Subtlety has never been Spike Lee’s strong suit. In Bamboozled, the satirical film he wrote and directed in 2000, a frustrated black TV writer played by Damon Wayans comes up with a literal minstrel variety show to placate his “I’m blacker than you” white boss, who insists on show ideas that are less Huxtable and more hood. The show becomes an improbable ratings hit as its two black stars put on cork masks and shuck and jive in front of a live studio audience. Various untenable plot hijinks ensue and by film’s end, Jada Pinkett Smith, who plays Wayans’ secretary, is holding Wayans at gunpoint as a reel of classic blackface scenes play on a monitor. “I want you to look at this shit,” she says, pointing at the TV. “Look at what you contributed to.” The gun accidentally goes off and Wayans bleeds to death as the historic footage plays.
It’s a mystifying, polarizing film, described by some critics as a triumph and by others as a strange failure, a blip in Lee’s storied career. You can get a vague sense of what Lee is trying to do — attempting to point out the ways in which black entertainers have exploited the crassest, basest stereotypes about themselves to hack it in a media landscape that doesn’t see them as complex or humane. But the satire doesn’t quite land. It’s too forced, too stilted, too broad, too hectoring. Everything is pitched at an extreme frequency. (And what is going on with Damon Wayans’ bizarre, nasal mid-Atlantic accent?)
I couldn’t help but feel a similar cringe-inducing sense of déjà vu watching some scenes in Lee’s latest project, She’s Gotta Have It, the Netflix adaptation of Lee’s lovely, though flawed, 1986 film debut of the same name. The show revolves around a 27-year-old painter named Nola Darling who struggles to make rent in gentrifying Fort Greene, Brooklyn, while juggling four lovers — three men and one woman. While there are moments that are beautiful and touching, the show is laden with heavy-handed satirical plotlines and out-of-left-field explanations of the dozens, say, or why people shouldn’t use the n-word (a debate Lee keeps reviving and needs to let die). In one particularly egregious plotline, one of Nola’s friends, a waitress at a strip club, gets butt injections that burst when she falls on her ass during a strip number (seriously). She winds up in the hospital with an infection.
That lack of subtlety is part of a larger problem with Lee’s later work and the TV shows that have followed in his overbearing footsteps, like Dear White People, another movie turned Netflix show, created by Justin Simien, which wears its Spike Lee influence proudly. Both shows raise a larger question about the role of such overly didactic art in 2017. (On its worst days, even Black-ish can feel like an after-school special). In 2017, as television is finally beginning to showcase a multiplicity of black voices, who are these lectures for?
In deference to Lee’s on-the-nose spirit, I’ll quote James Baldwin, who wrote in his essay about Uncle Tom’s Cabin and other protest novels like it, “It is indeed considered the sign of a frivolity so intense as to approach decadence to suggest that these books are both badly written and wildly improbable.” And yet he insists that such books, which are really “pamphlets,” fail as novels. The business of the novelist, he contends, is the pursuit of truth defined as “a devotion to the human being, his freedom and fulfillment; freedom which cannot be legislated, fulfillment which cannot be charted.” Such truth is inherently complex; human beings are messy and complicated; they do not neatly fold themselves into categories of good and evil.
I would expand Baldwin’s notion to other art forms besides novels, such as film and television. Good art is not rote or predictable. It is nuanced.
In Spike Lee’s best work, this complexity comes to the forefront. Crooklyn is as much a political film as Do the Right Thing, both excellent movies, largely in part because of who the film centers on — a regular 9-year-old black girl. Her struggles are quotidian and yet feel novel because we still so rarely see black working-class families onscreen, struggling to make ends meet, subject to ordinary tragedies. Hell, even Alfre Woodard’s heavily beaded hairstyle is more of an effective commentary on the dreary "weave versus natural hair” debate than the one She’s Gotta Have It reignites.
By contrast, in Netflix’s She’s Gotta Have It, all complexity goes out the window. Villains are cookie-cutter. A white brownstone owner who calls the cops on a beloved neighborhood homeless veteran is so wholly without character development she might as well be called Whitey McCracker-Gentrifier. A buffoonish white street artist who speaks in black vernacular and rocks a gold grill is so exaggerated that any effective points Lee might be trying to make about the co-optation of black art forms by white people is lost under the cartoon exterior.
And from a labored Black Lives Matter reference in the first episode to cumbersome diatribes about black female empowerment and the problems with failing public schools, the show’s black characters equally lack nuance. Satire of Bamboozled proportions also appears in the form of a fictional reality game show called She Ass’d For It, in which contestants vie for a new ass. It’s just so broad, so censorious. It’s maddening.
Dear White People, which debuted earlier this year, struggled with similar issues, attempting to do too much with its characters, tying in police brutality and colorism with haranguing monologues about why Tyler Perry is bad and why white people shouldn’t ask ethnically ambiguous people “what they are.” There’s often an underlying smugness to such work and a lingering unanswered question: Who is the intended audience for these sermons? The black people watching presumably know this stuff already. Are we supposed to laugh along in agreement? It feels like there’s a fantasy viewer Lee et al. are pandering to, an imaginary white person who wants an inside scoop on black life and assumes that such shows will provide an entryway. Are these the white people Dear White People is supposed to address?
To some extent this all boils down to a matter of taste. I prefer my history lessons in documentary form — a medium, incidentally, that Lee excels in. But I tend to chafe at anything that has an overt message, as overcompensation for an adolescence ensconced in conservative Christian media, in which every piece of art was judged solely on the basis of whether it was edifying to God.
And the desperate need Lee has to show how things are for black people writ large seems like a duty born out of the scarcity model. After all, for many years Spike Lee was the only black director most white people could readily name. He was the only black director getting nominated for Oscars. What pressures, both internal and external, did he feel to Get It Right and Explain It All to white folks, since they appeared to — if sometimes grudgingly — listen to what he had to say?
Slowly and surely, however, times are changing. Though they can disappear at a moment’s notice, there are currently more varied portrayals of black life in the movies and (especially) on TV than ever before, from the gaudy melodrama of Empire to the bubblegum frenetics of Chewing Gum. And while white people are paying attention — otherwise these shows wouldn’t get made — gratifying white audiences often seems beside the point.
I’m reminded of Danzy Senna’s excellent novel New People, which, while set in 1990s Brooklyn, expertly pokes fun at the self-seriousness that often accompanies “woke black people” today. For Senna, New Yorker staffer Doreen St. Félix writes, “blackness is not hallowed.” For Spike Lee, however, blackness still is. In his later work especially, his love is reverent and wholly self-serious. It’s the reason I will always love him, but it’s also why I sometimes find his work infuriating.
After binge-watching the new version of She’s Gotta Have It (because, cringe-inducing didacticism aside, the opening credits are gorgeous and I will watch anything with pretty black people filmed in Brooklyn), I revisited the original movie. While there are some things about it that don’t necessarily translate to our day and age (at the top of the list is a rape scene that Spike Lee has publicly disavowed), it’s still such a lovely, winsome film, awash in quiet cinematic moments: a close-up of a belly, shot in sumptuous black and white as it convulses in laughter; a burst of color as two members of the Alvin Ailey company dance to “Nola,” the exquisite original song composed by Spike Lee’s father, Bill Lee, a respected jazz composer in his own right.
And then there’s a scene that I love in its utter ordinariness. Mars Blackmon, one of Nola’s paramours (played by Lee), asks if she can grease his hair. He sits between Nola’s thighs as she takes a comb and rubs oil into his scalp. It’s a tender moment. I imagine what it would have been like to watch that scene in a movie theater in 1986, the same year that Hannah and Her Sisters, Top Gun, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off were released. I think about how quiet and radical it must have been to see that. And how so much has changed. ●