“Is it simply that the hero must be white for a mainstream American audience to care for him, or for the mainstream critical establishment to value Lee’s work?”
Negative, a one-act play by Joyce Carol Oates, concerns two young women who meet on their first day at college. Mary, a naive scholarship student from Davenport, Iowa, is white, while her well-heeled, patronizing roommate, Veronica is black. As the author explains, in this contemporary comedy of manners, “racial stereotypes are reversed, as in a photograph negative.”1 Thus, although Veronica claims to support “egalitarianism,” she treats her provincial white roommate like a fascinating exotic, unable to conceal her sense of superiority. For instance, when she learns that Mary attended school in Davenport, Veronica blurts out: “Oh — there’s a school there?” Mary responds, “Sure. Davenport High School.” Here Veronica delivers the clincher: “Oh, I see! — Public school. You went to public school — of course.”2
First staged in 1995 at the Philadelphia Festival Theater for New Plays, Negative was clearly intended to appeal to a mainstream, predominantly white audience, by exposing the workings of prejudice all the better for that reversal; it is also a curiously Socratic technique, which requires the audience to reach their own conclusions.
Interestingly, Spike Lee made use of a similar racial-reversal technique in his 2002 film, 25th Hour; the social and cultural implications of this reversal are worth examining. Spike Lee has long been a controversial director, whose prolific film output has largely addressed urban African-American life. 25th Hour was, therefore, notable as Lee’s first film to focus on a white protagonist and to be set in a predominantly white environment; only once before had Lee deviated from his focus on African-American protagonists and settings, and, even then, Summer of Sam (1999) had a specific, ethnically-defined setting, namely an Italian-American New York neighborhood in the 1970s. Produced by Disney with a cast that included A-list, leading actor Edward Norton (above), 25th Hour clearly represented a departure for Lee as the foremost African-American filmmaker.
25th Hour presents the last day of freedom for Monty Brogan, a young, white, middle-class man — out on bail — who must appear before the authorities the following morning to commence a seven-year prison term for dealing drugs. He spends these last hours with his father, his girlfriend, some criminal associates and two childhood friends; no less significantly, he walks his dog through the streets and parks of a city to which he is deeply — even sentimentally — attached, through, on occasion, this is manifested as violent rage.
In the bathroom of a bar, the words “Fuck you,” written on the mirror, trigger a stereotyped-laden diatribe against the different ethnic and racial groups, social classes and neighborhoods that make up New York City — everyone from “the panhandlers” and “squeegee men” in the streets to the “self-styled masters of the universe” on Wall Street, from black basketball players to Korean grocers. The list also includes corrupt policemen, pedophilic priests, extroverted homosexuals, Russian gangsters, Italians in warm-up suits, “black-hatted” Hasidic Jews, Puerto Ricans, pampered upper-class housewives, Muslim fundamentalists, and even Monty’s friends and family. Indeed, before he turns, angst-ridden, against himself — “Montgomery Brogan,” who “had it all” and has “thrown it away” — Monty makes a comprehensive geographical reference to the length and breadth of the City’s five boroughs — “from the projects in the Bronx to the lofts in SoHo, from the tenements in Alphabet City to the brownstones in Park Slope, to the split-levels in Staten Island” — all of which he hopes will “burn,” so that “the waters rise and submerge this whole rat-infested place.” Yet, in its attention to detail, and its very comprehensiveness, this tirade amounts to a figurative beating of the bounds, the traditional Anglo-Saxon custom whereby young boys were taken to the limits of local communal land to be reminded — often through ritualized violence — of what belonged to the village and what to outsiders. For, alongside the pain and rage felt by Lee’s protagonist, there is clearly a deep attachment, if not love, for the place, an attachment that motivates his outburst.3
Social tensions, along with the potential for violence at the heart of urban America, have, of course, long been the leading theme of Spike Lee’s films. Interestingly, the main action of Summer of Sam is framed by a variation on the traditional dramatic chorus, in the form of New York writer Jimmy Breslin’s riff on “the naked city” in the year 1977, namely, a refrain that, as a New Yorker, he must “love and hate” his city, “both equally.” Consequently, such division — paradoxically normalized as a condition of modern angst — could be understood as proper to Lee’s vision of the modern American psyche.
Another feature of 25th Hour destined to spark controversy was Lee’s integration of Ground Zero into the film, which was produced in time for release at the end of 2002. Thus, in contrast to other filmmakers and studios, which deleted footage of the World Trade Center from films released in the wake of the attack — out of supposed deference to public sensibilities — Lee did the opposite. Firstly, he filmed the Ground Zero beams of light for use in the opening credit sequence, adding poignancy to the film’s elegiac musical score. Later, a key scene in which Monty’s fate is discussed by his two childhood friends — one of them a Wall Street stockbroker — includes views of the devastated space where the Twin Towers had stood.
One reviewer claimed to “remain reassuringly uncomfortable” about the film’s provocative “use of post-11 September imagery,” unsure of whether to see it as “bravely symbolic or mildly opportunistic.”4 However, Lee’s possible opportunism seems rather trivial alongside the ritualized, political exploitation and appropriation of 9/11 over the last few years. The implications of such cultural appropriation have been discussed by Devin Zuber in a recent article in the American Quarterly, “Flânerie at Ground Zero,” which includes discussion of the political use of the site/sight of those events; for instance, the decision to make the Freedom Tower “exactly 1776 feet high,” as a means of dignifying the ongoing “War on Terror” through symbolic association with “the most patriotic war in American history”; no less significant than the fact that the building’s “cornerstone ceremony was conveniently sped up to occur on the July 4th preceding the 2004 Republican National Convention.”5 Next to this, the question of Lee’s putative audaciousness seems rather insignificant.
Despite a commitment to race-related issues, which has earned him a reputation for being somewhat doctrinaire in his approach to film narrative, Lee is not without his detractors within the African-American community. Amiri Baraka, for instance, has dubbed Lee “the quintessential buppie, almost the spirit of the young, upwardly mobile, Black, petit bourgeois professional.”6 Nevertheless, most criticism of Lee takes the form of claims that his work is divisive, or lacking in wide appeal — that it is largely for, or about, black life — or, beyond this, that, as a committed minority voice, he privileges content above form, lecturing his audience to the point of sacrificing the artistic integrity of his work.7
Lee’s committed focus on issues of race, even in this white movie, can be further appreciated through comparison of 25th Hour and the novel on which it was based. Some of the details in the scene of Monty’s arrest for drug trafficking, for example, were present in David Benioff’s original novel.8 In both instances, the officer who arrests Monty makes a joke at his expense by heavy-handedly pretending to find the drugs concealed in Monty’s couch, for the amusement of his fellow officers.
However, there is a significant difference: in the novel, the four D.E.A. officers are described as “four men, all white.”9 In the film, by contrast, the men confronting the clean-cut, young white man — played by the charismatic Norton — are all black. The novel’s Agent Brzowski — a Polish-American, to go by the name — was replaced by an Agent Flood (above), played by actor Isaiah Whitlock Jr., a Lee stalwart whose trademark is his broad Southern pronunciation of the word “shit” as a tri-syllabic: “sheeeeeeeeyit!” In contrast to the white — implicitly middle-class — character, these black characters, therefore, stand symbolically for the historically provincial Southern blacks, later marginalized as the black community of the Northern, inner-city ghettos. By these means, Lee arguably exploited features of popular cultural forms of racial representation that could be traced at least as far back as the blaxploitation films of the 1970s — and revived in the ‘hood movies about gangstas that Lee reviles. The difference is that Lee appropriated these stereotypes for the purpose of an inversion of popular culture stereotypes about crime — particularly drug-related crime — and class and race.
It is also interesting to see how the studio, and the distributors of 25th Hour, went about promoting the film and the director behind it. The documentary included with the 25th Hour DVD is especially illuminating. Titled “Spike Lee’s 25th Hour: The Evolution of an American Filmmaker,” it provides an overview of Lee’s prolific career — 25th Hour being his “seventeenth theatrical film release in sixteen years” — and to demonstrate, as the narrator grandly states in the opening, Lee’s status as one of the nation’s “quintessential filmmakers with a uniquely American vision.”10 It is my contention, however, that it is this unique vision that was compromised, not so much by Lee’s directorial choices in the film, as by the spin associated with its marketing. Such compromising of a creative independent vision in the limited space allowed on the margins of the Hollywood megalith exposes the social and cultural di-vision in American life that has always been the focus of Lee’s filmmaking. After all, the documentary’s appeal to national recognition for Lee, based on patriotism and a notion of the American identity, was implicitly linked to the director’s most recent decision to depart from his own pattern in the previous sixteen films. For it is essentially the unusual choice of a predominantly white cast and central character that is praised in the documentary as the culmination of Lee’s artistic “evolution” as a director who is said to have “found a story that revisits old passions and explores new horizons.” We may well ask: “What new horizons?” Is it simply that the hero must be white for a mainstream American audience to care for him, or for the mainstream critical establishment to value Lee’s work?
In this respect, the documentary’s otherwise painstaking enumeration of Lee’s numerous films makes one glaring and very revealing omission: Clockers (1995), one of his most accomplished works, produced as a response to the plethora of black gangsta films that glamorized criminal life in the ‘hood. As critic Paula Massood observes: “One of Lee’s primary concerns was to differentiate Clockers from ‘hood’ films such as John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood (1991) and the Hughes Brothers’ Menace II Society (1993).”11 By contrast, Clockers explored the social and psychological context of drug-use and drug-related crime, such as the lack of opportunities for young people in places like the projects in Brooklyn. The young black protagonist, Strike, pressured by circumstances into the death-in-life of a small-time dealer, dreams of escaping the projects, but is caught, until the end of the film, between hardened criminals and the specter of incarceration, a threat manifested by frequent police raids into the neighborhood. In addition, the police officers depicted in these racially-defined incursions into a black territory are all white men, in stark contrast to the exclusively black men who arrest the protagonist in 25th Hour. This contrast clearly shows that Clockers is, in a sense, Lee’s original, of which 25th Hour is a Negative.
A reviewer in The Economist has suggested — perhaps with facetious ingenuousness — that “If Mr. Lee were a propagandist, telling Monty’s story would be a smart way to get white audiences to think about the laws that have filled America’s dangerous, overcrowded prisons with a disproportionately large number of non-violent drug offenders who are black”; the reviewer further adds that Lee is no “propagandist,” since even one of Monty’s friends is shown “angrily proclaiming that Monty, shortly to go to prison, ‘had it coming.'”12 However, as we saw above, Lee is a kind of “propagandist” — if that is what an artist with strongly-held views must be called today. In this respect, Lee’s own commentary, packaged with the film’s DVD, includes a key observation concerning the scene in which the D.E.A. officers taunt Monty about the Rockefeller Laws — the mandatory sentencing provision for drug dealing enacted in 1973 by then-New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller — that “historically” these laws had primarily affected the black community.13
Monty’s white identity is also highlighted through the decision to make the arresting officers black, and further emphasized — in a scene added in the film — when the same officers taunt him with the consequences of incarceration for someone like him — namely sexual victimization in the tough, minority-dominated prison environment. Therefore, the question is whether a mainstream audience will feel more sympathy if the dealer is a clean-cut representative of the white majority — just a “normal,” white young man who has made a mistake for which he is going to be cruelly punished. The film’s implicit indictment of modern society is that Lee had already told this tale before, in Clockers, which failed to garner the attention that 25th Hour managed.
Lee adamantly denies claims that he is in some way compromising his role as an independent filmmaker, and seemed incensed when asked whether he had “become more comfortable for the critical establishment” after “shift(ing) into ‘crossover’ films with white leads.” Insisting “there’s a lot of anger in 25th Hour,” he elaborates: “If we wanted to stay in that comfort zone, we wouldn’t have included the 9/11 references at all because Disney did not want us to do any of that stuff.”14
Perhaps in the context of the contemporary film industry — dominated, along with the bulk of the mass media, by huge corporations — it is a sign of Lee’s success that he can secure Disney’s support for his work, at all. In these terms, the promotional documentary mentioned above includes Martin Scorsese’s praise for Lee, whom he describes as “a unique voice that’s much needed in American cinema,” a comment followed by an observation by a clearly bemused Scorsese that one aspect of Lee’s success as an independent filmmaker is that he has always managed “to do it with Hollywood money — which is nice.”15
Anozie, Lorna (dir.), Spike Lee’s ’25th Hour': The Evolution of an American Filmmaker. Featured in25th Hour DVD, 2003.
Baraka, Amiri. “Spike Lee at the Movies.” In Manthia Diawara (ed.), Black American Cinema. AFI Film Readers. New York & London: Routledge, 1993: 145-53.
Benioff, David. The 25th Hour. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2000.
Bowles, Scott. “Head-On Spike Lee Says ‘Hour’ is at Hand,” USA Today, Dec. 20, 2002. Accessed March 17, 2007.
Clark, Mike. “Lee’s ‘Hour’ Could Use a Timekeeper,” USA Today, Dec. 18, 2002. Accessed March 17, 2007.
Hillier, Jim. The New Hollywood. New York: Continuum, 1992.
Johnson, Brian D. “Beauty Among the Ruins” (Review of 25th Hour), Maclean’s 116.3 (Jan. 20, 2003): 45.
Kermode, Mark and Lisa Allardice. “A Talent to Offend” (Review of 25th Hour), New Statesman 132; 4634 (April 21, 2003): 38-9.
Massood, Paula J. “The Quintessential New Yorker and Global Citizen: An Interview with Spike Lee,”Cineaste 28.3 (Summer 2003): 4-6.
— “Doyle’s Law: An Interview with David Benioff,” Cineaste 28.3 (Summer 2003): 8-10.
— “Which Way to the Promised Land?: Spike Lee’s Clockers and the Legacy of the African American City,” African American Review 35.2 (2001): 263-78.
“Monty’s Wake: A Spiky American Poet Sings for his Country” (Review of 25th Hour), Economist366; 8315 (March 15, 2003): 79.
Nugent, Benjamin. “Where’s the 9/11 Film?” Time 160:11 (Sept. 11, 2002): 19.
Oates, Joyce Carol. Negative. In: Marita Golden and Susan Richards Shreve (eds.), Skin Deep: Black Women & White Women Write About Race. New York: Nan A. Talese/ Doubleday, 1995: 60-86; orig. in The Ontario Review (1991).
Petrakis, John. “Last Night Out” (Review of 25th Hour), Christian Century 120.4 (Feb. 22, 2003). Accessed January 16, 2009.
Zuber, Devin. “Flânerie at Ground Zero: Aesthetic Countermemories in Lower Manhattan,” American Quarterly 58.2 (June 2006): 269-99.
- Joyce Carol Oates, Negative (1995), p. 60. [↩]
- Ibid, p. 64. [↩]
- In these terms, David Benioff — who adapted the screenplay from his own novel — reveals that when he “first wrote the novel . . . the title for that chapter was ‘Monty’s Valentine’,” since he “wanted to reflect that . . . for everything [Monty] does, he loves his city.” Quoted in: Massood, “Doyle’s Law: An Interview with David Benioff,” pp. 9-10. [↩]
- Kermode and Allardice, “A Talent to Offend,” p. 39. [↩]
- Zuber, “Flânerie at Ground Zero,” pp. 271, 291. [↩]
- Baraka, “Spike Lee at the Movies,” pp. 146-7. Teenaged documentary maker Matty Rich — “Straight Out of Brooklyn,” 1991 — labeled Lee “a phony . . . a middle-class, third-generation college boy.” Quoted in: Hillier, The New Hollywood, p. 150. [↩]
- In these terms, John Petrakis, in a review for Christian Century, argues that Lee’s “ambition has often proved to be his artistic undoing,” as “each film not only tells a racially charged story that (he hopes) teaches a moral lesson, but insists on driving home the points again and again.” Similarly, Mike Clark (USA Today) dismisses 25th Hour as “the latest movie to prove that . . . Spike Lee has to quit overstuffing his narratives.” [↩]
- Benioff, The 25th Hour. New York: Carroll & Graff, 2000. [↩]
- Ibid, p. 36. My emphasis. [↩]
- Anozie (Dir.), “Spike Lee’s 25th Hour: the Evolution of an American Filmmaker.” [↩]
- Massood, “Spike Lee’s Clockers and the Legacy of the African American City,” p. 263. [↩]
- “Monty’s Wake,” p. 79. [↩]
- Lee, voice-over commentary feature, 25th Hour DVD, 2003. [↩]
- Lee, quoted in: Massood, “The Quintessential New Yorker and Global Citizen,” p. 6. [↩]
- Martin Scorsese, interviewed in: Anozie (Dir.), “The Evolution of an American Filmmaker.” [↩]