Sexual Utopians: Spike Lee’s She Hate Me

amackie

Why has Spike Lee’s ambitious, far-reaching, mostly satisfying cinematic risk She Hate Me been so thoroughly vilified by the press? I have the impression that critics are angry with Lee for stretching the boundaries of the adage “it’s a white man’s world.” From Watergate to Lee’s present-day saga of a corporate whistle blower who happens to be black (and male), She Hate Me overflows with reminders large and small that the power elite will indulge the crimes of any privileged white man; whereas if you are a woman (regardless of color) or a dark-skinned male, you’re vulnerable to attack even on the most spurious grounds. Noblesse oblige and political correctness haven’t and won’t eradicate institutionalized racism. Still, in 2004, these unpopular truths make neo-conservatives and liberals alike fairly discomfited, and when jolted out of complacency, the defenders of a particularly bipolar status quo will rise up and pan your movie. The mere fact that a sexually themed, socially conscious film (made by and about minorities) has been so vehemently denounced should tell you something: She Hate Me is worth seeing.

Billowing dollar bills, undulating curtains of money, engulf the frame in a stylish opening credits sequence that ever so beautifully implies an ugly truth—the green stuff is our fabric, and that is all we are; without it, we’re nothing. Terence Blanchard’s orchestral score (denounced as “muzak” by more than one tone-deaf prisoner of pop) summons a lushness more often associated with the late Elmer Bernstein, and Blanchard’s melodies merge with those silky screens of cash to suggest any number of varying moods. It’s a supremely confident beginning, and I felt as though I were in the hands of masters who were prepared to take me anywhere. In hindsight, I can see where this freedom might be too much for reviewers weaned on the one-note.

The first tonal shift occurs only minutes in. A German researcher, who’s been preparing an AIDS vaccine through the auspices of a large corporation, leaps from a lab window to his death several stories below; he crash lands not on the pavement, but through the glass roof of a latte vendor’s cart, killing himself and the unlucky barista. Lee’s camera fixates on the bloodied face of the suicide. Normally, I flinch at this sort of detail, yet I didn’t mind it here. Lee clearly has a reason for lingering. It’s meant to disturb—what else is it meant to do?

shehateme8The cinematographer Matthew Libatique makes good use of NYC locations as well as the interior of the main character’s apartment. Anthony Mackie plays Jack Armstrong, an out-of-work young executive who provides his “man milk” to a rainbow coalition of upscale lesbians, businesswomen intent on motherhood sans the hassles of adoption. Jack owns a collection of bizarre paintings, large-scale Beauford Delaney-esque portraits in earth tones and deep yellows adorning the ochre walls of his flat. No one ever comments on these grotesque works of art; but the canvases are always there, the subjects in them bearing silent witness to the speeded-up mating rituals of Jack’s “partnerships.” When an Italian-American woman (Monica Bellucci) tells Jack that she could feel the moment of conception, Lee frames the two of them in a doorway, with one of the earthen heads looming, visually interrupting their field from the background.

Mackie suggests a younger, handsomer, more serious Eddie Murphy, and he’s beautiful in his strip scene as the first round of women check him out. The 10K-apiece clientele want to see what they’re paying for. Lee obviously means an allusion to slavery here, to the auction block. At least the insinuation should be unmistakable to anyone familiar with American history, which most movie reviewers aren’t, unless they’re seen still another movie to explain it all to them or worse yet taken a press kit for gospel. I remember well my 8th-grade history teacher back in east central Georgia describing how families were broken up in the course of slave auctions, the way the buyers would examine the bodies for sale as if they were cattle. “If they wanted stud services,” he proclaimed, “they could check that out, too!”

shehateme2The widely criticized montages of procreation are spectacularly edited romps from hesitant foreplay into ecstasy. Before the first, we’ve been introduced to the women in Jack’s living room, and these character sketches are an affectionately hostile primer on urban stereotypes: the demure Asian; the cold, business-like Jew; the brassy hip hop artist who sports a blonde wig. Paula Jai Parker plays the last of these, and it’s a pity that we don’t see more of her Evelyn. When making love to Jack, Evelyn insists on singing her awful hit single, and it takes genuine comic inspiration to be as dementedly bad as Parker dares. (She pleasantly reminded me of Candice Bergen’s off-key efforts to woo Burt Reynolds in Starting Over.)

What’s abundant in these scenes is that Spike Lee loves women: he couldn’t have made this movie if he were a misogynist.

What else merits comment? Many things, but I’ll touch on these five.

1. Returning to the Blanchard score, which weaves brooding orchestral passages in and out of jazz combos sensibly, I was surprised to learn that the awfully mature piano solos are played by former Seattle resident Aaron Parks. I remember when Parks had an ongoing trio gig at a downtown Tully’s; I thought he was the dullest, most insipid and generic player I’d ever heard. He played monoculture jazz. His tenure with Blanchard’s group, I’m glad to note, has shaped Parks into someone more interesting.

shehateme102. John Turturro makes a late appearance as a Mafioso who enjoys acting out scenes from the Godfather saga. “Why do rappers pretend to be gangstas?” Turturro’s Don quizzes Jack, “they’ll never be us.” I love the way Lee and his co-scenarist Michael Genet bring up appropriation of cultural identity and then expect the viewers to think for themselves rather than feed on conclusions.

3. An explicit delivery sequence drew gasps at the Harvard Exit preview screening I attended a few weeks ago; apparently sophisticated Seattleites had never before seen a black woman give birth.

4. The climactic SEC trial becomes preachy, yet I rather enjoyed the magazine cover montage of real-life whistle blowers that Lee inserts into the courtroom histrionics—a remembrance of the forgotten heroes and heroines who risked their lives to stand up for truth amidst corporate chicanery.

5. An instance of loaded casting that works: Jim Brown, a former action figure, felled by time and infirmity, plays Jack’s wheelchair-bound diabetic dad. Brown has the final frame all to himself: his chair parked on the beach, he looks on joyfully at a new kind of family, a sexual utopia of gay mommies, a straight daddy, and children who’ll grow up not caring about the difference. It’s a lovely emblem for one generation conceding a torch to the next. – NPT

August 30, 2004

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