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Spike Lee Takes Issue With Critics

The outspoken filmmaker talks about persistent charges of racism. 'I just find that my films are a litmus test. They all bring out people's prejudices.'

July 16, 1999|ERIC HARRISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

President Clinton made a mistake two years ago when he tried to launch a dialogue on race. Instead of naming a commission to hold 15 months of hearings and then issue a ho-hum report, he should've called Spike Lee.

Lee provokes race talk, and he doesn't even have to make a movie about race to do it. Case in point: "Summer of Sam." His new film has a white cast and boasts three white co-writers. Race enters the picture in only the most tangential of ways. But people can't help seeing it in black and white.

"Race baiting," snipes Entertainment Weekly. "Race baiting," echoes the alternative weekly New Times. "It's a racist movie," says the cop who arrested the killer whose rampage frames the story. "A racist runt," snarls the father of one of the victims.

But Lee says they didn't see the movie he made. "It's absurd," he says, speaking by telephone from New York. "What they're writing is personal. They're not reviewing the film. . . . I stand behind my work, and I think it stands up to scrutiny.

"I just find that my films are a litmus test," he continues. "They all bring out people's prejudices and all that. . . . This country still has not dealt with race."

Lee's latest movie deals more broadly with the same themes as "Do the Right Thing," his 1989 movie about racial tensions in Brooklyn. Only "Summer of Sam" shows that Lee's true subject was, and is, not limited to race. It's intolerance. Both films are about the ways societies behave under pressure, how people make scapegoats of those who are different and how easy it is--given the right, or wrong, circumstances--for a community to explode.

Ironically, his movie is being attacked as an example of the very intolerance he's denouncing.

This time, instead of looking at a day in the life of a Brooklyn block broiling under the summer sun, as he did in "Do the Right Thing," Lee examines what happens to a different borough (the Bronx) during the superheated summer that Son of Sam killer David Berkowitz stalked the streets. By placing the story within a wider social context, Lee sacrifices the compression that gave the earlier film much of its unity and force. This makes for a messier movie, but it also is a more ambitious one. Disco, punk, '70s-style sexual freedom and the 1977 World Series all enter the story, which spills out of an Italian-American neighborhood. It's clear Lee is attempting nothing less than a snapshot of New York during that tumultuous decade.

But perhaps in part because two of his previous films depicted tensions between Italian and African Americans, some people have found it easy to believe that his chief aim here is to excoriate a white ethnic group. Ever since "Do the Right Thing," which some critics at the time said would spark race riots, the director has been a lightning rod for controversy. The way he candidly talks in interviews about everything from Hollywood racism to politics also ticks some people off. That image as the prototypal "angry black man" got cemented in 1992 when Esquire magazine published his photograph on the cover with the words: "Spike Lee Hates Your Cracker Ass."

That got a lot of people's attention. Lee was incensed, but the image stuck.

"I think in all honesty that a lot of reviewers, a lot of people, are trying to box me in," Lee said the other day in a conversation about what he sees as a double standard. "When I do black films or films with African American themes, they ask, 'When is he going to broaden himself?' " But now when he makes a movie without African Americans, Lee says, "All of a sudden all of the film critics are going to take up the mantle of racism in films. The rest of the year they don't give a [expletive] . . .

"I think this is aimed at undermining my credibility," Lee continues. "The way to disregard me as a filmmaker is to say that I'm a racist."

He argues that other directors can shoot the kind of scenes he gets criticized for and no one objects. One writer, for example, says that when an angry mob in "Summer of Sam" brandishes baseball bats (against other whites) Lee is evoking the infamous 1986 incident in which three black men were beaten by bat-wielding whites in the heavily Italian community of Howard Beach. One man was hit by a car while trying to escape and died. Lee runs down a list of films made by Italian American directors in which Italian characters beat people with bats--"The Untouchables," "Casino," "A Bronx Tale."

"So why," he asks, "if I use a baseball bat in 'Summer of Sam' I'm working [from] a fascination with Howard Beach?"

Similarly, he says, other directors aren't criticized when they make movies in which characters utter racist sentiments. Among examples, Lee mentions a disturbing scene in "Taxi Driver" in which a character played by the director Martin Scorsese profanely and graphically describes how he'd like to kill his wife for cheating on him with a black man.

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