Academic journal article African American Review

True Terror: The Haunting of Spike Lee's 25th Hour

Academic journal article African American Review

True Terror: The Haunting of Spike Lee's 25th Hour

Article excerpt

The opening sequence of Spike Lee's Malcolm X (1992) is a relentless act of cinematic aggression. Malcolm's rhythmic condemnation of "the white man" as history's greatest scourge provides aural context for the infamous video footage of the Rodney King beating. These discrete audio and visual texts resonate to create an inescapable ideological indictment that draws to a close upon a stark visual presenting an American flag engulfed in flames, burning away to reveal an iconic letter "X." In the confluence of its texts, this sequence amounts to a militant statement of black grievance and defiance. However, as this assault arrogates and deforms the master symbol of the American flag, it also suggests that the film to follow speaks about African America within an American discourse. Like the film it prefaces, the evocative opening of Malcolm X announces aggressively Lee's desire to be understood as an auteur consciously attempting to engage and influence public narratives about the idea of race in America and, therefore, about the idea of America itself. Along with other films from his early career, Malcolm X helped establish Lee's reputation as a bold yet mainstream cultural commentator whose films "require their audiences to question conventional structures of feeling, the normative approaches to life as lived in the United States, and to rethink national mythology" (Massood, "Introduction" xvi).

Perhaps, then, it is not surprising that more than a decade after becoming a reliable provocateur Lee directed 25th Hour, Hollywood's first contemplation of the national trauma produced by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Released just sixteen months after the event, the film's post-9/11 New York setting was the representation of a national wounding, still raw. Projecting it upon the silver screen was in itself an aggressive gesture; it was a risk no other Hollywood filmmaker would take until almost five years after the attacks. Yet at first blush it appears that in 25th Hour Lee handles his confrontation of the American imagination with uncharacteristic deference; one critic described the film as a "heartfelt love letter" to New York and America (Massood, "Introduction" xvii). The ideological fire witnessed in Malcolm X seems tamped in reverence to the sensitized post-9/11 audience. Issues of race feel muted in a narrative focused upon the fate of a sympathetic white protagonist; and Lee's treatment of the events of 9/11 is ostensibly apolitical and ideologically open. On its surface, the film strikes its viewer as a collage of intimate character studies, distanced from the public discourses of race and nation that organize so much of Lee's earlier work. However, in the context of Lee's oeuvre, 25th Hour represents not a departure in theme and attitude, but rather a shift in method. The film is in fact a profound contemplation of the way in which race continues to haunt the American mind, and it is an important development in Lee's extensive and evolving artistic project. Modernizing the national gothic tradition, 25th Hour suggests that, despite programs of gentrification, suburbanization and incarceration which have virtually inoculated the affluent white body against racial hazard, America remains deeply troubled by its dark bogeymen. This argument is elaborated amidst a specific post-9/11 historical context that was--among other things--animated by rhetoric of American interracial solidarity marshaled against a cave-hidden threat from abroad. Lee's film carefully hollows out this rhetoric by demonstrating that for the American imagination, even in the post-9/11 moment, the most potent menace lurks at home--in a sepulchral prison system that efficiently disappears black male bodies from civil society and social discourse, while intensifying the terror they produce in the national psyche.

The subtlety and restraint that Lee uses to re-create the hauntings in 25th Hour gives the film a simmering, understated power that distinguishes it from his more noted films of the late 1980s and early '90s, like Do the Right Thing (1989), Jungle Fever (1991) and Malcolm X--films that conveyed ideology in heavy-handed, sometimes didactic, terms that could prompt an unsympathetic (and hyperbolic) critic like Stanley Crouch to declare Lee's aesthetic fascist" (qtd. …

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