SPIKE LEE’S OSCAR: NEW BIRTH OF BLACK FILM
When the Academy Awards are presented in Hollywood in late February 2016, there will be new elements of the film business in play. Some things have already been put into effect, such as the changes in Academy membership that seek to remedy an old-guard condition reflected in awards nominations that exclude not only African American but just about all people of color. This controversy began with Spike Lee receiving an honorary Oscar for his nearly thirty years of consistently high-quality films, all involved in various aspects of the Black experience.
Spike Lee’s new film, Chi-Raq, is based on an ancient Greek play, Aristophanes’s Lysistrata, whose theme is built around the withholding of sexual congress by women who are fed up with war. Although the original play is considered a comedy, this particular takeoff is more in the tragic realm, as Chi-Raq takes place in a community that appears to be involved in almost ritual self-destruction.
Vibe magazine reported the following in late October 2015:
The film was expected to premiere for Amazon Prime subscribers, with a debut scheduled at the Cannes Film Festival next year. But after Amazon’s production sector teamed up with Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate, it’s looking like Chi-Raq is getting a much bigger platform.
Chi-Raq was released with one of the most ambitious publicity campaigns of any of Lee’s previous films. The trailer was issued by Amazon—promoting its first feature film release—on November 3, 2015 a few days after the Day of the Dead (November 1) and just prior to Lee’s honorary Oscar ceremony on November 14. The proximity of this award was optimally placed within the film’s ad campaign—not long before the official release of Chi-Raq, on December 4, during that highly significant season between Thanksgiving and Christmas. No Spike Lee film had ever received such a major promotion, and this campaign, coordinated as it was with Lee’s honorary Oscar, would instantly mark Amazon as a major player in the movie business. The film will eventually be made available via Amazon Prime’s streaming service.
Cheryl Boone Isaacs, an African American, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences since the summer of 2013, was delighted to welcome Lee into the hallowed hall of Hollywood’s chosen people. In welcoming him to the stage to receive his award, she announced a new Academy initiative, A2020, which will seek to promote a “greater diversity in terms of age, gender, race, national origin and point of view among filmmakers over the next five years.”
For the formal Academy Awards ceremony, statuettes are traditionally given out in a luxurious Hollywood theater, telecasted to a worldwide audience before a glamorously attired who’s who of the industry, especially the star talent, directors and producers. Before the big event, more intimate ceremonies are held, possibly as a way of promoting the awards ceremony itself. At a special gathering to recognize those of great achievement who have not received a statue in the usual categories, Spike Lee was slated to receive an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement (so to speak). His appearance and remarks, having aspects of controversy, could be said to be not only a prelude to the Oscar presentations themselves, but also as the first level of promotion for this new addition to his oeuvre—Chi-Raq.
Juxtaposing the violence against Blacks in Chicago with the violence perpetrated by the Iraq War, Lee hyphenated the two realities into Chi-Raq, causing Chicago mayor and former Obama chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel to request that Lee excise the allusion to the city from his title. Lee’s refusal gained him some timely early publicity.
At the awards presentation Spike came jubilantly to the stage, resplendent in a high-collared blue suit that closed at the neck, a silver chain holding an unusually thick cross, and a black beret, on its crest the red, black and green logo of Chi-Raq dominant in white. He wore pair of strange pink-rimmed glasses, and in a long shot he revealed something special for the occasion: custom-made high-topped sneakers.
He was flanked by Wesley Snipes, Samuel Jackson, and Denzel Washington, three heavyweight Black actors who have starred in his films—arousing the curiosity of the audience as to why they were there. The three stood stock-still, almost at military attention, sometimes engaging in praise or unanimously emphasizing an important point made by Lee, who spoke in a straightforward manner, often critically analyzing his lifelong work as a director in the film industry and both condemning and praising the Academy for recognizing and not recognizing his work. His supporting cast, standing strong throughout his ten-minute talk, stood a few feet in front of a life-size golden Oscar.
One’s heart goes out to Spike Lee in recognition of the dilemma he must have found himself in. Obviously, at some prior point, there was no question that he would receive the honorary Oscar, and receiving such an honor without addressing the major issues at hand would have been too great an oversight, especially for a Black man prominent in a film world that rewarded and denied him rather evenhandedly. But nailing down the major issues—or not—was up to him.
He handled it well. After all, he is also an actor. Although his on-screen character role is significant in She’s Gotta Have It, his later roles have been more public persona than showbiz director cum working actor. But today he is a figure in the business—and judging from his references to his students at NYU and his connection to ancient Greek literature, he may be somewhat of an academic as well.
Spike Lee is one of the great filmmakers of our time, having made that art form his total focus for just about all of his adult life. He discovered film after his sophomore year in college, when he received a Super 8 camera and a box of film from a friend who, rather than study filmmaking, decided to go to medical school.
“How did I get here? I was born in Atlanta and moved to Brooklyn, and my late mother, who died when I was in film school—she was the one who introduced me to film. My father, a great jazz musician, hated movies. So I was my mother’s date, drag me to movies. She introduced me to Scorsese when she took to me to see Mean Streets.
“Then I went away to college, Morehouse College. I was third generation; my grandfather and father went there too. He was a freshman when Martin Luther King was a senior. And my mother and grandmother went to Spelman College. They were two historic black schools across the street from each other in ATL So I went to college. My first two years I was lost in the wilderness. I was a D-plus, C-minus student. It wasn’t that I wasn’t smart. I wasn’t motivated. At the end of my sophomore year, it was time to go back to New York City; I had to choose a major because I’d exhausted all my electives. I came back to New York the summer of 1977. I thought up to that point I could always get a job in New York. But that summer, there were no jobs.
“I made a film about that summer, The Summer of Sam.”
Could the general public be aware of the crippling racism that has infused the film industry since the post-Reconstruction bible, The Birth of a Nation (1915), became an early hit, propelling its director, D. W. Griffith, into legendary status, setting up his association with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Charlie Chaplin in establishing United Artists, a production company that still exists. Also existing today are the continuing depictions of African Americans as blackfaced “negro” ghosts who inhabited The Birth of a Nation and most Hollywood films from that point well into the late-twentieth century.`
“I want to thank my grandmother. Her grandmother was a slave. And for fifty years, she taught art. Van Gogh was her favorite painter. She taught in the state of Georgia, and in fifty years she never had one white student because of Jim Crow laws. For fifty years she saved her Social Security checks for her grandchildren’s education. And since I was firstborn, I had first dibs! My grandmother, fifty years of saving her checks, put me through Morehouse, put me through NYU Film School, gave me the money for my thesis film, then gave me the money for She’s Gotta Have It.”
He tells this story in a section of his speech thanking the Academy Board of Governors for his lifetime achievement award, although his life is still intact and his public expects much more from him than the considerable and well-developed oeuvre he has amassed since 1986, when She’s Gotta Have It, his first feature-length film, was a surprise hit. This established him early on as a director with auteur potential who could just as well be simply a successful Hollywood filmmaker. Whether he has accomplished either of those things is arguable to some, but to my mind he is both, and more.
The Blaxploitation films that emerged in the 1970s during a downturn in the U.S. film industry set the stage for someone like Spike Lee. Although there were other African American filmmakers who made their mark in American film, it would be he who crossed over, with “original” hipsters as part of his main audience.
Do the Right Thing put Spike Lee on the map as a serious filmmaker who could deal with vibrant social issues without having to rely on the soft sexuality of She’s Gotta Have It to gain and hold an audience. As a moviegoer, I became hooked on him and followed his career. The year after Right Thing, 1990, his Mo’ Better Blues was credible in telling what it was like being a jazz musician. Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, and Crooklyn followed in each subsequent year. Although Malcolm X was right on and a story that needed to be told, especially from the perspective of a Black filmmaker, the history was well known, and there could be no surprises—and there weren’t. I especially liked the scene with Delroy Lindo and Denzel as Malcolm, as it brought up his West Indian background in a pithy and indelible manner when they exchanged words in a patois known only in that part of the world. Delroy Lindo would come back with a larger role as father to all those bad children in the endearing Crooklyn, in which Lee hit the nail of the head in telling oft-maligned stories of adorable Black children.
The following year, 1995, his next film would begin to alienate me. Clockers, whatever it was supposed to be, was, I thought, “a Spike Lee joint,” as he used to like to say about his movies. But as I discovered, Clockers was derived from a novel by Richard Price, a white novelist, supposedly about a Black teenager who becomes enmeshed in the drug trade but really is about the two white detectives. Moreover, the images over the opening credits set the tone—close-ups of Black male torsos featuring bullet entry wounds. I couldn’t believe Lee was doing this, yet I accepted it conditionally: it had better be worth it. But the film did not hold up to his earlier standard, and I left the theater more than disappointed, vowing to forgo any more Spike Lee movies—with no time limit on that vow. And I held to it through his next, Girl 6 (1996), although I was curious as to how he would deal with a screenplay written by a Black woman, the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks. That same year he came out with a small film about folks on a bus heading to the March on Washington. I did not see it then, as I was still holding to my vow.
The next year, 1998, caught me in a dilemma. Searching for a late movie, I found nothing playing in the neighborhood except He Got Game, starring Denzel Washington. I hated to break my vow, but it was all there was to see.
And what a surprise: a beautiful, moving story of an imprisoned father whose son was about to go very high in the college draft. The father had been a basketball player; he had had game, but lost it in a descent into crime that cost him his liberty. He was furloughed from prison in order to convince his son to go to the state team, which would have appeased the governor enough to allow for Denzel’s release.
He Got Game was a totally unpredictable masterpiece. I was back in fandom. But the sequence had been broken. I saw Bamboozled, an interesting critique of the media, before I saw the next film after He Got Game, which was Son of Sam—yet another masterpiece. This time Lee took on “white” working-class Italian and Irish youths who lived in the outer regions of the Bronx and created their own universe. Integrating a neighborhood in that region as a teenager, I knew their ways firsthand. John leguizamo, a Colombian American, played an Italian and aced it. I could not believe his verisimilitude. He deserved an Academy Award; Lee deserved an Academy Award. But if one had not been forthcoming for the screenplay to She’s Gotta Have It, for which he was nominated, or the monumental Do the Right Thing, or Crooklyn, or He Got Game, or Son of Sam, none of which even came near being nominated, then it was clear that the fix had been in. He would not get one unless something extraordinary happened. And I believe it did—this year, last month, and continuing into another place altogether.
Chi-Raq, Spike Lee’s vehicle onto this new film-biz terrain, is a “joint,” its elements textured to exist within their own distinct energy: there is poetry (especially in the brilliant opening sequence), excellently produced bombastic hip-hop beats, deft choreography, even a script that rhymes. Everyone seems to live pretty well, most look good, and even the grieving mothers—a Greek chorus of women in tears—are attractive for their ages and stations. There is, of course, gun violence, gunplay—with a symbolic casualty: a young Black girl playing in the street is hit and killed in the crossfire. The dominant theme is the dire relationship between Teyonah Parris as Lysistrata (the Afro headshot in the publicity ad), who seeks a solution to this murderous environ even though a major perpetrator happens to be the man she loves, Chi-Raq personified (played by Nick Allen). This reference to the ancient Greek play Lysistrata is probably a bit of a stretch, even as homage to the tragic reality of worldwide violence that is particularly evinced in present-day Chicago—to wit, the list of Blacks killed in that major midwestern metropolis. Chi-Raq, merging an American minority-majority city with the tragedy brought to the nation of Iraq, offers a comparison that is never stated verbally or cinematically, except perhaps for the involvement of the National Guard at the conclusion. In an interview Spike Lee said, “It comes back to guns. The takeaway, if anybody sees this film, is what are we going to do as a supposed democratic country? I guess we have the right to kill ourselves. That’s what it seems like. Kill ourselves and kill each other.”
This film could actually function as reinforcement for President Obama’s campaign against gun violence. Yet it seems that other than the verbal protestations, the demonstration against the ultimate senselessness of the situation, and the well-meaning but banal sermon by the sympathetic white preacher played by John Cusack—who seems out of place as a leader of a large church in a Black Chicago ghetto—the protest is basically rhetorical in effect.
The Academy membership could be said to have struck back with their January 14, 2016, announcement of the nominations for the official eighty-eighth annual Academy Awards. The omission, for the second year in a row, of any Black actor, producer, or director by the voting members of the Academy seemed to many to reflect that monolith of institutional racism that had been a mainstay in the history of Hollywood. The blatant obviousness of the snub revealed a deep, long-lasting policy. A few people in the business responded. Expressing feelings from dismay to anger, some well-known film-biz figures spoke out. Lee was one of the first to say he was not attending the ceremony and why. Jada Pinkett Smith declared her boycott. Her husband, Will Smith, also said he would not attend. Michael Moore and Al Sharpton declared their support of what was being called the boycott, while elderly white Hollywood veterans Charlotte Rampling and Clint Eastwood made statements in support of the status quo.
Perhaps the most prominent Black entertainment figure, Jada Pinkett Smith, referred to by one commentator as an “A-lister,” declared that not only not would she not attend the ceremony, she would not watch it on television either. Her husband stars in Concussion, a movie about football injury devastation. Neityher he nor the film was selected to vie for a statue. Maintaining a low profile, Will Smith made a public statement on the issue, saying that he too would not attend. Pinkett Smith was clear in her extended remarks on the subject:
“Begging for acknowledgment, or even asking, diminishes dignity . . . Maybe it is time that we pulled back our resources and put them back into our communities, into our programs, and we make programs for ourselves that acknowledge us in ways that we see fit that are just as good as the so-called mainstream.”
Then she gazed into the camera and spoke directly to Lee. “But I cannot think of a better man to do the job at hand this year than you, my friend.”
Another Black man dealing with the job at hand is Chris Rock, who, as host of the awards ceremony this year, stated that he would rewrite his remarks in light of the furor. Meanwhile, Black TV and film producer Reginald Hudlin was hired as a top-level executive by the Academy.
Receiving the honorary Oscar seems to have enabled Spike Lee to speak out. Now he has been recognized for his awesome body of work—films more in the art category and certainly away from the standard B movies that had been the staple of many Black filmmakers.
When Lee relied on a story from a novel by James McBride, The Miracle at St. Anna, his power was at its strongest. The segmented elements of Chi-Raq lose their impact on the story level, where the heart and the emotions are most often affected. The love affair between the two stars, indeed sensual and sexual, has no purchase beyond that realm. For instance, the recurring theme of the violent murders of Black youths loses it potential for tragedy when John Cusack tries to make us believe he is a religious leader who delivers righteous relief to the tearstrained mothers of the victims. That comes at a place in the film where a powerful sermon could have/should have, taken down the house.
The denouement and finale are crowd-dominated spectacles that, at the end, tie things up by asking us to believe that these two embattled lovers would compete in a sex contest of sorts, with their bed set in a parade ground before an audience of military, press, TV broadcasters, community people, and heartbroken mothers. That the inadvertent killer of the young girl in this “satire” suddenly confesses rather than completing coitus with the gorgeous female lead after all that deprivation seems patently ridiculous.
But Chi-Raq is not about story and is many ways the advent of a new kind of film that can be watched in segments—or for scenes or shots or sound track and poetry. Yet it might not be necessary, in its representation of an ongoing tragedy, to make a substantive ending that has true meaning. Aristophanes’s comedic tale of women withholding sex from their men in protest against an ongoing war is far from parallel with the current situation in Chicago, where Black-on-Black gun violence is challenged only by police gun violence on Black.
In the first century of the movie business in the United States, Hollywood films have always reflected the miscegenationist Jim Crow racial division prevalent in the social order until the Civil Rights Movement began to change things, resulting in the so-called diversity existing now. But real movement in Black depiction and subject matter is a recent phenomenon in the film world, which has now expanded beyond Hollywood, owing in large part to the changes in technology that have created advancement in the use of videotape, cable programming, and the vast possibilities of Internet streaming. Also, Netflix activity, and especially Amazon's entry into the film business as the bankroller for Chi-Raq, could indicate a game change in the industry after almost one hundred years.
Now a film is emerging that could supplant that deadly legacy. Coming soon to American screens is a correction of a century-old film industry evil. Two weeks after the Academy nominations of exclusion, a new feature film about Nat Turner’s rebellion, directed by Nate Parker, swept the top awards at the recent Sundance Film Festival.
At this very festival, new players in the business, including Netflix and more so Amazon, which bid $20 million for the rights to distribute this film —ironically titled The Birth of a Nation — perhaps the most radical Black film ever produced. This was the highest bid made in the history of Sundance. The film was purchased by Fox’s Searchlight for a slightly lower figure, owing to Parker’s desire to qualify for an Academy Award. Something apparently not possible with Amazon.
The Birth of a Nation, directed by and starring Nate Parker, is the story of the 1831 Nat Turner slave rebellion that resulted in more than sixty deaths of white slavers in Southhampton County, Virginia. What Parker achieved was also set in place by his appropriation of the title of the 1915 D. W. Griffith film based on the novel The Clansman by Thomas Dixon (about the rise of the Ku Klux Klan), which was highly hailed as the first major hit of the early film business and set Hollywood on its grand path. The film was screened at President Wilson’s White House in 1919. By then most of the Black soldiers had returned from fighting in the First World War in Europe. The original Birth of a Nation poisoned the waters of the film industry for decades, reflecting a code of exclusion—or exploiting comic relief and ridicule—from 1915 until the beginning of 2016, exactly a century plus one year. Today, when one googles The Birth of a Nation, it is Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation at the head of the listings.
It could well be that a new era in the “entertainment” business is at hand in these “United States.”
© David Henderson 2016 All Rights Reserved.