President Clinton made a mistake two years ago when he tried to launch a dialogue on race. Instead of naming a commission to hold 15 months of hearings and then issue a ho-hum report, he should've called Spike Lee.
Lee provokes race talk, and he doesn't even have to make a movie about race to do it. Case in point: "Summer of Sam." His new film has a white cast and boasts three white co-writers. Race enters the picture in only the most tangential of ways. But people can't help seeing it in black and white.
"Race baiting," snipes Entertainment Weekly. "Race baiting," echoes the alternative weekly New Times. "It's a racist movie," says the cop who arrested the killer whose rampage frames the story. "A racist runt," snarls the father of one of the victims.
But Lee says they didn't see the movie he made. "It's absurd," he says, speaking by telephone from New York. "What they're writing is personal. They're not reviewing the film. . . . I stand behind my work, and I think it stands up to scrutiny.
"I just find that my films are a litmus test," he continues. "They all bring out people's prejudices and all that. . . . This country still has not dealt with race."
Lee's latest movie deals more broadly with the same themes as "Do the Right Thing," his 1989 movie about racial tensions in Brooklyn. Only "Summer of Sam" shows that Lee's true subject was, and is, not limited to race. It's intolerance. Both films are about the ways societies behave under pressure, how people make scapegoats of those who are different and how easy it is--given the right, or wrong, circumstances--for a community to explode.
Ironically, his movie is being attacked as an example of the very intolerance he's denouncing.
This time, instead of looking at a day in the life of a Brooklyn block broiling under the summer sun, as he did in "Do the Right Thing," Lee examines what happens to a different borough (the Bronx) during the superheated summer that Son of Sam killer David Berkowitz stalked the streets. By placing the story within a wider social context, Lee sacrifices the compression that gave the earlier film much of its unity and force. This makes for a messier movie, but it also is a more ambitious one. Disco, punk, '70s-style sexual freedom and the 1977 World Series all enter the story, which spills out of an Italian-American neighborhood. It's clear Lee is attempting nothing less than a snapshot of New York during that tumultuous decade.
But perhaps in part because two of his previous films depicted tensions between Italian and African Americans, some people have found it easy to believe that his chief aim here is to excoriate a white ethnic group. Ever since "Do the Right Thing," which some critics at the time said would spark race riots, the director has been a lightning rod for controversy. The way he candidly talks in interviews about everything from Hollywood racism to politics also ticks some people off. That image as the prototypal "angry black man" got cemented in 1992 when Esquire magazine published his photograph on the cover with the words: "Spike Lee Hates Your Cracker Ass."
That got a lot of people's attention. Lee was incensed, but the image stuck.
"I think in all honesty that a lot of reviewers, a lot of people, are trying to box me in," Lee said the other day in a conversation about what he sees as a double standard. "When I do black films or films with African American themes, they ask, 'When is he going to broaden himself?' " But now when he makes a movie without African Americans, Lee says, "All of a sudden all of the film critics are going to take up the mantle of racism in films. The rest of the year they don't give a [expletive] . . .
"I think this is aimed at undermining my credibility," Lee continues. "The way to disregard me as a filmmaker is to say that I'm a racist."
He argues that other directors can shoot the kind of scenes he gets criticized for and no one objects. One writer, for example, says that when an angry mob in "Summer of Sam" brandishes baseball bats (against other whites) Lee is evoking the infamous 1986 incident in which three black men were beaten by bat-wielding whites in the heavily Italian community of Howard Beach. One man was hit by a car while trying to escape and died. Lee runs down a list of films made by Italian American directors in which Italian characters beat people with bats--"The Untouchables," "Casino," "A Bronx Tale."
"So why," he asks, "if I use a baseball bat in 'Summer of Sam' I'm working [from] a fascination with Howard Beach?"
Similarly, he says, other directors aren't criticized when they make movies in which characters utter racist sentiments. Among examples, Lee mentions a disturbing scene in "Taxi Driver" in which a character played by the director Martin Scorsese profanely and graphically describes how he'd like to kill his wife for cheating on him with a black man.
"That's not only a character in a scene," Lee says. "That's the director himself appearing on screen and saying the words. Scorsese's a great friend of mine--I'm not trying to hang him. I'm just asking why people make exceptions for some directors. I get accused of race baiting. It's amazing!"
Outspoken Nature Draws Criticism
To be sure, Lee is one of those directors--Oliver Stone is another--whose outspokenness and willingness to address social issues in his work makes him a target of those who disagree with him. But what many people seem to have overlooked in Lee's case is that his films are never as didactic--or simplistic--as some of his public statements. Nor, for all of their in-your-face attitude, are they as cut and dried as they might appear from hearing a plot synopsis.
"Do the Right Thing," for example, doesn't demonize Italians. Of the three major Italian American characters, one is a virulent racist, another is sympathetically drawn and is decidedly non-racist and the third--Danny Aiello's proud pizzeria owner--is one of the movie's most likable characters right until the end, when he is provoked and explodes in a rampage of violence and racial invective. Is he a racist or an honorable man? Or is it possible to be both? The character, like the movie, is ambiguous, and our attitude toward him is necessarily complex.
In 1991 while publicizing "Jungle Fever," Lee's other movie that prominently features Italian Americans, the director said he believed that people of different races were drawn to each other romantically out of curiosity and because they'd bought into sexual stereotypes. But the movie doesn't illustrate this viewpoint. The cheating husband played by Wesley Snipes does say, more than once, that he was drawn to his white secretary out of curiosity. But Annabella Sciorra plays the secretary as a woman sincerely in love. And as a working-class Italian American who wants to break out of familiar but limiting Bensonhurst and is willing to face ostracism by her family, she emerged as one of the movie's most sympathetic characters. The same is true of her jilted ex-boyfriend, played touchingly by John Turturro.
Some of Lee's characters in "Summer of Sam," particularly the violent Italian thugs who hang out on street corners and who seem to despise anyone but their own, are overly broad caricatures, much like the narrow-minded corner boys who comprised the Greek chorus in "Jungle Fever." And, earlier than that, Lee drew flack for the way he portrayed Jewish businessmen in "Mo' Better Blues" in 1990. But Lee uses exaggerated African American caricatures, too. The black corner boys in "Do the Right Thing" are as stereotypical and as cartoonishly portrayed as anything in "Summer of Sam," as is an angry black rabble-rouser who helps instigate the climactic explosion of violence in the earlier film. Lee himself plays an irresponsible black man sponging off of his sister and who fathered a child out of wedlock in "Do the Right Thing."
Lee has always been an equal opportunity offender. (Think of the way he portrayed black college students as frivolous-minded and obsessed with skin color in his 1988 comedy-fantasy "School Daze.")
And yet people complain that he doesn't seem to like the whites who populate "Summer of Sam."
"If I were an Italian American and saw this movie, I would picket or boycott," Joe Coffey, the detective who arrested Berkowitz, said on a New York talk show. But Coffey and some of the parents of victims also have other problems with Lee, some of which suggest that they are primarily incensed that he didn't involve them in the production.
"He never discussed it with me," Coffey said on the television show. "He never discussed it with anyone."
Lee grows emotional discussing the perception that he and his movies are racist.
"I've actually had journalists ask me [with 'Summer of Sam'], 'What's it like to work with white people in your film?' " he says in amazement, running down the long list of white actors who have appeared in his movies, some comprising a virtual repertory company of actors he's worked with repeatedly. "It's like they've never seen any of my movies before."
Why, he asks, is he being accused of racism by critics who didn't take George Lucas to task for hidden racial stereotypes in "Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace"?
"And, I might get in trouble going there, but did anyone write a review on [the Disney film] 'Tarzan' asking where the black people were?" he asks. Disney also is distributing "Summer of Sam." "How can that story take place on the continent of Africa and there not be one African in it? That doesn't even register with people. But Spike Lee does a movie with Italian Americans and I'm a racist!"
Lee says he understands the feelings of the families of Berkowitz's victims, but he doesn't understand the extent of the media uproar and why he was branded insensitive even before he'd finished the film. "I'm not saying I'm above criticism. I'm just saying that fairness should come into play where films are concerned. What some people are writing has nothing to do with what's on the screen."
And he doesn't understand why, before the opening of his movie, when the New York tabloids were, in his words, "killing me," even the respected New York Times published a front page Sunday story proffering David Berkowitz's opinion about whether a movie should be made depicting his crimes.
"Did anyone go to Colin Ferguson [the black man who opened fire on a New York subway] and ask him how he felt about that cheesy TV movie about his rampage?" Lee asks. "Why 20 years later do you go to David Berkowitz?"
"This is not to say that any time I get bad reviews or they don't like my films I think it's racist. I'm not saying that at all. We all bring baggage to the theaters, whether we're critics or just average moviegoers. But I think it's unfair to the films, to the crew members and to the actors when people let their ideas about who I am or what they think is the racism of Spike Lee cloud their minds to where they don't see what's on the screen."