Looking out from a his own vantage point, Spike Lee sees the other groups in the City with keen artistic insight that can at times cross the boundaries into caricature. The working-class Italian Americans who appear in Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever, and Summer of Sam seethe with rage and bigotry. They stand one step away from mindless mob violence, especially when "moolies" are involved. Mo and Josh Flatbush, the obviously Jewish owners of the jazz club in Mo'Better Blues, embody stereotypical miserliness, which becomes ever more marked when set in contrast to the ineffectiveness of the inept business manager, Giant, played by Spike Lee himself. In the arena of interethnic competition, the Jews embody nasty shrewdness, the blacks bumbling incompetence. It's not a flattering image of either group. In 25th Hour, the convicted Irish American drug dealer (Edward Norton) preparing to go to prison comes from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, a predominantly Irish section on the western edge of Brooklyn, overlooking the Harbor and Staten Island on the other side of the bay. His father, a recovering alcoholic who has retired from the fire department, had, years earlier, joined the white flight across the Verrazano Bridge to Staten Island and opened a bar that caters to firemen on Bay Street. A boyhood friend assures him that when he gets out of prison, as two Irish kids from Bay Ridge, they can always open a bar. For Spike Lee, Jews suggest money, Italians violence, and Irish alcohol.
Like most New Yorkers who spend their formative years in an ethnic neighborhood, Spike Lee could not avoid the awareness of race and nationality that, as if by osmosis, seeps into the consciousness and in moments of conflict can break through the surface and erupt into hatred. In both Do the Right Thing and 25th Hour, he interrupts the narrative to let characters voice in the crudest terms their inner contempt for other definable ethnic groups: white, black, Korean shopkeepers, Irish cops, Pakistani cab drivers. Although the racial tension is always present in the films, it only rarely breaks out into interracial violence. His powerful documentary about the bombing of a Baptist church in Atlanta in 1963, 4 Little Girls (1997), provides a moving reconstruction of an act of unspeakable violence, but if anything, it is both a condemnation of what one reporter calls "pathological racism" and a testimony to the dignity of the survivors. Neither Lee nor the families he interviews call for racially motivated revenge. In Do the Right Thing, the death of a black teenager at the hands of overly aggressive white police officers leads to a mindless destruction of property as an expression of frustration, but as Lee quite properly insists, the violence was directed toward property, not persons. In Malcolm X the threat of organized interracial violence simmers under the surface, but the entire point is that Malcolm X chooses not to use it, and in fact falls victim himself to the violence of a rival faction within the Nation of Islam. Under scrutiny, then, the films provide an anthropological study of the dynamics of racial thinking so common in New York neighborhoods, and to reach that end, Lee selects, exaggerates, and at times caricatures negative ethnic traits. Race and ethnicity flavor all Lee's films.
In this regard, Spike Lee stands apart from the older generation of New York filmmakers, who take a more oblique approach to ethnicity. For Woody Allen, it rarely arises as an issue at all. Several of his characters are self-consciously Jewish, but their background provides material for tensions within themselves rather than overt conflict with members of other groups. For Sidney Lumet and Martin Scorsese, ethnic identity often shapes the struggle that the characters encounter with other groups within their larger society. Group differences lurk in the background, add color to the setting, and add tension to dramatic situations. Their struggling heroes are aware of their ethnic status, refer to it, and generally work around it as an inevitable part of their New York environment, but neither director puts ethnicity at the core of the narrative. For Spike Lee, race and class often function as the basis of the conflicts in his films. If his characters were not black or Italian, poor or uneducated, they would not face the problems they do.
Lee's preoccupation with ethnic cultures has led some critics to identify a strand of racism in his own thinking. When confronted with the observation, his response is complex and takes a bit of effort to digest. In an interview with David Breskin, he defends his statement that black people cannot be racist, but he continues immediately, "Black people can be prejudiced. But to me, racism is the institution."8 The distinction helps to clarify a great deal in his films. According to Spike Lee, every group, including African Americans, can be guilty of prejudice and racial hatred, even when they maintain that they are not. Racism, however, is the residue of social bias that remains in American culture after centuries of slavery and decades of segregation. Lee's films deal with both issues simultaneously. The black characters have problems rooted in racist society. Lee feels that they often have one more hurdle to overcome than white people and does not shrink from pointing out what he calls the double standard applied to blacks and whites in America. Still, any of the characters, black or white, can be guilty of racial stereotyping, like the waitress at Sylvia's restaurant in Harlem in Jungle Fever, who refuses service and then insults an interracial couple. Lee has little patience with black characters who blame white society for all their problems. With characteristic verve, he writes in the Introduction to Spike Lee's Gotta Have It: "We're tired of that alibi, 'White man this, white man that.' YO! Fuck dat! So let's all do the work that needs to be done by us all."9
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