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.

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