Friday, April 13, 2007


All of the news around Don Imus and the remarks he made has me thinking about race in film. Race, which I feel is the single most important issue in American politics, defines America, so it should be no surprise that the same issues that exist in the republic as a whole, exist in the film business.

Enter, Spike Lee. His 1986 film She’s Gotta Have It is a landmark in 1980s American cinema. While an entertaining film, it is flawed. What makes it noteworthy is that the film was made, distributed and seen by audiences in the first place. Consider this, with She's Gotta Have It for the first time in a decade American audiences saw black people on the screen kissing. I cannot imagine what it is like to go to the movies and not see people that look like me on the screen, but that was the reality for African-Americans pre-Spike. Name a mainstream American film prior to 1986 where there were positive black role models or ordinary, comical families? Lots of thugs, pimps, “ho’s” and second bananas but not many doctors, lawyers, mothers and fathers.

Cut to: 1989 and Spike’s film Do the Right Thing. It’s about black and whites, living together, patronizing the same places, yet not knowing each other. It’s funny, it’s scary, it’s great, yet the Best Picture Oscar that year went to Driving Miss Daisy, a film with a different take on race.

So, you don’t like those films, how about these. Malcolm X. Warner Brothers didn’t give Spike a big enough budget so he hit up his friends Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby and Michael Jordan to get completion funds. Would Warners have done that to Clint Eastwood?

Is there a better film about the Birmingham, AL church bombings than Four Little Girls? Is there a better film about post 9-11 New York than the 25th Hour? How about Hurricane Katrina and When the Levees Broke?

Name a popular filmmaker who has done more to shed light on important issues in this country than Spike Lee? Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg, Demme? The only person I can think of is Ken Burns and his trilogy of films about race in America- The Civil War, Baseball and Jazz,

If the African-American experience is really the American Experience, then Spike Lee’s films are important to our cultural understanding. We might not like him or his films, but we need Spike Lee and his films.


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