Thursday, October 27, 2016

Goodbye, Vine (a eulogy for an app in 6 paragraphs)

Goodbye, Vine. It was short run but that seems appropriate. It may make us uncomfortable but the apps in our phones are shaping us in a profound way. They're shaping how we think, what we think about and the way we see the world. This is neither good nor bad, it just is. It's been barely 4 years since the app was released but it has had tremendous impact even as it clearly spent the second half of that life span in decline. 

One of the things that marks digital filmmaking is the lifting of restrictions in shot duration. In the analog days you knew a take had to end sooner than later because eventually the magazine would run out of film (the time varied depending on the format). Beyond that film was frankly too expensive to regularly push the length of a shot to the limit. But along came digital video and suddenly the limits were gone. You could film an entire feature in one take digitally (from Sokurov's 2002 Russian Ark to last year's Victoria from Germany).

But Vine put a strict limit on you. Six seconds. Perfect for an attention deficit afflicted populace to be sure but also an incredible challenge for the Vinemaker. Many rose to the challenge and mastered the medium. Of the many "Vine stars", a phrase both whimsical and ominous, most achieved that notoriety through comedy. Six seconds is also roughly the time span of our most elementary jokes and these Vinemakers understood that deeply. Moreover the looping of these videos became a formal restriction that many turned into a virtue. How many times was the one-two punch of an abrupt end smashing into the beginning what made a Vine funny?

Of course it ain't a successful app unless porn becomes an issue. Unbeknownst to many, Vine was quickly awash in DIY pornography. Much of that "adult" content was posted by the young, including minors, who have been so shaped by the omnipresence of Internet porn they leaped into this breach with barely a thought. Eventually Vine (which was purchased by Twitter- another app with a decidedly laissez-faire attitude to porn- before it was launched not dissimilar to Facebook's purchase of Vine's rival Instagram) had to clean up its act and purge the elicit material. Or at least most of it. But what will become of all this homegrown smut let loose in cyberspace? It will no doubt live on past the app itself. 

Beyond porn and comedy, Vine also became a tool for social justice. In Hong Kong, America, or anyplace where the people stood up against the powers that be, Vine was there too. Black Lives Matter luminary Deray McKesson spoke this morning on how Vine's limitations forced the Vinemaker to be very judicious with what they shot so that the essential moment of a protest would be captured. I'm sure that trained the protestors how to keep focused and be concise. Valuable lessons. 

But when I look at my own Vine account, I see something else. I see my son (the one who doesn't mind being filmed). And as I scroll down my Vines it becomes a Benjamin Button movie: he ages backwards from the little boy I see now to a toddler to a baby taking his first steps. I get emotional looking at my Vine account and I cannot say that about any of my other social media accounts on other platforms. More than the other apps Vine was about time: it froze one moment into eternity, erased long intervals, and it allowed you to travel back to things like a living digital memory. It was serious. It was funny. It was pervy. It was us. Goodbye, Vine.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Towards a New Black Masculinity: Obama, Luke Cage, Nate Parker and Chiron.

The joke has returned. I’m speaking specifically of the Obama Joke. If you watch Black standup comedy you probably know what I’m getting at. Though it may not get the respect it deserves, standup is always a fascinating peek into a group’s collective unconscious. At its best, it verbalizes unspoken knowledge a culture carries silently in its gut. And in November 2008, once the shock of Obama’s election had been processed into acceptance that history had been forever altered before our eyes, you heard a certain joke all the time. 

It went like this: now that Obama had been elected, we would soon see “the Real Obama”, the authentic Black man that the junior senator from Illinois had been skillfully hiding from (white) America on his year long odyssey to the Oval Office. This was not the stuff of great comedy. It was low-hanging fruit. It was instantly hacky. But more and more comics took their turn at this particular piƱata as November became December and the inauguration approached. 

I can’t remember specific jokes but they ran along the lines that his speech and mien would become more recognizably Black now that he’d secured power. It was as if Obama’s election was such a seismic event the first response was to cast Obama in the part of the wiley trickster who had put one over on America. It was an understandable reaction. And yet it is a little unsettling when we view these jokes as a foreshadow of the far more sinister birtherism to come. In other words, some Black people questioned the veracity of Obama’s identity first, then a type of white person did it too in a far less playful manner. But in the end these were both flawed ways to reckon with this man who had changed history.

President Obama has always been viewed as some sort of Trojan Horse. But now, with less than 100 days left in his presidency, none of that came to pass. The Obama that ran for office, the Obama that wrote two beautifully written books, the Obama that made people believe in hope again, was the Obama we got. 

But just as birtherism has proved impossible to kill, the Obama Joke too has come back to life. In Cedric the Entertainer’s new Netflix special Live from the Ville he makes jokes about Obama quitting “like that Black lady on the news” after dealing with Republican obstruction for years. Cedric dives deep back to that 2008 bit saying Obama “won’t put on a suit on that last day, he gon’ walk to that helicopter in pair of Jordan flip flops…a wave cap on”. The Entertainer goes on to acknowledge that Obama’s near-Vulcan demeanor enabled him to succeed at such a public, high pressure job (and separates him from African-Americans of a more choleric disposition) but then points out when Obama's patience is short “every now and then that Negro shows up and we see it first.” He wraps up the bit by likening Obama to a thug (citing Obama’s kill list as president) despite his calm manner.

There is a lot to parse out about the Obama presidency but his impact on Black masculinity is fascinating. Blacks and whites alike are still recalibrating what a powerful Black man looks and sounds like and some old ideas die hard. This presidency has been transformational and the final year of it has been a tumultuous one. 

2016 has taken so much from us all. But perhaps we can view the year in a new way. Rather than looking at it as a year of loss and collapse, it might be better to view it as one of transformation and a prelude to rebirth. As the year draws to a close, this is what seems to be unfolding. And no aspect of this is more clear than the way 2016 has affected our ideas about Black masculinity. 

At the beginning of this month, something else collapsed: Netflix. The streaming service was literally crashed on the first of October. The cause was clear: Luke Cage had come to Netflix. The third of their original series based on Marvel Comics properties, Luke Cage focuses on one of Marvel’s singular creations. Created in 1972 by Archie Goodwin, John Romita, Sr., and George Tuska, Luke Cage was Marvel’s transparent bid to capitalize on the Blaxploitation movement of American film. Cage was a Black hero but he was not Marvel’s first. That distinction belongs to Black Panther, who turned 50 this year (debuting three months before Bobby Seale and Huey Newton created the Black Panther Party). In 1969 came Marvel’s first Black American hero, Falcon. 

But Cage was a significant break from what had come before. He was not an aristocrat from an exotic land, nor was he a social worker from the Black middle class (this was Falcon’s original origin before later being retconned). Cage was an ex-convict, given powers by an experiment gone awry in a hellish prison. It is important to note that Cage was innocent of the crime that sent him to prison, but he was a Harlem gang member who had committed crimes in the past. 

A word about those powers: Luke Cage undergoes a painful transformation that makes his skin and bones virtually unbreakable and grants him super-strength (his might is dwarfed by the physical strength of Iron Man or Thor, but still far stronger than a normal human being). Luke Cage becomes bulletproof. It should be noted that neither Black Panther nor Falcon had been endowed with super powers. The former, like Captain America, was at the peak of human strength and speed but not superhuman. And aside from a connection to his falcon Redwing, the Falcon had no powers at all (his flying rig was originally created in Wakanda, the technological titan ruled by Black Panther).

The idea of a bulletproof Black man in comics obviously came directly from the violence directed at Black bodies in the 1960s and early 1970s. It is uncanny that Cage finally makes it to our screens after decades of failed attempts at a time where again the violent murders of Black men are a weekly part of our news. But the creators of Luke Cage did one more thing to distinguish him from other Black heroes: they made him decidedly working class and fairly apolitical. Cage was a “hero for hire”. This put him squarely in the Blaxploitation tradition which in turn had been influenced by American hard-boiled detective fiction. Luke Cage didn’t even bother with a nom de guerre like Falcon and Black Panther. He was simply Luke Cage (though that name was an alias) and he used his powers to get paid, not out of altruism. 

For these three reasons, Cage occupies a special place in the hearts of Black comic book nerds, especially men. The reaction I get when I wear my Luke Cage t-shirt from Black men is pretty striking. My Black Panther t-shirt does not elicit the same response. Cage is a Black everyman and has become a totem of Black masculinity like no other character in comics. His origin smacks of Malcolm X but rather than set out to change the world after his jailhouse transmutation, Cage sets out to survive in a cruel and harsh world and that struggle connected with his readers. 

As the 70s progressed Cage became Power Man and was a given a partner, a hero similarly created to capitalize on another genre of film popular in the early 70s with African-Americans. But his mission stayed the same. “Hero for Hire” became plural but Cage never became a corny do-gooder. 

His signature yellow disco shirt, tiara and hot pants hung on into the 1980s until Cage was given a new look. His head was now shaved, the disco shirt became a t-shirt and only his heavy metallic gauntlets survived. He now had a look that fit his workingman persona. This is the look Mike Colter’s portrayal of Cage in the Netflix series is based on. 

Colter’s Cage first appeared a year ago in Jessica Jones as a supporting character and love interest for the similarly powered titular heroine. One oft-repeated line is that the Cage featured in Jessica Jones is superior to the Cage featured in his own series. I don’t agree but I get where that comes from. The Cage in Jessica Jones is more in line with the comic books. He’s an everyman who rejects costumed adventuring as foolishness (even though he lives in a city saved by such action). But when Cheo Hodari Coker (showrunner for Luke Cage) takes over the character from Jessica Jones showrunner Melissa Rosenberg, Cage does shift a bit. 

In Luke Cage, he has fled Hell’s Kitchen after the events in Jessica Jones and gone uptown to Harlem. The show makes some changes to the character’s established origin. He is no longer a Harlem native. He is an avid student of Black culture and history. And while he is still an ex-convict he is also now an ex-cop instead of an ex-gang member. That last one is big. It takes away some of Luke Cage’s street cred and makes him a figure of the establishment similar to Black Panther and Falcon, albeit a fallen one.

I think the possible reasons why might have something to do with Coker’s approach to the character. Luke Cage features a postlapsarian view of Black culture. While the show lovingly showcases Harlem and its history, it also takes the position that for all the gloriousness of Black culture in America, we fell from grace. The drug epidemic and attendant nihilism of the 1980s have left scars on us and the show deals with that. 

And though Hip Hop is central to Luke Cage he is not presented as blinged out and street as some of his more recent incarnations. Instead he’s old school and timeless; a man of the moment who is shaped profoundly by the past. In Coker’s hands, Cage becomes a metaphor for Black people as a whole striving to use awesome power in a positive way so that we can live up to the expectations of the giants who paved the way for us. 

Some read this as “respectability politics”. Luke’s refusal to swear or use the “N-word” (in a format where that is a possibility) clashes with the edgy Cage of our youth. But what is the point of a hero who doesn’t in some ways inspire fans to be their best selves? Coker has refashioned Cage for the Obama-era without violating the character’s core. And he also gives us a Luke Cage who values women not just as objects of desire but also as allies. This Luke Cage offers us a new progressive form of Black masculinity, one that values collaboration, community and seeks to rebuild more than destroy. The counterpoint offered by his adversary, deemed too soft and sensitive as a boy, shaped by a toxic masculinity that makes him a man willing to level a building to kill one person, is striking.

On the heels of Luke Cage came a theatrical release also purporting to tell the story of a Black hero. Actor Nate Parker took the 2016 Sundance Film Festival by storm with his passion project which he called in a breathtaking act of subversion The Birth of a Nation. Parker wrote, produced, directed and starred in this look at the life of Nat Turner who led a violent slave revolt in 1831 that shook the slave states to their cores. Parker, a Virginia native like Turner, viewed this film in the same light that Turner viewed his plans for rebellion: as a divine mission. Leading up to the film’s debut, Parker spoke of this as more than a film. He chose Fox Searchlight as a distributor in part because he wanted the film to be a big screen experience. He also got Fox Searchlight to create teaching guides and plan a tour of colleges as a condition of the sale. Like Coker, Parker was taking Nat Turner and fashioning him into the hero he believed we need. 

But, of course, things didn’t go as Parker planned. 

Parker’s 2001 rape charge (for the record he was acquitted though he did have sex with the victim that he maintained was consensual) supplanted the film itself. Suddenly the conversation Parker wanted to have had become something else and his attempts to address the charge only added fuel to the fire. The word “boycott” entered the conversation. 

Though I respect the decision to do so, I chose not to boycott. In my view, Birth of a Nation is a failure and a curious one at that. Never mind that it is mediocre, that it modeled itself after Braveheart when it should’ve aimed higher. The unpardonable sin is that Birth of a Nation seeks to turn Nat Turner into a Marvel hero. It fabricates a rape as if slavery wasn’t sufficient motivation. It reduces women to suffering motivators rather than giving them agency (something called “fridging” in comic books which Nate Parker has clearly never heard of).  But most intriguing is how thoroughly retrograde Parker seems to be from the choices he has made and the hero he has created.

It has never been clear to me what Parker’s aim is beyond making Nat Turner a more recognizable figure. Does the film have anything to say for the post-Obama era? What directives are we to take from seeing a violent resistance to the horrors of white supremacy? Perhaps Parker had intended to speak to this more directly before his past overtook him.

I don’t use “retrograde” to insult Parker. I use it to refer to his point of view which seems rooted in a bygone era. I don’t know Parker’s exact age but the ideas he espouses through word and deed seem to belong to a much older man. Even his choice to turn down Netflix’s much bigger offer for Fox Searchlight reflects someone thinking in an outmoded way. Or perhaps it suggests personal ambition was more of a motivation than simply bringing Turner’s story to the public (Netflix would’ve put the movie in every living room in America but it would have also ended any hopes for an Oscar). 

Similarly, Parker’s view of a Black male hero is of another time. I suppose Parker wanted to make Turner into a classical hero not unlike a man Mel Gibson or John Wayne might play but it missed an opportunity to either create an alternative to those Western models or critique the ways in which the oppressed can come to resemble their oppressor in the act of rejecting that oppression. 

But all such nuance is ignored. Parker refuses to show the brutality his army dealt to whites in a way that is frankly an act of artistic cowardice. Showing the brutalization of white people in equally unflinching terms is necessary in a film that lingers on how whites brutalized their slaves. But that’s messy. That’s disturbing. And that’s not what Parker wants you to feel. Exhibit A: the use of John Williams-style choral singing on the soundtrack clashes with the brutality of Nate’s first kill. But the score more than editing or camera, is often the clearest window into the soul of a director and Parker wants you to see this murder as not tragically inevitable but ennobling. I could accept that if the subsequent murders were handled more frankly. 

Parker’s Turner dies surrounded by a scornful horde (an uncanny foreshadow of Parker’s public excoriation prior to the film’s release) but the director wants you to know he didn’t die in vain even though the rebellion failed. Parker allowed Nat Turner to settle a few personal scores before the gallows. He accepts death beatifically. Now that the film has failed and Parker’s reputation is in ruins one can’t help wondering if the hero narrative he’s constructed has sustained him through this ordeal or if it has caused him to reflect on how he might have handled things in another way. 

Parker famously said he refused to play a gay man because “I refuse to allow any piece of work to emasculate me for very specific reasons” and “to preserve the Black man…you will never see me take a gay role.” Nat Turner took an eclipse as a divine signal to lead his rebellion and Nate Parker should similarly view the auspicious arrival of Moonlight as an omen to rethink his outdated homophobic nonsense. 

Directed by Barry Jenkins and based on an autobiographical play by Tarell McCraney, Moonlight focuses on three moments in the life of Chiron, a Black gay boy growing up in Miami’s Liberty City. We see Chiron at turning point moments in childhood, adolescence and adulthood as he tries to come to terms with the abuse, homophobia and toxic masculinity he’s grown up with. The film has set records in its first weekend of release for per screen average (meaning even though it is only playing on a handful of screens it is making a ton of money). I saw it Friday night at a screening that had to be moved to the Cinerama Dome to accommodate the demand. 

Moonlight, without a ton of paid ballyhoo from a studio, is the film Parker wanted Birth of a Nation to be. It has comes to the screen with a sizable audience hungry for it, who have been waiting to see it for most of their lives. And Moonlight is revolutionary in ways that Birth of a Nation is not. We’ve seen Black men stand up and violently resist oppression. Not a lot, but we have seen it. But we’ve rarely seen a film about intimacy between Black men. We’ve rarely seen a film show how toxic masculinity can destroy Black men as quickly as racist oppression. We’ve rarely seen a film where the great act of masculine courage is not acting out violently, it is learning to feel worthy of love. 

What’s so striking about Moonlight is that for the first half of the film, Chiron’s queerness is more or less beside the point. He could be straight and still suffer the same soul crushing oppression and emotional brutality and it would be no less deleterious. But he is gay and the film will force many to question what being gay looks like and what it means. Chiron responds to his oppression by fashioning himself into the very picture of Black masculinity. The actor who plays him as an adult looks every bit the superhero and could easily play Luke Cage or Black Panther. But that kind of manhood, the kind that Nate Parker seems to think is so precious and sacrosanct is not Chiron’s salvation. It is an imperfect solution that the culture he’s grown up in has led him towards. 

These are trying times but they’re also remarkable and exciting times. We are once again on the verge of making history at the ballot box. We are seeing some amazing strides toward social justice taking place. And we have lost many dear figures along the way (namely Prince, who violated codes of Black masculinity when he felt like it and on his own terms setting a whole generation free in the process).  Taking it all in we see that all of this loss only portends that a new era is coming. In the Hindu faith, Shiva is the destroyer deity; but in Shaivism, Shiva is the creator, destroyer, and regenerator. 

I see that pattern in this year. I see this pattern with the receptions of both Birth of a Nation and Moonlight. And I see aspects of that in how Black masculinity has unfolded in the Obama era. He has changed forever what a Black man can be and what a Black man can believe. He shows us that being a feminist, supporting marriage equality for LGBT people and being photographed with a tiara does nothing to diminish your masculinity. And if it does, leave it behind this year and allow something else to replace. 

If you’re brave enough, of course. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Spike Lee's 10 Worst Female Characters (along with a consideration of his best female characters, from October 2009)

The following originally began as a series of tweets in the fall of 2009. It was then collected and published by Shadow and Act but with the publication changing hands the article has gone missing. I've retrieved it from a message board and posted it below. This seems an especially apt time to revisit the countdown with the news that filming is currently underway on a remake of Mr. Lee's groundbreaking, epoch-defining debut She's Gotta Have It as a series for Netflix. I cannot wait to see what Lee does when he comes to retell a story from 30 years ago, especially with regard to his female characters and how they are written and executed.

And now, the countdown:

At number 10, I am going with Betty Shabazz, portrayed by Angela Bassett in Spike’s 1992 magnum opus Malcolm X. Here’s why: Malcolm is a perpetual student, an eternal protegee. I think his wife should have played a far bigger role in his evolution. Yes Betty gets the one knock down drag out scene, but beyond that she is just the Good Wife and nothing more. I owe a debt to @ChrisMacDen who recently tweeted about this. He knew Dr. Shabazz, and said she deserved better than she got in Malcolm X. I love Spike, but women have always been his Achilles Heel. Betty Shabazz (the character) is one sad example of that.

Spike’s women are either, duplicitous, martyrs, or beside the point. He also falls into the madonna/whore dichotomy far too often. And what’s interesting is that from the very beginning he has been dogged by charges of misogyny/sexism. One huge caveat to all of this is Crooklyn.

Largely written by his sister Joie (and Cinque Lee), this film features many great female characters: Troy, Joie’s stand-in, is easily the greatest Spike Lee heroine ever. She was played by Zelda Harris, who (sadly) could not find roles worthy of her debut. Crooklyn also features the great Alfre Woodard as Carolyn, Troy’s formidable doomed mother. And Aunt Song (played by the late Frances Foster) is one of my favorite supporting characters. But take away Crooklyn and it is hard to find many rounded, complex women who aren’t traitors, whores, or beatific martyrs.

For the ninth worst female character in Spike Lee’s oeuvre, I pick Clarke Betancourt, played by Cynda Williams in 1990’s Mo’Better Blues.

Clarke, an ambitious jazz chanteuse, is a great example of the ‘don’t trust women’ ethos Spike espouses in so many films. She is one point of a love triangle, and in that arrangement she also comes to be the whore to Joie Lee’s madonna. 

Indigo "saves" Bleek, thereby fulfilling her madonna destiny, whereas Clarke sleeps with Bleek’s rival, presumably to further her career. Clarke isn’t evil. She’s just limited due to Spike’s indifference. She cares when Bleek is injured. But there isn’t much to her that is, except for ambition and self-regard. Her refusal to become a martyr is, I think judged harshly by the film. 

[More than once, you will here me say “it’s a shame she didn’t go on to do more” when discussing these roles & actresses.]

I pick Sloane Hopkins, played by Jada Pinkett Smith in Bamboozled. 

Sloane starts off well. She seems to be bright, capable, and a go-getter. She is the assistant to Pierre Delacroix, a hapless TV executive. But Sloane is sorta baffling. When Pierre hatches a plan, she’s in on it, then spends the rest of the film acting as though she isn’t. 

Also Spike (and this I think is most telling) has Pierre (her boss), call her pet names at work. What is this, Mad Men? Spike really blew a great opportunity in Bamboozled to craft a relationship between equals. Instead he reveals very late that they had sex. 

Worse yet, Sloane had denied that such a thing had ever happened, which makes her seem like a liar and someone willing to screw for success (a sadly recurring trope in Spike's films). She isn’t a misogynistic caricature. But the way she’s treated by the film speaks volumes on how Spike sabotages his women characters. 

That’s the shame; almost all of these women in Spike’s films represent missed opportunities.

At number 7, we have 2 characters who I believe are inextricably linked. From Malcolm X, the combine of Laura (Theresa Randle) & Sophia (Kate Vernon). This gets us into dicey territory. Immediately some will say these characters are from the autobiography; therefore we can’t blame Spike. One of the tenets of the Auteur Theory is that even if the director is adapting the material s/he is still in effect taking ownership of it. In other words, Spike may not have created Laura, Sophia, or Betty Shabazz, but his handling of them is still revealing.

Laura is the ‘good girl’ who young Malcolm rebuffs in favor of the ‘bad girl’ Sophia thanks to the siren call of interracial sexy time. In the book, X said he always blamed himself for good girl Laura’s subsequent descent into wickedness. So here, we have yet another madonna-whore dynamic, except here, the madonna becomes a whore, quite literally. And as Sophia is last seen as a reformed bourgeois hausfrau, the whore becomes a madonna, albeit a phony one. And also, there’s an ancillary nature to the characters. They are there for no other reason but to serve the story. A big problem in movies where women characters are concerned. Spike’s character Shorty feels far more rounded and less schematic than either Laura or Sophia.

Then there’s the matter of interracial relationships. In his early work, Spike takes a dim view of them, and that colors (sorry) things. In his early work, interracial relationships were ALWAYS a sign of moral turpitude. So it is impossible for Malcolm & Sophia to really have a layered relationship, or for Sophia to be a complex character. 

In Jungle Fever, Snipes and Sciorra more or less staged a revolt. They acted against Spike's vision of Flipper & Angie’s affair. Angie Tucci, Sciorra’s character in JF, may be one of Spike BEST women characters, ironically. But Sciorra had to fight for her character. Angie isn’t perfect. But she has nuance. And she was (almost) Flipper’s equal in the story, not just there to further the narrative. The shot of Angie returning home, defeated, heartbroken, is one of the saddest images in Spike’s filmography. It’s hard to not to feel like she’s being punished not just by society/family, but by the filmmaker, in the end. It has been documented widely that a formative incident in Spike's life was the one-two punch of having his mother die & having his dad move a white woman in too soon afterwards. This brought us the many martyred moms in his cinema (twice played by Lonette McKee), his daddy issues, and his antipathy to the swirl.

So Laura & Sophia really get at his big issues: madonna-whore, women as bystanders, and white women as symbols of corruption. 

Having outlined some of Spike’s hang-ups with women, let me mention another pair of recurring tropes: The Jezebel & The Sapphire. Both are negative female archetypes that we see more than once in Spike’s work. For those that didn’t major in Black Studies, Sapphire connotes a perpetually angry, castrating, mean black woman. Sapphire was originally a character in Amos N’ Andy. Academics then extended her name to the archetype. I’m sure the poet/author of Push (Precious) adopted that as her sobriquet because of the name’s connotation. I’ll mention a Sapphire and a Jezebel as we continue our countdown.

Number 6 in the Spike’s worst list: Tina, from Do The Right Thing, as played by Rosie Perez. Tina is a Sapphire, really. She isn’t horrible. Just underdeveloped. She has every right to be difficult, but I don’t think the director empathizes with her. So she becomes shrill. Enough said on Tina.

Fatima Goodrich, Kerry Washington in She Hate Me, one of Spike’s worst films. Fatima, is a deceiver (the protagonist catches her in bed with another woman), mercenary, and wholly unsympathetic. She’s a Jezebel. Worse yet, Fatima strikes one as a bit too much the product of Spike’s over-heated erotic imagination. Male writers often hatch female characters from their carnal desires, but a major character needs a little more to her than that. James Ellroy clearly fashions his women from his raging id, but they get to be their own person too. Fatima speaks to the flaws of the film; it’s a chaotic, unfocused mess which will always be Exhibit A when Spike is tried for self-indulgence.

Renata, played by Valentina Cervi, in Miracle At St. Anna. She’s another one of those underwritten betrayers. Renata is a comely Italian woman who lives in a village ravaged by WWII. She becomes the objet d’amour of two of the African-American soldiers. Without any real set-up she kinda betrays the good one for the bad one. And she’s particularly brazen about it. It is a very strange plot twist. It reduces her character from being a fully formed person to just a pawn of the plot.

Once again, Spike seems to be espousing the “don’t trust ‘em” ethos. I don’t buy that it’s just a matter of poor plotting. This is too consistent to just be happenstance. And yes, Spike didn’t create Renata himself, but the Auteur Theory tells us that it doesn’t matter if he didn’t write it himself.

Mary D’Annunzio, played by Anna Paquin in 25th Hour. She’s a singularly unlikeable young Jezebel with a dash of Lolita thrown in. Mary is the character I believe Natalie Portman was initially slated to play in 25th Hour before she quit. Mary is selfish, not particularly moral, and a vulgarian. She is just the hot young piece meant to tempt her teacher. It’s hard to find a woman in the Spike Lee oeuvre who has no redeeming value or complexity on the level of Ms. D’Annunzio.

For No. 2: LaLa Bonilla, played by the sublime Rosario Dawson in He Got Game. LaLa is the teen girlfriend of Jesus Shuttlesworth, the best high school B-ball player in the US. She has an agenda. LaLa is two-faced, deceitful and mercenary (sound familiar?). She two-times Jesus, and she tries to manipulate him into picking a college - (correction) signing w/ an agent that will give her a cut which she seems to feel she’s entitled to as Jesus’ girlfriend. LaLa isn’t even a particularly skilled manipulator. She’s a caricature of the gold-digging ghetto girl. A half-assed Cleopatra. Spike kinda sorta atoned for LaLa four years later when he cast Dawson in 25th Hour as Naturelle Rivera, Monty Brogan’s (Ed Norton) girlfriend. Naturelle has nuance and complexity. The film creates tension as to whether or not Naturelle betrayed Monty, which is almost like Spike copping to the fact that he’d gone to that well way too many times. And yes, I agree w/ all who say an inept femme fatale is more misogynist & worse than a skilled one. So Naturelle cancels out LaLa, but still, LaLa is number 2.

Number 1 has to be Opal Gilstrap (played by Raye Dowell) in She’s Gotta Have It, doesn’t it? Opal is a friend of the sexually liberated (but deeply hetero) Nola Darling. Opal is a lesbian. You see where this is going? Opal hates men. She seems to have one thing on her mind: getting Nola in bed. When Nola is sick, Opal comes to nurse her…& come on to her. So Opal is nothing but a stereotype of the rapacious lesbian trying to recruit. Nothing more to the character. Opal is particularly galling since she appeared in his first film. His Achille’s Heel revealed himself immediately. Spike was called on it. He has admitted that the character was ill-conceived and that she’s one of the many things he’d change about SGHI. It’s unfortunate that from the beginning, an artist so consumed with righting wrongs of representation got off to such a start. 

A word about Girl 6. Interesting mess, but I think Theresa Randle gives, what should’ve been a star-making performance. Judy, or Girl 6, is one of his better, more rounded female leads. The film is such a mess that Randle’s work has been forgotten. Too bad. 

I have a lot of respect for Spike. But we have to look at things in the cold harsh light of truth, not through the gauzy filter of admiration. Hopefully, this list will motivate some of you to take a 1st or 2nd look at his films.

Since this was originally written we've had (just in terms of his fiction output) Red Hook Summer, Oldboy, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, and his controversial Chiraq. People bristled at the sexual politics of the most recent film. But for my money Lysistrata (played by Teyonah Parris) might hint at a new hopeful era of Lee heroine. Yes, she uses sex as a way to manipulate men, but she is no Jezebel and she is no Sapphire. She is no madonna and Lee does not regard her as a whore either. I hope this indicates a new chapter for Spike Lee with regards to his female characters but only time will tell.