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Spike Lee: again in dangerous territory

July 28, 2004|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

Words like "provocative" and "controversial" don't begin to describe Spike Lee's latest, "She Hate Me." "Explosive" is more like it. As usual, Lee has a lot on his mind. This time he targets insider trading, drug industry greed and the worldwide AIDS epidemic, the hypocrisy of America society -- and, yes, lesbians. It is the way in which he approaches lesbians -- and women in general -- that is likely to stir up a storm.

Even so, "She Hate Me" is a scabrously acute satire, vigorous and entertaining, made by one of America's most fearless and talented filmmakers. There are no lulls and no letup in this bristling 138-minute movie.

At 30, John Henry "Jack" Armstrong (Anthony Mackie) has reason to think he has it made. A Harvard-educated MBA, he's a vice president of a Manhattan-based biotech firm about to launch an AIDS vaccine. Unfortunately, the Food and Drug Administration has just withheld approval, and Jack's bosses (Woody Harrelson, Ellen Barkin) are keeping a lid on the news just long enough to dump their stock. As events escalate, Jack turns whistle-blower. He is immediately fired, his bank account frozen and his reputation smeared.

Just as Jack is wondering how to fight back, his ex-girlfriend Fatima (Kerry Washington) and her lover, Alex (Dania Ramirez), turn up with a business deal: impregnate both, for $5,000 each. There's no love lost between Jack and Fatima, but he's in a jam. Fatima's all business, since she's instantly pregnant, she's sufficiently grateful and decides to help out Jack by lining him up will all the lesbians she knows who are eager to have a child. (She apparently doesn't know any single straight women in the same predicament.) Each woman will pay Jack $10,000, with Fatima taking a 10% finder's fee.

That Jack felt betrayed and deeply hurt by Fatima at the time of their breakup is understandable. She had not been honest with him about her uncertainties as to her sexual orientation, but he's still angry with her, and in one outburst declares he doesn't "believe in a gay gene" and shrieks that lesbians are vampires. While it's clear that by the time the film is over he has acquired a more positive view of lesbians, he may well remain dismissive of the increasing scientific evidence that sexual orientation is at least partly genetic.

Is it possible that a Harvard MBA hasn't known any gay people who have explained to him that sexual orientation is not a matter of choice? For that matter, hasn't Spike Lee known any gay people who have told him the same thing? Yet Jack says he has learned the truth of words spoken to him by a former colleague (David Bennent, star of the classic "The Tin Drum"): "Not to know is bad, not to want to know is worse."

Then there's the matter of the impregnations. Except for Alex, no one requests artificial insemination, and in a series of exuberantly lusty vignettes Jack transports the women to the heights of sexual ecstasy. This plays into the old belief that all its takes is the right man to straighten out a lesbian; similarly, the film's fade-out seems designed to leave Jack with a ray of hope that he just might end up in bed with the gorgeous Fatima and Alex, playing into straight male sexual fantasies about lesbians. Even allowing that "She Hate Me," for all its various serious points, is essentially a comedy, lesbians can hardly be said to fare well.

All the key women in the film are the same: hard as nails until they turn to mush. That goes for Barkin's ruthless executive as well as Fatima and Alex; even Jack's termagant of a mother (Lonette McKee) seems to have mellowed toward her ailing husband (Jim Brown) as she proudly watches her son defend himself in a dramatic Senate hearing, presided over by a wonderfully pompous Brian Dennehy.

Lee has worked in a stirring tribute to Frank Wills, the security guard who discovered the Watergate break-in only to die in destitution and obscurity, a fate Jack is determined to avoid. There's also an uproarious subplot involving the beautiful daughter (Monica Bellucci) of one of the last of Mafia dons (John Turturro, hilarious, wise and shrewd).

Lee fires up his entire cast, and Mackie is fast emerging as a major discovery who is talented and has star presence. Lee's energy never flags, and "She Hate Me" resonates with authority and impact and daring, but the messages it sends are mixed.

When it comes to social issues, Lee is fiercely, admirably activist, but when it comes to sex, he plays into stereotypes and myths that are all the more easily reinforced because they occur in a raucously comic context.


'She Hate Me'

MPAA rating: R for strong graphic sexuality/nudity, language and a scene of violence

Times guidelines: Definitely not for youngsters

Anthony Mackie...John Henry "Jack"


Kerry Washington...Fatima

Ellen Barkin...Margo

Monica Bellucci...Simona

Jim Brown...Geronimo

A Sony Pictures Classics release of a 40 Acres and a Mule production. Director Spike Lee. Producers Spike Lee, Preston Holmes, Fernando Sulichin. Screenplay by Michael Genet and Spike Lee. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique. Editor Barry Alexander Brown. Music Terence Blanchard. Costumes Donna Berwick. Production designer Brigitte Broch. Art director Sarah Frank. Set decorator Ford Wheeler. Running time: 2 hours, 18 minutes.

At selected theaters.

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