of many more cultures to consider.

Do the Right Thing (DTRT) and Jungle Fever (JF) both focus on racial issues between African Americans and Latino Americans. DTRT explores the tensions between these two specific ethnicities in a neighborhood where traditional racism still features (Sue et al. 2007). It also provides little hope in its narrative and through Sal, the owner of Sal’s Pizzeria, who still adheres to racist ideologies as a sympathetic racist (Flory, 2006). JF offers an equally disheartened narrative of an inter-racial relationship that breaks up two families and cannot withstand the pressure both racial groups place on the affair. At the core of both these films are strong black and white protagonists who face social conflict due to racially fuelled issues. Although DTRT adds to its racial spectrum with the addition of the Korean grocery store owners, the main focus of the film remains on the conflict between African Americans and Latino Americans. By limiting his content to specific racial groups, Lee digs deep into the realities of this particular racial issue that exist between black and white communities in America. Through his characters he explores the social reality of his time and environment. DTRT and JF therefore offer its viewers in depth fictional accounts of a tension between two particular racial groups.

Although his later films like 25th Hour (25H) and Inside Man (IM) still explore racial issues, they reflect a much more global concern of race as they include many more ethnicities in their use of characters and narrative structure (Haupt, 2011). The narrative of IM explores America’s input in the global domination of capitalism and how it affects people of different races even when they are American citizens. Additionally, and like 25H, the film also comments on the 9/11 tragedy and how it has altered certain perspectives of racial others (Harrison-Kahan, 2010). The most obvious example is found in IM, when the Sikh bank employee, Vikram Walia, is treated with extreme fear and hostility by the police after being released from the hostage situation (Harrison-Kahan, 2010). As soon as the police see his bearded face and turban, the one officer exclaims, “Oh shit, a fucking Arab”, to which Walia responds, “I’m a Sikh” (00:36:23). Clearly unaware of the difference, the police continue their hostility by demanding to know whether he has a bomb strapped to his body, thereby referencing the stereotypical view that all Arabs are suicide bombers like the terrorists that executed 9/11. They resume their ignorant and forceful manner as they weight him to the ground and remove his turban while he tries to maintain some dignity. Later, when detective Frazier and his colleagues interrogate him, he explains how his turban is an integral part of his identity and religion. To the American police, the turban only signified potential danger where it actually signifies respect for his god. It is an example of the prejudice that supports the racism directed towards people who resemble Arabian aesthetics after the conflict between America and Iraq started. Harrison-Kahan discusses this scene as an example of the potential peril such racist perspectives holds for America:

“Lee does not back down from exposing the racial and economic rifts that threaten to divide the nation further in the aftermath of tragedy.” (2010, p. 41)

In scenes like this it is evident that Lee has not abandoned the race issue in his films. Even when he does not directly address it as in the scene mentioned above, race still functions at the core of the narrative in subtler ways. In 25H, many of the characters’ statuses as either white or black adds to the theme of the film. As Canadas discusses in Spike Lee's "Uniquely American [Di]vision" (http://brightlightsfilm.com/63/63spikelee.php?_r=true#14end), by consciously casting black actors as the police against a white actor as the criminal, Lee deliberately inverts the stereotypical Hollywood discourse of white police vs. black criminals (2009). Here Monty is the smooth-talking, white drug dealer who must face the intelligent and pitiless black detective. The reference goes even deeper, as the particular system that will ensure Monty’s jail sentence was originally created to oppress marginal, non-white, communities in America (Haupt, 2011). This process of racial reversal causes the white male to be marginalized rather than the non-white characters. This is stressed further by his obvious fear to go to prison, a space where he will be in the minority and his identity, as an attractive, white man will make him the target of sexual harassment (Haupt, 2011).

Monty’s introspective, racially fueled rant in the bathroom of his father’s bar, beautifully demonstrates Lee’s characteristic style of filmmaking. He uses the same method of direct address by his characters in films like DTRT. After seeing some graffiti on the window that reads, “fuck you”, Monty retaliates by releasing a series of racist accusations to the various social groups found in New York (00:35:26). He demonstrates the frustration he feels living with such a wide variety of different people in one city. New York, with its hybrid community, becomes an allegory for the world to suggest some consequences of globalization (Haupt, 2011). His rant includes a comprehensive account of all the different races of people that share New York City. But Lee goes beyond race to include different stereotypes of people that contain homosexuals, Jews, Christians and even old people. He broadens the spectrum and as a result his film reaches around the world to explore the social effects of globalization. Lee extends his list of accusations by addressing different sections of New York City, thereby declaring hatred for this city that features regularly in his films. This emphasis on space can suggest commentary on urban design and its contribution to social segregation. Social segregation is a loaded subject and holds valid historical relevance as racist ideologies were distributed in the past. This inclusion adds to the film’s status as a Spike Lee Joint, considering that urban space plays an integral part of both JF and DTRT. Harlem becomes a character that contributes heavily to the narrative of JF. Similarly, the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn lays a foundation for all the racial tension explored in DTRT. Remaining consistent in his style of filmmaking, Lee continuous this characterization of space in 25H by using New York as a symbol for the globalized world.

Monty ends his rant by verbally harassing himself. He concludes his racist outburst with, “No fuck you, Montgomery Brogan, you had it all and you through it away, you dumb fuck!” This addition suggests a moral consciousness, as he concludes his distribution of blame by accusing himself. The outburst shows the type of arrogance that supports racist ideologies that consistently places fault on other social groups. However, by ending it the way he does, Lee suggests the accountability of the individual as most important (Haupt, 2011). He lays an emphasis on consequences and taking responsibility for one’s crimes. Monty has been found guilty on charges of drug trafficking and received a seven-year prison sentence; the film’s narrative plays out his final day of freedom. Haupt views Monty as a representation of America as a nation who must face the consequences of imperialism (2011). Monty’s racist rant can therefore be seen as commentary on the complicating nature of globalization, where blame is always directed towards the other. Monty finally takes the blame he puts on himself and more importantly, he owns up to his crimes and goes to prison, thereby taking responsibility for his actions. The conclusion of this narrative therefore suggests a global perspective to enlighten ignorant American citizens who mindlessly shifts the blame on the other.

This emphasis on consequences is mirrored in IM with its morally ambiguous characters (Harrison-Kahan, 2010). The narrative of the film continuously confronts the moral status of certain characters who would conventionally be perceived as “the good guy”. Lee specifically uses reference to the privileged, western identity as the real criminal. The bank owner, an extremely wealthy, old white man, is repeatedly made transparent by the crimes he committed in the past. During the Second World War he collaborated with the Nazis, and this is where he made his capital to allow him to reach success. The film uses this image to create the real villain of the plot. It creates irony as it justifies the more obvious crime committed by the bank robbers. In short, it makes Lee’s characters morally ambiguous, another trait usually seen in A Spike Lee Joint. It is one of the main themes of DTRT where a sympathetic racist like Sal ads depth to the narrative (Flory, 2006). In IM it is the white bank owner and white mayor, both socially respected figures, who transpire to be rotten at the core, thereby reversing other stereotypes to provide social commentary.

This essay discussed the change in Spike Lee’s oeuvre to demonstrate that there is a strong consistency present in his filmmaking. Although the two more recent films, 25th Hour and Inside Man, appear to explore less racially fueled content, a closer look will confirm that they adhere to the conventions of A Spike Lee Joint. Where earlier films like Jungle Fever and Do the Right Thing focused on specific social tensions between particular racial groups in America, later films broadened their scope to include a global account of social conflict in the wake of globalization. 25th Hour continues Lee’s style of filmmaking with the characterization of space, emphasis on consequences and conscious use of particular races of characters to support the narrative. Inside Man includes all these themes as well as particular racial issues caused by globalization. In this way Spike Lee remains consistent in his art. He continues to create films that are didactic and, although less specified, still deals with racial tension in our globalized community.

Bibliography

Canadas, I. (2009). Spike Lee's "Uniquely American [Di]vision" Race and Class in 25th Hour. Bright Lights Film Journal. 63 (x), http://brightlightsfilm.com/63/63spikelee.php?_r=true#14end.

Do the Right Thing. (1989). [Film] Spike Lee. USA. Universal

Flory, D. (2006). Spike Lee and the Sympathetic Racist. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. 64 (1), 67 - 79.

Haupt, A. (2011). Race, Class, Globalisation and Responsibility in the Allegory of The 25th Hour. Available: http://blogs.uct.ac.za.ezproxy.uct.ac.za/blog/screening-race-spike-lee/general. Last accessed 17 October, 2012.

Inside Man. (2006). [Film] Spike Lee. USA. Universal

Jungle Fever. (1991). [Film] Spike Lee. USA. Universal

Rickli, C. (2009). An Event “Like a Movie”? Hollywood and 9/11. Available: http://copas.uni-regensburg.de/article/viewArticle/114/138. Last accessed 17 October, 2012.

Sue, D. W. Capodilupo, C. M. Torino, G. C. Bucceri, J. M. Holder, A. M. B. Nadal, K. L. Esquilin, M. (2007). Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Implications for Clinical Practice. American Psychologist. 62 (4), 271–286.

25th Hour. (2002). [Film] Spike Lee. USA. 40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks