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Monday, October 3, 2016

To open a conversation on Spike Lee in Nanjing, China




To begin, I will give brief answers to questions you raised after viewing  School Daze (1988) , Do the Right Thing (1989), Malcolm X (1992) and  Bamboozled (2000) in Spring 2016 and then follow-up with brief commentary on the first three films and a longer lecture on Bamboozled.  The purpose is to position us for a conversation about one of America's most controversial filmmakers and how his early productions stimulate inquiry and scholarship regarding film and African American cultures.

QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

1.  Is the racial problem in America still as tense as depicted in the films by Spike Lee?  Yes.  In fact, we have to speak not of a single problem but of a range of problems.  The most intense problem, of course, is the division and distrust occasioned by the killing of unarmed black males and females by police officers and individual citizens.

2. Which part of America sees the tensest relation between black and white?  Small and large American cities, areas that have histories of obvious as well as hidden (or underreported) discord between and among ethnic groups.

3.  In the film Do the Right Thing, what do you think is the most significant cause of the tragedy? The hot weather, dirty words, or the racial discrimination?  The primary cause is a combination of climate, language, and instances of racist behaviors.  Trying to identify a "most significant cause" is a reductive gesture, which fails to deal with the complexity of cause and effect.

4. In the film School Daze, do you think Jane should be responsible for her own tragedy?  Yes.  Jane is a victim of male aggression and exploitation to be sure, but she is not bereft of the ability to make choices;  she makes a poor choice that leads to disgrace and tragic outcomes.

5. Do you believe America will be able to solve the racial problem in the near future? No.  The racial problem is complicated by the always changing demographics of the United States.

6. What exactly is the main purpose of Spike Lee's making so many films about race?  I suspect the main purpose to expose the multiple facets of the concept of "race" as a national problem.  There are many subtle ways in which American films depict racial issues.  In the films of Spike Lee, we see the depiction and exposure more plainly than in films, especially some science fiction films, that seem not to deal with race as a central topic.

7.  Do you advocate Martin Luther King's belief that violence is not a way to solve discrimination, or Malcolm X's that violence is intelligence when used in self-defense?  While I believe King's advocating non-violent resistance in the face of social injustice was admirable,  I believe that Malcolm X's championing of self-defense is the better course of action.  We must make choices between non-violence and violence on the basis of individual situations.

8.  What can we do to stop being racist and being discriminated upon when we come to the United States?  This Chinese question has two unequal, dissimilar parts.  First, I will not presume that Chinese people are racist (until you provide proof that they are) and in need of eradicating their racist behaviors. Second, it is not possible to avoid being discriminated against in some form, whether one is a citizen or a foreign visitor.  The social dynamics of the United States may minimize discrimination against visitors, but our day-to-day politics cannot guarantee the absence of discrimination.

9. In seeing the movie about Malcolm X, I have a question about the authenticity of the Malcolm in the movie and whether it is the "real" representation of the real person Malcolm, especially his conflict with the leader of the Nation of Islam.  There are a few elements of authenticity in the film, but as a totality the film deals much more Malcolm X as an American icon, as a projection of what Spike Lee thought was the way to make a film about an iconic, very controversial person.  Thus, we do not have an absolutely "real" representation.  We have an adjusted representation.  We need to examine how Malcolm's conflict with the Honorable Elijah Muhammed was first "represented"  in The Autobiography of Malcolm X  (and account for Alex Haley's agency in adjusting Malcolm's autobiographical narrative);  when we view the portrayal of the conflict in Lee's film, we have to recall that distortion is an element of film as a medium and that even minimally edited documentaries will provide us with distortions.  Lee's film is a biopic not a documentary.

10.  And I was confused in seeing the movie Do the Right Thing.  I'm just wondering what is the right thing to do?  The right thing to do is to continue to ask the question what is the right thing to do. This is the most straightforward response I can make to the question, because all decisions about right actions are most often determined by the specifics of a given situation.

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