Even when he is the aggressor, he is the victim.
Lee says there is “a law you cannot have any Jewish person who is not a hundred percent honest” in a film, “because if they are not, you’re anti- Semitic and perpetuating stereotypes.”
There is, however, a fair amount of ground between a hundred percent honest and the moneygrubbing, fast- talking caricatures Mo and Josh Flatbush, the villains of Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues, who got Lee on the shit list of various critics and Jewish organizations. “B’nai Brith and the Anti- Defamation League, they were on my ass,” he says. “You don’t know what it is for someone to get on your ass until B’nai Brith and Anti- Defamation League … You know that shit, when they’re on you, you know it.”
Eventually Lee placated his persecutors by writing an op-ed piece for the Times, but the whole thing still makes him mad when he thinks about it. And the truth is, he’s not sorry about portraying Mo and Josh Flatbush as Jewish bloodsuckers, feeding off the talents of black musicians. “Here’s the thing, though: It’s more than being a stereotype,” says Lee. “In the history of American music, there have not been Jewish people exploiting black musicians? In the history of music? How is that being stereotypical? For me, that’s like saying, like the NBA is predominantly black. Now, if that makes me anti- Semitic ...” For a minute, he actually engages and sort of laughs. “I’m not writing any more op-ed pieces,” he says. “I did it once. I’m not doing it again. Seriously. I’m not doing it again.”
If you watch all twenty of Lee’s films, you’ll notice several trademarks. First, there is his signature shot, an actor traveling on a dolly with the camera, which makes the world seem to recede behind the subject. (There are only a handful of directors who’ve developed their own shot like that, something that’s taught in film schools.) Then, of course, there’s Lee’s fascination with stereotypes and categories: He loves a good procession. The most famous is what’s referred to in the screenplay for Do the Right Thing as “The Racial Slur Montage,” during which Lee’s character calls Italians “dago, wop, garlic breath,” an Italian calls blacks “gold-chain- wearing, fried- chicken-and-biscuit-eating monkeys,” and a Latino guy calls Koreans “ slanty-eyed, me-no-speak- American, own every fruit and vegetable stand in New York.”
The idea of all the bigotry in the city exploding in front of the camera seems to delight Lee. He directed a similar scene in 25th Hour, in which Edward Norton’s character, contemplating leaving the city for prison, holds forth on what he won’t miss about all the different ethnic and social groups in New York: cabdrivers are “terrorists in training—slow the fuck down.” There are the “Puerto Ricans on welfare rolls” and “the uptown brothers—slavery ended a long time ago: move on.” And, close to home: “Fuck the Upper East Side wives with their Hermès scarves and their $50 artichokes.”
The heavy- handedness that critics have objected to in some of Lee’s movies is absent from his documentaries. In Lee’s fictional films, you can sometimes feel the case of kingitis that Veronica Webb diagnosed in action: Lee just can’t seem to get enough of himself. In Bamboozled, for instance, when a character mentions Malcolm X, Lee cuts to a clip from his own film Malcolm X; later, he has another character reference his comments to the press on Quentin Tarantino (“I don’t give a goddamn what that prick Spike Lee says, Tarantino was right: Nigger is just a word”). But in his documentaries, Lee seems to strip away his ego and focus all his creative powers on the people he’s representing. His last, the Oscar- nominated 4 Little Girls, about the Birmingham church bombing of 1963, was Lee’s most critically acclaimed work to date. It was wrenching but evenhanded, understated, even.
To be fully affected by Lee’s fictional films, you have be into his vision, his aesthetic, his Spikiness. To be fully affected by his documentaries, you really just need to have eyes. The four hours of When the Levees Broke fly by. It is an astounding piece of work. The full nightmare of Katrina becomes palpable and unavoidable in a way it hasn’t yet in art. I tell Lee this, and he offers me a first and final pleasantry. A text message that says THANKS.