Keeping Up the Beat

In an astonishing variety of genres in his more recent films, Spike Lee has kept on message. The packaging changes, but the content remains consistent, as a selection of his later films indicates. Get On the Bus (1996) is a fictional reenactment of the Million Man March, a mass demonstration organized by Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam. The film follows the progression of a disparate group of African American men who make the journey by chartered bus from South Central Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., to participate in the rally that took place on October 16, 1995. Lee managed to produce the film in less than a year, in time to release it for the first anniversary of the event. Virtually all the action takes place on the bus, where the men talk about their differences, only to reassert what they have in common as black men. The framing story is of course the journey, and this provides the overarching narrative that the community, with all its diversity, is headed to some destination precisely as a community. It's trying to reinvent itself, just like Fort Greene.

One member is a Los Angeles police officer who is biracial, and his complexion and ancestry become an issue. Some don't welcome his presence because in their thinking, he is not really black. A young social worker reveals that while he was in the gangs, he killed other young black men, and the officer tells him that he will arrest him at the end of the journey. A father brings his reluctant teenage son. They are literally chained together by court order, and the young man despises the idea of the rally. He wants to be back home with his friends, who, he is forced to admit, prey on other black people. A gay couple has had a lovers' quarrel, and they provoke conversation about the role of gay black men. Outside Memphis they pick up a loudmouth who owns a Lexus dealership, and as they ride on toward Washington, he continually expresses contempt for other black men who have not succeeded as he has. His relentless use of the word nigger to refer to his less prosperous colleagues wears thin and soon becomes simply obnoxious. Because he has broken the bonds of solidarity, they unceremoniously put him off the bus.

After the first bus breaks down, a Jewish driver brings the replacement, and the passengers object to having a white driver. The driver is a civil-rights liberal who defends his liberal credentials but under constant needling, the black-Jewish antagonism breaks through the veneer of commonality. He can't take the constant harassment, and at a rest stop he announces that he is quitting. As far as he cares, they can drive their own bus, if that's what they want. On two occasions, black women object to their exclusion from the march, and the men discuss the leadership role women have traditionally assumed in the community. This, they conclude, is something the men have to do themselves. A narcissistic young actor frets more about the results of an audition than the march itself. A film student joins the group with his video camera in order to make a documentary for his thesis at USC. He is the Spike Lee surrogate, filming the dynamics within the black community during its journey into the future.

The internal tensions rise to the surface against a backdrop of white racism, according to the pattern of Lee's other films. Jeremiah (Ossie Davis), the godfather of the group, tells the story of his being passed over for promotion within his company, then being laid off, and finally, after being rehired at a lower salary and without benefits, of having his job simply eliminated. He turned to drink and lost both his family and his self-respect. Nearing the end of his life, his health is precarious, as he shows by removing a hospital bracelet before he boards the bus. The Tennessee state police arbitrarily stop them and bring on a drug-sniffing dog. The police officer on the bus shows his badge, but in a more insulting way than is necessary, and the state police remind him that this is not Los Angeles. Satisfied that the bus is clean, they wish "you boys" a nice trip out of the state. At a diner, two white men display their ignorance by not knowing there were many black riders in the old-time rodeos.

The strain of journey and discussion becomes too much for Jeremiah. He dies in a Washington hospital without ever having made it to the rally. The doctor, who reviews his medical history, reveals that he must have known that the trip would kill him. She was right. Jeremiah explained that since he missed the Poor People's March in 1963, he was determined not to miss this march, regardless of the personal cost. By way of eulogy, the informal leader of the group reminds the saddened passengers that the object of their journey was to be better men at the end than they were at the beginning. In this they seem to have been successful. They did not make it to the National Mall for the speeches, their ostensible destination, but the journey itself forced them to listen to one another and to maintain a vigil of solidarity for one of their own in the hospital waiting room. Their differences remain, but they have gained mutual respect and have formed the kind of community that Spike Lee repeatedly urges in his films. The title of the film is addressed to the African American community in the imperative mode, just like his earlier exhortation to "do the right thing" or his exhortation "wake up" at the end of School Daze. He urges people to "get on the bus" and listen to one another with respect, and as a result they will become better men by the end of the journey.

4 Little Girls (1996) is a classic documentary whose story emerges from editing rather than script. It includes a compilation of film clips in the standard television format: talking head interviews, newsreel footage, home movies, still photographs, slow pans over memorabilia, and exterior shots of various locales as they appear today with voice-over commentaries. Lee takes his audience, black and white alike, back to Birmingham, Alabama, on September 15, 1963. On that steamy Sunday morning, Robert (Dynamite Bob) Chambliss, described as a "patho logical racist" and a member of the Ku Klux Klan, set off a bomb in the basement of the Baptist church that killed four girls, three fourteen years old and a fourth only eleven as they awaited the start of morning services.

Lee carefully provides the context for the atrocity. In this present age, we have grown accustomed to random violence, but familiarity does not soften the horror. Spike Lee provides a thorough reconstruction of the historical context because he realizes that a younger generation needs to understand the systematic repression that existed in the South—and in subtler forms in the North as well—during the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first of the twentieth. His subjects point out that steady work in the steel mills might have created a relatively prosperous black working class in Birmingham, but if a man could not buy his daughter lunch when he takes her shopping, his weekly salary has little value. Segregation was not a benign institution, and dismantling it would exact a terrible price that America has not yet paid in full. From miniature portraits of family life, Lee broadens the canvas to include once-familiar shots of police dogs and fire hoses turned on freedom marchers, stills of "white only" signs on drinking fountains and restrooms, institutionalized and unprosecuted lynchings—sad events that may have been crowded from contemporary consciousness by newer forms of ideological barbarism. The bombing of the church was clearly intended as a reprisal for recent lunch-counter demonstrations and an act of intimidation to prevent further challenges to the divinely ordained order of life in Birmingham. Chambliss's defense attorney, now a federal judge, describes Birmingham as a "fine place to live." The prosecuting attorney explained that the rapid growth of the steel industry created a volatile mixture of traditions: union violence that grew out of the struggles to organize, and rabid racism of rural areas as impoverished sharecroppers, both white and black, came in from tired farms to compete for work in the mills.

Chambliss failed in his efforts to perpetuate a segregated nation, as did Bull Connor, the chief of police, and Governor George Wallace, who personally stood in the door to prevent black students from entering the University of Alabama. The film demonstrates that they failed on two levels at once. They intimidated no one, and in fact black leaders from across the country converged on Birmingham to attend the funerals and lead the processions of solidarity. Walter Cronkite, the iconic

CBS news anchor, called the tragedy "the awakening," and within two years, President Lyndon Johnson would sign civil rights legislation guaranteeing the vote to all citizens. On a deeper level, the bombing failed to break the moral spirit of the community. In repeated interviews with surviving friends and family, Lee shows their sense of loss and invites us to mourn for what the children might have become. At the same time, he elicits from them a sense of courage and dignity. These men and women acknowledge their grief, but without anger or resentment. They do not seek revenge. They look to the future without buckling under the weight of the past. Most strikingly of all, Chambliss failed to make them hate.

Bamboozled (2000) is the stylistic countertype to 4 Little Girls. It incorporates broad comedy, musical numbers, and social satire, but even so, the Spike Lee themes of progress, dignity, and solidarity among African Americans still provide the framework of the film. He uses the television industry as a laboratory to explore class distinctions and the exploitation of black culture by black and white people alike. He spares no one, and just to make sure audiences realize that his moral parable is a comedy, he has the main character, Pierre De La Croix (Damon Wayans), recite voice-over the dictionary definition of satire as he begins his day in his own nicely appointed apartment.

Dela, as he is known to his friends, has a Harvard education, speaks with absurdly affected diction, dresses impeccably, and holds an executive position as a writer-producer in a foundering television network, CNS. His success in the entertainment industry contrasts with two street performers, who dance for spare change in the plaza of his office building. Class clearly distinguishes them, but when Dela arrives late to a board meeting upstairs, he is still the black man who is chewed out for running his appointment schedule on CP Time—that is, colored people's time. The network is in trouble and Dela, as the token African American, has to come up with an idea to bring in black audiences. This is the proverbial last straw. He has grown uncomfortable in his role and wants to get out of his contract, but he cannot.

His solution to his legal problem dovetails with his mandate to create black-oriented programming. He designs a show that incorporates every conceivable offensive image of African Americans. Spike Lee has taken the grotesque television world of Sidney Lumet's Network (1976) and recast it with the absurdity of Mel Brooks's The Producers, in which the eponymous heroes must produce a flop in order to succeed. Dela calls his program Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show, and of course in the tradition of minstrel shows, all the dancers and comics will appear in blackface. He hires the street dancers he has passed outside his office. They realize the material is insulting, but they have just been rousted from the apartment they occupied as squatters and simply need the money. Dela changes their names from Manray (Savion Glover) and Womach (Tommy Davidson) to Mantan and Sleep 'n' Eat. The band is called the Alabama Porch Monkeys, and most of the action takes place in a watermelon patch right next to a cotton field.

Much to Dela's horror, at first, the program becomes a huge hit. As the show builds its audience, Dela enjoys the power and prestige he has achieved within the corporation. Black performers exploit their blackness, while white audiences not only urge them on, but also adopt the styles themselves by wearing blackface to the program and proclaiming that they too are "niggers." This is Lee's commentary on white performers and audiences who seize upon the externals of black artists. White artists do rap, for example, and white teenagers in the suburbs adopt hip-hop styles.

Dela's administrative assistant, his onetime lover Sloane Hopkins (Jada Pinkett Smith), is outraged, but she plays along at first to preserve her job and eventually because she finds the show funny. She is paired with her brother, who calls himself Big Blak Africa—he rejects the conventional spelling of black—(Mos Def/Dante Beze), and leads a group of radical militants, which includes one white man who continually proclaims himself black. He finds the show degrading and promises violent action unless it is taken off the air. He tries to enlist his sister in the cause and visits her house on Strivers Row. Class conflict is inevitable. Sloane graduated from NYU's media department, dresses in boardroom chic, speaks with the precision of an NPR anchorwoman, wears fragile rimless glasses that enhance her professional image, and has pulled her hair back into a tight bun. Big Blak Africa dresses in hip-hop and struggles with the language. Sloane tries to tell him that his mishmash of inarticulate radical slogans and uninformed theories is counterproductive to the goals his group espouses. She calls them "stupid." They get into a shouting match about "house niggers" and "field niggers," a class antagonism that Lee insists prevents black people from cooperating to achieve common goals.

Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport), the white network president, tells Dela that his wife is black and he has two biracial children, and therefore he knows black audiences better than Dela. He wants the program to go ahead his way, despite the critics. Myrna Goldfarb (Dina Perlman), the network's public relations consultant with a PhD in Black Studies from Yale, agrees with Dunwitty. The show features commercials for expensive fashions by Timmi Hillnigger, who is white, and Da Bomb, an alcohol-enhanced beer that guarantees sexual conquest, as indicated by the suggestive dances performed by models in minimal costumes. In his vicious satire, Lee shows corporate (white) America offering consumer (black) America what it wants: mindless entertainment that humiliates while it amuses, expensive "signature" clothes it can ill afford, and alcohol consumption that leads to further degradation. Lee spreads the blame around equally. Shame on the white corporations. Shame on audiences, black and white, for wallowing in this crass entertainment. Shame on the muddled leadership like Big Blak Africa for not having the ability to deal with the problem more effectively. Shame on the performers like Mantan and Sleep 'n' Eat who allow their talents to be exploited for a price. And shame especially on Dela and Sloane, who know better, but place their own careers ahead of principle.

This is a serious indictment. In the final sequences, Spike Lee moves from absurdist comedy to tragedy. Sloane falls in love with Mantan, and her indiscretion leads Dela to fire her, saying he made a mistake in the beginning by fraternizing with "the help." Big Blak Africa makes good on his threat to kidnap and execute Mantan on television, and after some negotiations, the networks secure the rights and clearances to broadcast the murder live. The video link, however, allows the police to locate the origin of the signal. They arrive too late to rescue Mantan, but they do kill Big Blak Africa and all the gang members except the one white man, whom they cuff and bundle into a police car. Sloane takes the gun that her brother had given her and kills Dela. In the murder scene, she appears with her hair loosened from its customary tight bun, standing up in a natural look. At the end of the comedy, Spike Lee returns to his outrage at black people killing each other, spiritually as well as physically, rather than working together. This was a theme most directly stated in Malcolm X and Clockers.

Lee does more than restate his revulsion with a culture of violence. He aims directly at the entertainment industries, which he feels con tinue a process of spiritual genocide. Bamboozled ends with a montage of African American entertainers in demeaning roles and white entertainers from Al Jolson to Mickey Rooney putting on blackface for comic effect. The final shot shows Dela bleeding to death, surrounded by curios made to resemble stereotypical and comic images of black people. For Spike Lee the tragedy is compounded: Dela had the opportunity to use his position in the media for constructive purposes. Instead, he collaborated in a process of self-inflicted degradation. He could have looked to the future; instead, he turned to the past.

Summer of Sam (1999) marks a departure from Lee's earlier work in that its principal characters are all Italian Americans in the Throgs Neck area of the Bronx, a neighborhood wedged between the Bruckner Expressway and Eastchester Bay, where the East River meets the Long Island Sound. By natural geography and the access roads to the Whitestone and Throgs Neck Bridges to Long Island, it is every bit as isolated as Howard Beach in Queens. Protected as it seems to be from outside intruders, the residents form a community that is torn apart by its own inner dynamics. In this they are quite different from the Italians of Bensonhurst in Jungle Fever who fear encroachment on their cultural as well as geographic territory. As in Do the Right Thing, the action is set in the midst of a blistering heat wave, this one in the summer of 1977. The heat strains the electric grid, which leads to a power blackout, which in turn leads to widespread rioting and looting in black areas, and there is fear the lawlessness might spread. The East Bronx is particularly edgy because a serial killer, known as the Son of Sam or the .44 Caliber Killer (eventually identified as David Berkowitz), is on the loose in the area. They fear he may be one of their own.

Lee does not present a flattering picture of the Italian community. Its citizens have all the moral limitations of the Tuccis in Jungle Fever or Pino in Do the Right Thing. Spike Lee points out one key difference. In Jungle Fever the Bensonhurst culture, for all its limitations, has strong institutions that keep it together, for good or ill. The East Bronx in contrast is spinning through a social vortex. Vinny (John Leguizamo) is a compulsive womanizer, despite his marriage to Dionna (Mira Sorvino), who eventually reaches the breaking point in acquiescing to her husband's desires and infidelities. He turns to drugs. Ritchie (Adrien Brody) wants to be a rock star. He affects a Cockney accent and wears leather and spiked hair. To support himself until his big break, he performs in a gay strip show in Manhattan and between acts turns tricks for the customers. Like the people of Bed-Stuy in Do the Right Thing, most of the young men seem to spend their days hanging out together, boasting of their imaginary sexual conquests, and planning terrible reprisals when they capture the Son of Sam. The women flaunt their big hair and dangly earrings, understand their roles as objects for the enjoyment of men, and take pride in their conquests. Ritchie's ample mother (Patti LuPone) entertains her current boyfriend in her living room in midafternoon without locking the door. Gloria (Bebe Neuwirth) runs a beauty salon and uses the barber chair for her encounters with Vinny, her assistant. Ruby (Jennifer Esposito) has a reputation for her vast experience, and when Dionna asks for advice on pleasing Vinny, Ruby tells her, "You can't be married to him." Its isolation has enabled the neighborhood to maintain its identity without realizing how corrupt it has become.

As the residents become progressively paranoid about the Son of Sam, the police call on the Mafia for assistance. Gangs of young vigilantes prowl the streets with baseball bats and stop cars on the overpasses. They focus attention in turn on a bearded taxi driver, whom they assume is unbalanced after his war experience in Vietnam, and the parish priest, whom they believe must be a caldron of repressed sexual energy. A young man who was one of the neighborhood boys has come out of the closet as an effeminate gay, and he becomes a target, as does Ritchie, who has also become different in his own way. The institutions that might hold a neighborhood together—the police, the church, family, and old friendships—lose all meaning in the face of the crisis. This has become a community at war with itself. Its inhabitants have lost their moral compass. Once the ethnic solidarity goes, the neighborhood spirals into anarchy and faces far more danger from within than it does from the Son of Sam.

In Summer of Sam, Spike Lee has moved beyond his normal setting in varied African American communities, yet his didactic message remains consistent. He places paramount value on different groups coming together within the community in order to achieve common goals. Once they allow divisions, whether between competing classes or individuals, and once they lose their tolerance for diversity or for the occasional oddball, they suffer as a group. In the case of the East Bronx in Summer of Sam, the divisions appear terminal.

Spike Lee has studied many different types of communities during his pilgrimage from Cobble Hill to Fort Greene, with side trips to Morehouse in Atlanta and NYU in Manhattan before heading back to Fort Greene. He found African Americans functioning well in the middle class as a minority in Cobble Hill and striving for success as a homogeneous group at Morehouse. Fort Greene offered a unique experience, however. Here was a neighborhood that had great cultural resources and went through an extremely difficult time. It was predominantly black, but not exclusively so. It had poor people, but as time went on, many relatively comfortable families moved in. Artists and uneducated lived side by side, and somehow all these people managed to function as a community to improve the lives of everyone.

Spike Lee, like Bill Cosby, has been vilified by some as a harsh critic of African Americans. In a self-referential scene in Summer of Sam, he plays the part of John Jeffries, a local television news reporter covering the looting in Harlem. As he does his stand-up report, a African American woman accuses him of not liking black people very much. Such a criticism misses the point of Spike Lee's work. He has seen how the community can work in Fort Greene, and he becomes frustrated when any community, especially the black community, lets class divisions, ignorance, self-interest, drugs, guns, promiscuity, pessimism, defeatism, and loss of self-respect stand in its way. His films are in fact not only didactic, they are homiletic, and like any good revivalist, he preaches hellfire as a prelude to redemption.

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