Academic journal article CineAction

Multiculturalism and Spike Lee's Mixed Messages

Academic journal article CineAction

Multiculturalism and Spike Lee's Mixed Messages

Article excerpt

The late twentieth-century world can be characterised as one profoundly fissured by nationality, ethnicity, race, class, gender and sexuality. Spike Lee's films take place within the context of this broken world. Two of the most challenging and controversial films in the last decade, Do The Right Thing and Jungle Fever, have attempted to make some sense of this mess. Both films are about racial tension and conflict. Not surprisingly, both films carry similarly confused and mixed messages as to what it means to live in a separate and unequal racist society. These films are presented as attempts to shatter myths and defy accepted notions of racial reasoning. Yet, Lee's films lack the courage or intelligence to carry this off. By failing to confront the complexity of the issues in a candid and clear manner, Spike Lee's films offer a bland vision of a divided world that only serves to reinforce narrow discussions of race, which suppress who and what we are as a culturally diverse community.

From an outside perspective, what looks like a sensible way to evaluate the thinking of black America is to construct a division between two bodies of thought. One group is politically radical and separatist, the other is conservative and assimilationist. Yet, what is really going on in black America does not seem to fit into these categories. The main issue intellectually seems to be one of ethnic and cultural identity. This argument over black identity continues on its own terms, not the outside world's. It does however, have an effect on the outside world.

The civil rights movement provided an arena for political action aimed at destroying segregation. It helped forge this consensus among most blacks and whites. Today, however, many blacks are confused and angered by the failure of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "dream". There is little apparent agreement or even optimism about the future. Many young blacks (middle-class ones in particular) feel they need to rid themselves of their sense of ambiguity and the precariousness of their belonging. For many of them (and this is not entirely unjustified) integration is a badge of dishonour, shame, and inferiority. There is a sense that integration has been achieved at the expense of black identity.

In the midst of a white majority culture, it is no surprise that we are witnessing an intensification of ethnic identity consciousness. The promise of ethnic assimilation has been accompanied by an unmistakable rise in cultural nationalism and black power thinking. Nationalist politics attempt to offer understanding and cohesion to the psychological and social meaning of blackness.

The issues of multiculturalism have much to do with present day racial polarization. The politics of racial mixing represent a coming together of two powerful and related ideologies - old-fashioned white racism and modern-day black nationalism. These ideas which see race as a community - an invisible refuge - demand a stifling conformity. Far from being imaginative or innovative, these visions are closed and philistine. It is on this canvas that Lee paints his portrait of America.

1989's Do The Right Thing began where Lee's previous film School Daze ended; with a call to "WAKE UP". Presumably, this sets the tone for what the film's message is to be. The politically explosive message of Do The Right Thing does not give its audience the choice to leave sleeping.

The film is set on one block in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, on a sweltering summer day. It is a community filled with a variety of stylishly dressed, but supposedly lower class, blacks and Hispanics. As the day wears on, it becomes clear that this is less a film about the people than it is about the issues of racism, loyalty, and violence. The people we are introduced to are all suffering from defeat. They are a raging and angry community.

The obvious outsiders in the community are the Korean grocery store owners, the white yuppie who owns a Brownstone, and most significantly the white Italian owners of the pizzeria, Sal the friendly but take-no-shit patriarch, and his two sons Pino and Vito. …

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