This past year, Spike Lee received acclaim for his latest movie, BlacKkKlansman. His creation of a police officer, Flip Zimmerman, raised again Lee’s use of Jewish characters in his films. His 1990 film Mo’ Better Blues featured two non-Jews caricatures of rapacious and untrustworthy Jewish capitalists in the music industry; the industry Lee’s father labored in for decades.
Zimmerman’s character is portrayed as someone who considered himself white. Ron Stallworth, the first black cop on the Colorado Springs police force, tries to motivate his Jewish detective partner to finish their task at hand: infiltrating a local Ku Klux Klan chapter to thwart some dangerous schemes. “You’re Jewish,” Stallworth says. “Why you acting like you ain’t got skin in the game?” “I was always just another white kid,” Zimmerman tells Stallworth. Some on the Left see this interaction as symbolic of the tendency of Jews to accept their white-skin privilege and become indifferent to the dangers of white supremacist movements.
While Lee’s ongoing evolving Jewish characters are of interest, this essay will focus much more on his fierce criticism of The Green Book that dominated post-Oscar awards discourse. It was previewed by New York Times writer Wesley Morris. Lee believed that he was robbed in 1990 when his film, Do the Right Thing, was ignored while Driving Miss Daisy won and this year his film BlacKkKlansman should have won. In both instances, he claimed, films that glorified the fantasy of racial reconciliation triumphed over films that focused on the real dangers black Americans have faced: white supremacist terrorism and racist police violence. By contrast, we will see that Spike Lee’s efforts are much more problematic and the demonizing of so-called racial reconciliation narratives is wrong-headed. Instead, these criticisms reflect an unwillingness to look at the real lives of struggling black Americans and solutions to the hurdles they must overcome.
Doing the Right Thing spoke to the powerlessness felt by many black Americans. However, except for police violence at the end of the film, there is no reason to be sympathetic to their plight. There is not one black character who is striving to better himself, to be a good worker, a good student, or exhibit appropriate behavior. Most striking is Lee’s character. Mookie is self-centered and an irresponsible worker, irresponsible partner, and irresponsible father. He was a poster child for the worst racist stereotypes, particularly at a time when many whites were unsympathetic to black concerns.
By contrast, the black driver, Hoke, in Driving Miss Daisy, is the epitome of greatness under duress. He is shown to be quite intelligent as in an initial scene where he finds a solution to a vexing problem in the factory owned by Miss Daisy’s son. One continues to see his deft decision making as her insensitivity puts Hoke in situations in which he must find ways to maintain his personal dignity without creating tensions. In his review praising the film, the longtime Washington Post movie critic and subsequent speechwriter for President Obama, Desson Thomson wrote, “Hoke is wily enough in the Southern master-slave code to keep ahead of Mizz Daizzeh for 25 years — without her even noticing.”
Just as importantly, we see glimpses of how Hoke’s efforts enable his family to succeed with his granddaughter’s college graduation. Unlike Lee’s Mookie, Hoke goes a long way to counter racist stereotypes and to engender sympathy for the plight of black Americans.
Of course, for leftists Do the Right Thing was not about presenting favorable black characters but about their powerlessness in the face of a white supremacist society. This is why one should contrast it with John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood the following year. Unlike Lee’s cardboard black characters, Singleton follows the evolution of black youth trying to better themselves but constrained by the dangers within their community. Like Driving Miss Daisy, Singleton develops real-world characters that combat racist stereotypes.
The same contrasts are played out today. The Green Book explores nuanced evolving characters with their relationship embedded in a deeply racist environment. Morris and others are wrong to characterize it as simply about racial reconciliation. The film deftly weaves a wide range of racist and sometimes violent Jim Crow practices into a personal story. By contrast, Lee again has one-dimensional stick figure characters whose only goal is to serve his political objectives.
The Green Book’s presenter, John Lewis, spoke how its depiction was true to the Jim Crow era. In praising the movie, John Singleton noted: “Mahershala Ali plays Dr. Don Shirley as a self-made man, who eschews all pretensions of what black men were prejudiced to be defined as. He speaks clearly, does not condone violence or theft. Ali plays Dr. Shirley as a self-modeled man of his times. Fighting against all social norms.”
For the social justice crowd, however, the objective must be to show how vicious and irredeemable white racism is. To show the violence of white supremacist organizations (BlacKkKlansman), the vicious treatment of enslaved women (Twelve Years a Slave), the gleeful killing of their male slaves (Django Unchanged), or the terror from racist policing (Do the Right Thing).
Lee is not alone in ignoring is the struggles of real black people taking individual initiatives to better their lives. Many of the current Democratic presidential hopefuls are currently promoting two policies: reparations and guaranteed government employment. Neither proposal is realistic but just as Black Lives Matters’ emphasis on the shrinking number of police killings of unarmed black men annually – only 2 through June 2019 — it shifts the discussion away from improving the actual situations of at-risk black Americans. Ask about their policies to reduce the educational attainment gap, to improve struggling black neighborhoods, including stemming violent crime, or to fight chronic joblessness, especially among young black men, virtually Democratic presidential hopefuls are silent. Thus, Spike Lee, together with much of the Democratic Party, stand in the way of looking at meaningful policies that can move at-risk black Americans forward.