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Sunday, January 15, 2017

Spike Lee

SPIKE LEE: Chinese questions and American 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 non-white males and females by police officers and individual citizens. We should anticipate that racial problems will flourish under the leadership of Donald Trump.

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.  Discussion of relations between whites and blacks is too simple-minded; it prevents a truly critical understanding of how problematic America's experiment with democracy is in the 21st century.

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 ( the film) of an adjusted representation (Alex Haley's decisions about how to configure  the life of Malcolm Little/ El Hajj Malik el Shabazz;  Haley's epilogue for the autobiography is crucial.  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. That fact may frustrate the expectations of some spectators.

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.


School Daze ----Spike Lee exaggerates the internal culture of the HBCU---preoccupation with ritual, preoccupation with "color" distinctions derived from the history of American slavery, sexual negotiations  in order to delineate why HBCUs are special institutions within the dynamic space of American higher education.

Do the Right Thing ---In the Internet ranking constructed by Vulture.Com, this film is judged to be "a triumph of craftsmanship and vision, with both Lee and cinematographer Ernest Dickerson delivering a powerfully atmospheric snapshot of life in late-eighties Bed-Stuy [Brooklyn] at a time of escalating racial tension in the city.  But the film's precise, funny characters and vivid, sweltering look would meant nothing without Lee's wise and ultimately sad vision of multicultural America as a place where good intentions and casual mistrust are as commonplace as the local pizzeria."  Moreover, the film is a decidedly New York vision of what is sad about multicultural America; Lee's films about New Orleans and Chicago give us slightly better visions of how American citizens co-exist.  Indeed, the portrayal  of Chicago in Chi-Raq (2015) illuminates Lee's uncanny ability to represent frustration, but it also reveals Lee's inability to provide social critiques without large doses of comedy.

Malcolm X  ---Vulture. Com ranks this film as Lee's second best. "Over its three-and-a-half-hour running time, Malcolm X tells a great American story of a great American character, and is that rare biopic that allows us not only to get to know and understand our hero, but to watch him change. Challenging, moving, and uncompromising, it also never forgets to be gloriously entertaining…."  When the actor Ossie Davis explained why he eulogized Malcolm X, he proudly asserted "that Malcolm  --- whatever else he was or was not ---- Malcolm was a man!"  I argue that biopics are less good than sustained examinations of a man's words as paths to understanding his place in world history.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.            January 15, 2017

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