Lee drives past dozens of houses with their roofs folded in like crumpled cardboard, with the number of dead found inside spray- painted on the front, with signs that say HELP! HELP! all over them. On the side of a brick building near the Utopia Park church, someone has written in giant letters HOPE IS NOT A PLAN.
It’s all so insane, so bad, so unsubtle. Black people waiting on their roofs in the liquefying heat for rescue that never comes. Children drowning in the streets. Old women left to rot on the steps of the Convention Center while the director of FEMA announces on national television that he’s somehow unaware of the 25,000 people waiting there for help. Condi at Ferragamo. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police showing up on horseback in New Orleans before the National Guard. Massive crowds herded into the Superdome and left for days on end without food or water or sewage. And the fat, rich, white mother of the president saying—actually saying!—“This is working very well for them.”
After “Mo’ Better Blues”’s scabrous portrayal of Mo and Josh Flatbush, “B’nai Brith and the Anti-Defamation League were on my ass,” says Spike Lee. “When they’re on you, you know it.”
It’s all so over-the-top. It’s like a Spike Lee movie.
There is plenty to be disgusted with in this country; there is no shortage of inconvenient truths. And Lee also happens to be angry from the inside out.
When he appeared on the Chris Rock show in 1999 after he came out with Summer of Sam, Lee stalked onstage in his black leather jacket and goatee to a shrieking audience of fans. “You’re an icon, Spike,” said Rock. “You make more movies than everybody else, you got courtside seats to the Knicks, you got the beautiful wife, the kids: Why are you so mad?”
“That’s not me,” Lee replied, smirking. “That’s the way I’ve been portrayed.”
Rock snorted. “No, we’ve seen you mad, Spike. We’ve seen you on TV just complaining all the time.” The crowd roared. “They ain’t laughing because I’m lying,” said Rock. “Spike, you’ve been mad for about twelve, fifteen years now. You’re like Khalid Muhammad with a little Afro. You the maddest black man in America.”
It’s hard to picture the maddest black man in America brunching with fellow Upper East Siders Al Roker and Deborah Roberts (as he and his wife do regularly) or leaning on the marble Art Nouveau mantel of his drawing room described in Town and Country.
But most Americans have no real sense of the black upper class beyond bling and Cristal, season tickets to the Knicks, and … white limos. They think of P. Diddy rather than, say, Ken Chenault—a good friend of Spike and Tonya Lewis Lee’s who makes a cameo in Gotham Diaries as the “baron of black society” that he is. “I just think it’s a matter of lack of awareness,” says Chenault. “People tend to be very parochial. And the reality is that the representation and the name recognition have been more in entertainment and sports; the advancement of African-Americans in business has been more recent.”
Within the Blackristocracy, Lee’s indignation is largely regarded as righteous, not embarrassing. The black upper class is still black: Most members have experienced racism at some point in their lives; most recognize it in action in their country all the time. “It’s very much understood,” says E.T. Williams. “We’re all going through it. The historian John Hope Franklin, now an emeritus at Duke, belonged to the Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C., and he had a group coming to celebrate his 85th or 90th birthday. This white lady came up to him and handed him her glass and said, ‘Would you take this?’ And he said, ‘No, madam. If you look, you’ll see the people who work here are in uniform.’ So we can all understand his feelings.”
In the Blackristocracy, Lee’s interest in inequity is not perceived as obsessive: It’s seen as responsible. “If one just starts off with W.E.B. DuBois’s focus on the Talented Tenth, there was always a view that that group had the obligation to help society, and that clearly is a hallmark of Spike—and Tonya,” says Chenault.
Of course, there’s a little more to it than that. In Bamboozled, Lee does a funny, mean, fair spoof: He creates a white character called Timmi Hilnigger, who appears in his own ads flanked by writhing, half- naked black women and says, “If you want to never get out of the ghetto, stay broke, and continue to add to my multimillion-dollar corporation, keep buying my gear!” On the director’s commentary, Lee tells the following story: “A couple weeks ago, I had just dropped my daughter off at school. On the corner of 63rd and Central Park West, Tommy Hilfiger comes up to me.” Lee puts on a pathetic whine of a white-guy voice: “ ‘Oh, Spike, I want you to know I’ve done so much for black people. Oh, Spike, how could you do this? I’ve been giving money at the Martin Luther King fund; every summer I send ghetto black kids to the camp.’ I was waiting for him to say, ‘Spike, I’m blacker than you!’ ”