Back when I was going to college, I watched a low budget film that was different from anything that I have ever seen. It was called She’s Gotta Have It and it inaugurated the film career of one of America’s most important filmmakers: Spike Lee. He was saying things in his movies that no one else was saying about race and class. Since that time, I’ve seen Do The Right Thing, Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, Inside Man, and When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. The films that I’ve seen of Spike Lee’s made me think about the complexity of the problems of race in America. He comes from a long tradition of American filmmakers, like Frank Capra, Charles Chaplin, and Oliver Stone, who used their films to comment on the ills of American society.
I watched Do The Right Thing with my college girlfriend in an empty theater in the Mountain View Shoreline theaters in the late 1980s. The opening scene was Rosie Perez dancing to Public Enemy. It was an exciting start of a story of rising tensions between an Italian pizzeria owner and his African American customers. Do The Right Thing tackled issues of African American relations with Italian Americans, asked why Korean American businesses proliferated in black neighborhoods instead of African American businesses, asked whether Italian businesses in African American neighborhoods had a responsibility to represent black culture in their stores, showed the antagonistic relationship between the police and the African American community. Most of the characters in the neighborhood are likable, but none of them are perfect. Sal, the owner of the pizzeria, is a well meaning man who doesn’t really understand the customers who he serves. Mookie is one of Sal’s employees, a young African American pizza delivery man with a nagging Puerto Rican wife who complains that he neglects her and their son. One of the sad things that the movie highlights is that despite the diversity of the neighborhood, the groups of African Americans, Hispanics, Koreans, and Italians seemed destined to clash. When members of one group start having friendly relations with another group, as when one of Sal’s sons befriends Mookie, or when Mookie’s sister shows affection towards Sal, the prejudices of others always threaten to tear those relationships apart. The movie ends with a quote from Malcolm X and a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. From my viewpoint, it seems that the movie is trying to say that both King’s and Malcom’s philosophies have some validity in the racial climate depicted in the movie. Do The Right Thing asks important questions, and I like how he doesn’t attempt to answer those questions, but challenges viewers to find solutions on their own.
Jungle Fever tackles the issues surrounding interracial romances. I watched it one day while renting out a video from the library. Flipper, a successful African American architect, has an affair with his Italian American secretary Angie, and it elicits deep anger in both their African American and Italian American communities. When I first watched the movie, I heard that the movie was a criticism of interracial relationships as signified by the troubled relationship between Flipper and Angie, but there is a side story where a bookish Italian American man developes tender feelings for an intellectual African American woman that hints of other possiblities. I think the movie is less a condemnation of interracial couples than a critique of sexual stereotypes among the races. In one scene, for instance, a group of African American women talk about the sense of rivalry with white women for African American men. As much a movie about race, Jungle Fever is a movie about class, specifically the relationship between the working class Italian neighborhoods of New York and the professional class African American classes. It’s not as focused as Do The Right Thing, as Jungle Fever gets caught up in a subplot about a pastor’s family trying to react to a son’s drug problem.
My favorite Spike Lee movie is Malcolm X. It has a marvelous actor, Denzel Washington, who is riveting playing Malcolm X. And the issues of institutional American racism flow naturally from following Malcolm X’s life. Until I watched this movie, I always had mixed feelings about Malcolm X. With this movie, I gained a greater appreciation of the circumstances that shaped Malcolm X’s life and appreciated the change that Malcolm underwent after he took his pilgrimage to Mecca. What this movie most conveys is the degradation of the black community under racist laws and attitudes, and the price that people like Malcolm paid in his young life. His father was killed for standing up to the Klu Klux Klan, his mother broke down from the strain of trying to raise her family alone. Malcolm was a gifted student, but his teachers dissuaded him from doing anything except menial work. As his life slowly descends into thievery, gambling and prison, it’s understandable to see why the Black Muslims would have appeal for Malcolm. In following the trajectory of Malcolm Xs life, the soundtrack follows the history of African American music from swing to Billy Holiday to Ella Fitzgerald to Motown to Sam Cook. My favorite scene was the end scene, where Nelson Mandela appears to a class to extol the virtues of Malcolm X and we hear Ossie Davis give his eulogy.
When Crash won an Oscar for best picture a few years ago, it really annoyed me. Not because it wasn’t a good movie. It’s just that it didn’t explore racism as well as any of the Spike Lee movies that I watched, and those movies didn’t even get nominated for Oscars. I appreciate the depth of Spike Lee’s movies. As an Asian American, I’ve learned a lot from a filmmaker who makes full use of his knowledge of African American politics, culture and the arts. Recently I watched Inside Man, a conventional and entertaining thriller. Hopefully, Spike Lee will continue to tackle ambitious subjects. Our American society will benefit from it.