Fight The Power: Spike Lee’s Impact On Black Cinema
Throughout the evolution of cinema, the characterisation of black people in film have been demonstrated as well as questioned by the viewing public. Since D.W Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation in 1915 (CLICK HERE TO WATCH THE FILM), the black racial demographic were depicted as being aggressive, irrational and logically ignorant in the eyes of the racist white audiences. From that point onwards, black filmmakers wanted to express themselves, trying to shed the terrible image originally pressed upon them by white directors, ‘focusing on the ways they engage race, racism, the American Dream, state violence, cultural commodification and difference’.1 It began with the segregated cinemas, where solely white people could attend to watch mainstream film productions, leaving the black community to create its own film industry. These films displayed African-Americans as hero figures, femme fatales and other range of characters that would originally be played by white actors. This didn’t help drastically change the restructuring issues of race in Hollywood. In fact, the separate film companies helped make the divide bigger, and create a branching of different genres and racial archetypes such as those played by the noble self-sacrificial Paul Robeson and later, the sympathetically heroic but desexualised Sidney Poitier.
It wasn’t until in the late 1960’s where a huge racial revolution occurred in the United States, with the black community revolting and protesting in favour of issues on racial equality and the banning of segregation. This political movement lead to the rise of the black exploitation film, showing black rebellious men violently fighting against the white social powers, ‘falling deeper into despair and doing little or nothing to change their predicament’.2 They would also be exploring sexual excitements, illegal drug use and living the dangerous but glamorous-looking ghetto lifestyle. The novelty and political agenda of these films soon wore off, leaving nothing but another list of racial black stereotypes that still linger on today. However, it was from these grind-house classics like Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song that a new wave of black filmmakers were born, inspired to look at the modern black culture as well as try to eliminate the formulaic view that Hollywood has presented to the public.
One of the most influential racial film directors is Spike Lee. The movies written or directed by him, whether subtly or bluntly, all contain issues on racial indifferences and its ever lasting battle for equal supremacy. It becomes clear that he uses his own experiences of living in an integrated neighbourhood in New York to help express the hidden, if not conflicting, messages on the ideals of racism ‘between African Americans and their non-black New York City neighbours.’3 Unlike most films that discuss the black race solely in the poor and deprived areas, Spike Lee looks at a vast range of social classes and demonstrating that ethnic problems do not just revolve around the slums but in everyday middle-class society. These uses of both blatant and understated social remarks about the representation of race are seen in the 1991 movie Jungle Fever and his 1989 masterpiece Do the Right Thing.
The main issue that can be found in many of Spike Lee’s films is the idea of racial identity and the fear they have of losing it by the invasion of affecting social or political troubles. It is this kind of pressure in losing their individuality that can create tension in between the racial camps, causing drama and chaos. In Do the Right Thing, it can be clearly represented through Big Sal’s Famous Pizzeria and its Wall of Fame. To the Italian Americans, the Wall of Fame is a personal way of displaying their own heritage, filled with the idols and proud representatives of their racial culture. It is compromised by the black neighbourhood the restaurant is placed in. The character nicknamed Buggin’ Out because of his exaggerated tendencies to take things out of proportions, complains to Big Sal about the lack of Negro representation. He is suggesting that since the business is placed in a largely African American community, there should be ‘photographs of black personalities alongside the images of Italian American celebrities that adorn the pizzeria’s wall’.4 Big Sal, trying to protect his own identity denies this offer, which leads to a campaign against the business to force it to recognise the black society and its influences. ‘Racism is left as accident and misunderstanding.’5
This is a reflection of Spike Lee’s own opinions on businesses, suggesting that the black orientated areas should contain businesses of any sort to be run by African Americans, presenting itself with the relevant identity of the neighbourhood. However, it is this view that leads to a violent struggle that destroys the rather peaceful relationship between them, only to be oddly resolve with the destruction of the restaurant, started by the lead character Mookie, played by Spike Lee himself, chucking a garbage can through the pizzeria’s window. It has been argued that Mookie’s actions were oddly saving Big Sal and his family from the serious racial attack, even though his financial life is now in ruin. ‘If Mookie has truly done the ‘right thing,’ then the movie seems to suggest that a violently aggressive Black energy of revolt can lead to Black economic empowerment.’6
The identity crisis found in Jungle Fever is investigated through the means of sexual relationships. What makes this film interesting is the black lead male is given the opportunity to become a sexual being. Before the 1960’s, many of the black characters were forced to be drastically desexualised as a means of appearing less threatening in comparison to the white males. This wasn’t just a racial superiority issue, but was also a symbolic sign about the fear of losing the white identity to the intensely more attractive black sexuality that seemed as very taboo yet intriguing. Wesley Snipes’ character Flipper is positioned as having sex appeal to not just the African American demographic but as well to the white audience, representing ‘black masculinity not in terms of violence or hyper sexuality, but conscience, passion, and community.’7 This is shown through the interracial relationship he has with his Italian American secretary, Angie played by Annabella Sciorra. But not matter how alluring Wesley Snipes’ character may be, there is still the philosophy of each individual’s racial heritage taking dominance, pressurising this feeling of personal identity over the relationship between him and his white lover. During their first sexual encounter, Spike Lee ingeniously changes the colours of the clothes they are wearing to suggest to the audience symbolically that sexual tension or emotional connection between two people shouldn’t be stopped or avoided just because of colour. Both characters, regardless of their racial appearance, are feeling the same emotional connection, exploring their loving and sexual ecstasy.
Once everybody discovers about their unorthodox endeavours, the community of both the Italian Americans and the African Americans crumble and become extremely enraged. Spike Lee has helped depict this incredible cultural divide and purity through the disconnected and yet ethnic dwellings that both Flipper and Angie live in. Flipper and the majority of the black community reside in Harlem, while Angie and the passionate Italian American population inhabit Bentonhurst. This separation is a fine demonstration of each culture protecting their personal identity from that of outside forces, fearing of anything corrupting their pure individuality. Both parties are scared of a possible equal union between these two races, but always lead to an in-depth discussion about the morals between interracial equality. Like the Italian American men in the coffee shop and the African American women in the lounge discuss, it isn’t just about colour but it is a representation of how ‘the light-skinned/dark-skinned conflict eschews actual class analysis.’8 Departing from your own kind is considered as a demotion in the social hierarchy, leaving the offspring of such a relationship to have an unclassified social class and a lack of a pure historical heritage and personality.
Spike Lee, even though he has lived a very middle-class life, has always used the ghetto lifestyle as a means of racial expression. From the many years that black characters have appeared on the big screen, typical stereotypes emerged from them, forever embedded into the minds of the white audience. Spike Lee uses these stereotypes of both black and white characters and animates them to certain extremes to help display clearly the racist issues and topics of social division. In Jungle Fever, this can be seen through the two brothers, Flipper and Gator played by Samuel L. Jackson. Flipper is a successful intelligent architect who, even though he isn’t given the opportunity to economically expand, is still well respected by his peers and can handle situation in a rather rational manner. He is the representation of the flourishing black business man acting in a more suburban white manner to earn the respect of his working colleagues. Gator, however, is the total opposite, living life on the streets as a crack addict, taking any means necessary to get money to feed his hunger. He is an illustration of the stereotypical ghetto black male who is living the dangerous urban lifestyle of sex, drugs and violence made famous by the blaxplotation films of the early seventies.
This is tackled differently in Do the Right Thing in which the characters are made in a cartoon-like caricature of these Negro stereotypes so as not to be seen as too seriously. Characters like Radio Raheem, Buggin’Out and Da Mayor are all shown in a colourful, vibrant light, aimed sometimes for its comical value. This is Spike Lee’s way of defending the black identity, saying that these stereotypes are the reasons why the African American legacy is being threaten and so shouldn’t be taken as a literal representation of all black culture, breaking ‘the silence of ‘Black respectability’ and refusing to perpetuate stereotypes that maintain the White status quo.’9
Spike Lee’s impact on cinema was one that help lead the way for other ethnic filmmakers help express themselves about their own traditions, saying that the liberation of free speech is one that can be used to present an honourable identity to a whole nation of people, ‘to analyse the causes of the racism they depict’10 in their films. Through his movies like Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever, he was able to breakdown the images other black racial films presented as the typical African American. No longer is he solely a humble servant, a self-sacrificial friend of white society or a hyper sexual predator indulging in the underground criminal culture, but can also been seen as a regular human being equal to that of his other white or other ethnic counterparts.
‘Birth of a Nation’, 1915, D. W Griffith
‘Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song’, 1971, Marvin Van Peebles
‘Do the Right Thing’, 1989, Spike Lee
‘Jungle Fever’, 1991, Spike Lee
Quote 1: ‘Screens Fade to Black: Contemporary African American Cinema’, 2006, David J. Leonard (Page 2)
Quote 2: A quotation from William Grant’s Essay ‘Reflecting the Times: Do the Right Thing Revisited’ found in ‘Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing’, 1997, edited by Mark A. Reid (Page 21)
Quote 3: ‘Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing’, 1997, edited by Mark A. Reid (Page 1)
Quote 4: ‘Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing’, 1997, edited by Mark A. Reid (Page 4)
Quote 5: A quotation from Amiri Baraka’s Essay ‘Spike Lee at the Movies’ found in ‘Black American Cinema’, 1993, edited by Manthia Diawara (Page 153)
Quote 6: A quotation from Houston A. Baker’s Essay ‘Spike Lee and the Commerce of Culture’ found in ‘Black American Cinema’, 1993, edited by Manthia Diawara (Page 173)
Quote 7: ‘Screens Fade to Black: Contemporary African American Cinema’, 2006, David J. Leonard (Page 113)
Quote 8: A quotation from Amiri Baraka’s Essay ‘Spike Lee at the Movies’ found in ‘Black American Cinema’, 1993, edited by Manthia Diawara (Page 148)
Quote 9: A quotation from Houston A. Baker’s Essay ‘Spike Lee and the Commerce of Culture’ found in ‘Black American Cinema’, 1993, edited by Manthia Diawara (Page 168)
Quote 10: ‘Hollywood Cinema: 2nd Edition’, 2003, Richard Maltby (Page 305)