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SPIKED : In 'Jungle Fever,' Filmmaker Spike Lee Returns to Combustible Conflicts of Race, Class and Sex

June 02, 1991|HILARY DE VRIES | Hilary De Vries is a free-lance writer based in Cambridge, Mass.

IT IS THE VOICE THAT IS SURPRISING--soft, slurry, a half-asleep whisper.

"Black people kissing on screen? I never saw that growing up." He says this as he stares out of the editing booth at a print of his new film, "Jungle Fever." Running over and over, the images of a black man and a white woman are reflected in his glasses. "Uh, uh," he says with almost purposeful distraction, an imperceptible turn of his head. "I'm attentive."

It is a performance, a mastery of the deadpan as integral to the Spike Lee persona as the wire-rims, baseball cap and sneakers. Behind the glasses, his eyes are enormous, impassive. His body is a spindly afterthought ending in the soft padding of his Nikes. And here, in a sound studio in Manhattan's storied Brill Building, the stillness surrounds him, as though the air has been sucked from the room, as if the country's preeminent black film \o7 auteur \f7 has had to create a void and then refill it.

"The intermingling of the races? That's always going to be a part of my work," he says. "That has happened since the slaves were brought here--stolen from Africa--when Massa started sneaking in the slave quarters at night. That's the dynamics of color and race."

Lee silently watches a few more frames. "There's one thing that black men have," he lets out, "that really threatens white males." Suddenly, he throws his head back and laughs, a short, raucous burst.

ASK ANYONE WHO KNOWS HIM, AND each will tell you that Spike Lee is a troublemaker. His films--"She's Gotta Have It," "School Daze," "Do the Right Thing," "Mo' Better Blues" and now, "Jungle Fever," the much anticipated look at interracial romance that opens this week--have been sharp, repeated blows to the Hollywood axiom that black doesn't sell, not in white America.

In fact, each of the director's works--black cultural themes married to a cinematic style drawn from Martin Scorsese, Japan's Akira Kurosawa and the French New Wave filmmakers--has made money. And each has generated equal currency from the media, which address Lee's films as annual missives from the front lines of cultural politics. "Do the Right Thing," a filmic examination of racism in New York City's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood that seemed to advocate violence, generated segments on several evening newscasts. For every reviewer like Vincent Canby of the New York Times, who hailed Lee's works as "social phenomena" from "a major American filmmaker in dazzling command of his craft," there was another who considered Lee simply "an annual media sensation," as Time magazine's Richard Schickel has written.

Whether the critics like him or not, Lee is the most influential black director working in Hollywood today, and he makes his movies, low-budget by studio standards, on \o7 his \f7 terms. His films have expanded the boundaries of the country's popular culture, altered Hollywood's perception of crossover audiences and opened the door for a new generation of black-American male directors: Reginald and Warrington Hudlin, Robert Townsend, Keenen Ivory Wayans and Bill Duke among them. Why is he so successful? Because "he is really talented, a good filmmaker," says Tom Pollock, chairman of the MCA Motion Picture Group, where Lee has made his last three films under an unusual arrangement that grants him total artistic control. "He is a serious filmmaker--no different from where Scorsese was after five films."

Henry Louis Gates Jr., chairman of Afro-American studies at Harvard University as of July 1, calls Lee "one of the most important figures in African-American culture. He is doing what nobody has done in film--depicting what W. E. B. Dubois called 'the life behind the veil,' what black people do when white people aren't around."

Lee himself suggests that his success is "a combination of everything--part talent, part luck, part timing. I'm not the first talented black filmmaker to appear on the face of the Earth. If I had come along 20 years ago, the conditions wouldn't have been conducive to this kind of success."

This year about 20 feature films will be made and released by black Americans--more movies by African Americans than in the entire previous decade. At 34, Lee has become something of the group's \o7 eminence grise\f7 ; he's the first to have employed what some call "a post-integration sensibility"--one who is not making films to simply uplift the race. "Dozens of black Americans have directed films before," says Roger Ebert, film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, "but the subtext of those movies was always how blacks related to whites. Spike broke through that. He defines blacks in relation to other blacks. That is brand-new."

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