There was actually a time long, long ago when I admired filmmaker Spike Lee and eagerly anticipated his new movies.
Back in the late 1980s/early 1990s, Lee was making the type of original, gripping, eccentric, gritty, controversial movies that nobody else (least of all, the Hollywood establishment) would dare to make.
At that time, as an independent young director, Spike really was a brave trailblazer who existed outside the mainstream and had to fight for financing in order to get him works made.
However, somewhere along the way, he lost the plot and became a caricature of a self-indulgent, bitter middle-aged man who sees conspiracies and nameless enemies all around.
Even worse, he has become dull, shrill, and predictable.
Lee has a new movie out now called “Red Hook Summer,” which was previewed at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah. During a question-and-answer session, Lee’s behavior confirmed almost all of my suspicions about him – he is no longer a filmmaker, but a propagandist. Moreover, his career is about one thing and one thing only – the promotion of Spike Lee.
Thus, as with Michael Moore, the message has long been lost in the interests of self-aggrandizement.
In Lee’s case, I believe his public persona is entirely contrived and orchestrated. Lee is something like 52 years old now, yet he still wears baseball caps on his head and ‘throwback’ athletic jerseys, as if he was a teenager. He looks as ridiculous and as fake as Michael Moore with his ever-present “working-class” baseball cap and T-shirt ensemble.
Lee also spews endless, simplistic nonsense about the continuing ills of racism and how he has suffered from prejudice and what an “outsider” he is.
During the Sundance Q&A session, he had a dialogue with actor-comic Chris Rock that sounded completely scripted -- in which Lee repeatedly used profanity to attack Hollywood and its alleged “lack of understanding” of poor black people.
This is all an act, a phony, tired, stale performance by a man who is one of the biggest hypocrites in American pop culture.
Spike Lee is an affluent, successful, middle-aged black man who lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and enjoys a life of comfort far beyond the means and dreams of those he pretends to “represent” and “champion.”
He rubs elbow with celebrities of all stripes and even hosted a pricey fundraiser recently in his home for President Barack Obama.
Lee is, in fact, the ultimate “insider” -- he has not been a “maverick” of any kind for at least two decades. Yet, he still aggressively plays the part of an “outsider” – this delusion has become so engrained in him that he uses it whenever he promotes a new film or speaks to the press about political subjects.
It’s all an act; it’s all contrived and calculated.
Moreover, Lee actually came from a middle-class background (more or less) – the traditional black ghetto is an alien environment to him. Of course, that (in and of itself) does not mean he can’t depict the lives of ghetto-dwellers as an artist. But it irritates me whenever he spouts some simple-minded black nationalist mumbo-jumbo that I know he neither believes in nor even takes seriously.
I believe it was the black nationalist poet Amiri Baraka who dismissed Lee as a middle-class poseur.
A particularly galling aspect to Lee’s public persona is his frequent (and excessive) use of street vulgarity and profanity (as exemplified by his recent outburst at Sundance). I think he does this in order to maintain what he perceives as “street credibility” and as a way to “ingratiate” himself with his young black audience -- a demography that Lee actually has very little in common with.
Lee could have become one of the great film directors of modern cinema history, on the order of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. But he remained trapped in this adolescent fantasy world in which he thinks he is some kind of “persecuted” outsider who suffers endless injustice.
In a sense, he has been so consumed with his own fame that the very center of his “art” is not his films… but rather himself and his extremely fragile persona of “oppressed black man.”