They run in different social circles, to put it mildly, and have never shared a stage together. But on this night author Tom Wolfe and filmmaker Spike Lee are sitting down to discuss racism in the '90s, and several thousand VIPs have packed a banquet room to watch the show.
In New York, where ugly racial incidents are becoming a way of life, the topic is guaranteed to draw a crowd. Yet most of those who have turned out for a fund-raising dinner Monday at the posh Pierre Hotel are drawn by the specter of the two artists trading shots--no matter what the subject may be.
They will not be disappointed. Wolfe and Lee tangle over a number of hot topics, and the black filmmaker stuns the audience with his contention that the scripted movie version of Wolfe's best-selling novel, "Bonfire of the Vanities," contains a new and potentially racist conclusion, one different from the book.
These days, it would be hard to imagine two men who reflect more different sides of the Big Apple. Wolfe, an ultra-cool patrician, is still riding the crest of his best-selling 1987 novel, a scathing, Dickensian indictment of racial and class tensions in contemporary New York.
Lee, a brash young black filmmaker from Brooklyn, stirred nationwide controversy last year with "Do the Right Thing," a graphic portrait of racial hostility between blacks and whites that boils over into violence and sudden death on a hot summer's day in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
Both artists have earned praise for their tough examinations of an American problem that goes far beyond the bounds of New York City. But the differences between them are profound: Wolfe's novel was blasted by several critics for tilting against blacks, while Lee's movies pull no punches in portraying African-Americans as the victims of a corrupt white power structure.
The contrasts are apparent before the two even open their mouths. Wolfe takes the stage wearing his trademark white linen suit and flashes a shy, nervous smile. Lee slumps quietly in a chair dressed in a black hat, black coat, black pants and red shirt. Neither looks much at the other. The audience at the sixth annual Coro Foundation leadership dinner, which includes the likes of Walter Cronkite, Tom Brokaw and Bryant Gumbel, leans forward as a panel begins asking questions.
Is Wolfe concerned about complaints from residents of the South Bronx that the shooting script for "Bonfire of the Vanities," currently in production, has portrayed their community as a drug-ridden, crime-infested sewer? Buffeted by such criticism, Warner Bros. has agreed to put a disclaimer at the end of the movie saying that the events portrayed are fictitious.
"I don't know if there are a lot of people in the Bronx who feel slighted by the book," Wolfe says. "I don't think you can go through life as a writer worrying about public relations. You either write what you see, honestly and frankly and candidly, or you should get out of the business and go into something else."
As for disclaimers, he adds, "I think the whole business gets to be a joke. There's no one naive enough to believe them, so why tack them on?"
Lee, who speaks in soft, almost whispered tones, flatly disagrees.
"Everybody cares about how they're portrayed in the media, so I don't think that," he says. "Black people are upset about the way they've been portrayed in films ever since 'Birth of a Nation,' because it's from TV and movies that a lot of white Americans get their opinions on blacks, especially ones that don't live anywhere near black people."
Then Lee drops a bombshell: He announces that he has read the script for the controversial movie and says it contains a significantly different conclusion than Wolfe's original novel.
In the book, a Wall Street bond trader accidentally runs over a black teen-ager. The resulting trial and racial recriminations become a media circus, while the teen-age victim lapses into a coma and dies.
"But not in this script," says Lee, turning to Wolfe. "In the last image in the movie now, (the teen-ager) looks around, nobody's looking, he takes the tubes out of his nose and stuff and just runs smiling out of the hospital. I wanted to ask you how you feel about that."
Wolfe looks concerned and says, "That's news to me, maybe I better read the script. If the idea is that's just been a shuck and he's been pretending, that would be a pretty startling change.
"I haven't seen the script," he explains, and writing his own screenplay "seems to me a waste of time . . . I'd rather put that energy into another book."
Lee persists, asking, "You write a great book, you don't care what they do with it? Take the money and just say, 'Go on, do with it what you want?' "
(Asked for a reaction, a Warner Bros. spokesman says the company does not comment on the content of films during production.)
Wolfe, in turn, says he likes Lee's work, but then criticizes the endings of Lee's two most recent films, "Do the Right Thing" and "School Daze," a satiric look at black college life. In both cases, the author suggests, Lee has tacked on controversial but unnecessary messages at the end.
The filmmaker is not impressed, especially when Wolfe suggests that the climax of "Do the Right Thing" is ambiguous. In the last scene, Mookie, a character played by Lee, hurls a trash can through the window of a pizzeria where he works, setting off a riot. Moments before, police officers have killed a black man who entered the pizzeria and refused to turn down the volume on his boom box.
Wolfe suggests that Mookie is angered by the amorous looks exchanged between his sister, Jade, and Sal, the white owner of the pizza shop. But Lee curtly disagrees with that interpretation, saying the final scene was prompted by black anger over white racism and brutality.
Both men agree, however, that it is important for American artists to address racism head-on. Wolfe suggests that some readers were disturbed by his book simply because he told the truth about black-white relations.
"There is an etiquette about race relations, and that etiquette says it's OK to bring the subject up, it's OK to present racial friction as long as at the end some enlightening character rises up and shows everyone the error of his or her ways. And life isn't like that."
Lee concurs, noting that if he had wanted to portray a rosy picture of race relations, he would have had Sal and Mookie singing "We Are the World" at the end of his film.
"The view would have been exactly like 'Driving Miss Daisy,' (which won the Academy Award for best picture this year)" he says.