Spike Lee’s new movie is ambitious, provocative, complex, thoughtful, and just about review-proof. Anyone who doesn’t like it could be accused of not getting it. Anyone who does like it could be accused of liking it for the wrong reasons and not getting it, either. So the best I can do is describe it and react to it and hope that it will give readers some idea about whether they want to see it for themselves. I hope they do.
Damon Wayans plays the lone black executive for a troubled television network. He has given himself the name “Pierre Delacroix,” which has no association with his racial, cultural, or family heritage. He has adjusted his speech so that speaks with a precise, Ivy League accent. And he has adjusted his ideas so severely that even he is not sure what he thinks about the compromises he has had to make to work in the white world.
His boss, Mr. Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport) insists that he is blacker than Delacroix. He decorates his office with photos of black athletes and African art. Dunwitty says that his black wife, bi-racial children, and identification with black culture give him the right to use words like “nigger.” He says, “If Old Dirty Bastard can use it, why can’t I?” He says that he is the one who is “keepin’ it real.”
Dunwitty tells Delacroix to develop a new television show that will boost the station’s ratings, a real “coon show.” Delacroix, disgusted with himself, sets out to create a program so offensive that he will be fired. With the help of his dedicated assistant, Sloan (Jada Pinkett Smith), he puts together the most racist, insulting program imaginable. It is a minstrel show performed by black people in blackface, set in a watermelon patch, with every possible stereotype from Topsy to Aunt Jemima to a black man wearing a leopardskin loincloth.
The show is a huge hit. All across America, white and black fans put on blackface and happily yell out, “I’m a nigger!” adopting the exaggerated mannerisms of black images from our bigoted past.
The show’s stars, former street performers, are thrilled to be rich and famous, but increasingly haunted by the roles they must play. Sloan’s militant brother Julius, who wants to be called Big Black Africa, is the leader of a gang called the Mau Maus. They want their own television show (“Like the Monkees!”) and they want to do something to protest the minstrel show. They kidhap the star, with tragic results.
This movie has some of the most striking images ever put on film. The stars of the minstrel show put on blackface made from burnt cork, exactly as their predecessors did a century ago. They peer into mirrors to put on exaggerated red lips. A tear slips down a blackened cheek. Two characters argue in front of highly stylized life-size cutouts of the minstrel show characters. While Dinwitty collects African art, Delacroix begins to surround himself with racist items, beginning with a “jolly nigger bank.” Delacroix visits his father, a black entertainer who does not compromise to be acceptable to white audiences. He is comfortable with himself and with his all-black audiences, but he is an alcoholic. Lee, himself a maker of award-winning commercials, creates searing parody ads for malt liquor and “Timmi Hillnigger” clothes. The sole white member of the Mau Maus is the only one who survives a shoot-out. Montages of minstrel images from real old movies and racist toys and collectibles are devastating.
The movie draws from earlier films like “Network,” “Putney Swope,” and “The Producers” (in which an intentionally terrible show — a musical about Hitler — becomes a huge success). It raises dozens of important questions about the roles that both blacks and whites play in perpetuating racist stereotypes. Lee suggests that the current UPN and WB sitcoms featuring black characters may be the modern-day equivalent of a minstrel show.
In this movie, militant protesters take names like “Big Black Africa” and decide that they are oppressed by the “C” in “black” — but are willing to compromise their values to be on television. A street performer desperate to make a living is told that he will have to perform in blackface and all he says is, “Hey, we’re going to need a little more money for this.” When one of the minstrel show stars tries to perform as himself instead of the caricature, the audience hates it. As soon as another performer appears behind that reassuring, almost anonymous blackface, they applaud.
The movie is uneven. Dialogue has never been Lee’s strong point. But each scene has depth, integrity, intelligence — and anger — that is a welcome antidote to the usual formulaic Hollywood product. It is a profound and stimulating movie. I walked out of the theater with a thousand ideas and reactions. I heard the black woman walking out ahead of me say to her friend, “That is the best movie I ever saw.” It made me want to call every black person I know to ask them what they thought. Maybe that’s the point.
Parents should know that the movie has strong language and violence. Characters are shot and killed. There is some social drinking and one character abuses alcohol. There are sexual references and the movie makes some telling points about sexist assumptions about a woman’s use of sex to advance her career.
Families who see this movie will find a lot to talk about, including this country’s history of racism and the difficulty of bridging the gulf it has created.
Families who enjoy this movie should see some of Lee’s other films, including “Do the Right Thing” and “School Daze.” They may also like “Putney Swope,” “Network,” and “The Man in the Glass Booth.”