More Than the Violence: A Reading of Intergenerational Relationships in Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever
Silverberg, Cory, CineAction
Spike Lee is known for giving difficult interviews. His interviewers variously describe him as short tempered, easily distracted, uninterested, and too confrontational. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of Lee for an interviewer is his habit of turning a question around. If asked why he chose to do something in a film his response is invariably, "Why are you asking me this?" His interview style is designed to put the interviewer, and often the reader, on the defensive. He is bold and he likes to shock. Unfortunately, shock value does little to contribute to meaningful or honest dialogue between people. For example, while many people felt Madonna's book Sex was shocking in the end it did little to contribute to an open or honest social discourse on sexuality in Western society. It was shocking (to some, mostly heterosexual, people), it sold well, and she moved on. One might say that in some of Lee's films (particularly Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever) he achieves with race what Madonna achieved with sex. Both are interested in throwing popular images back to the public, both are interested, if only on a surface level, in challenging some stereotypes, and both are committed to making money, and producing images that endorse capitalistic notions of success and power. While Madonna usually leaves me empty because, to me, it feels like she has copped out, Lee creates greater problems. It is the violence in Lee's films that I find most problematic. His practically sole reliance on violence and hatred to convey meaning usually leaves me feeling emotionally empty and intellectually ripped off. Yet there is something in Lee's films that keeps me coming back (albeit with increasing hesitancy). Both his overall aesthetic and "guerrilla filmmaking" style are undeniably interesting to watch. More than this, however, is my fascination with Lee's treatment of intergenerational relationships in his movies. Lee's interest in intergenerational relationships is an aspect of his films that seems to go unnoticed, unappreciated, and misunderstood most of the time. It is however one of his great strengths as a writer and director. Few American filmmakers are able to deal with three generations in one movie without resorting to a sickly sweet Disney type sentimentality. Lee's success at doing this may be tied to the historical/cultural values of many African Americans for whom older generations are not immediately considered worthless by younger ones. In some, less Westernized, communities there is a much higher visibility of the elderly. Older generations are not only valued for their wisdom (an enduring Western stereotype about "primitive" cultures) but also for their competence. In these communities they can be found acting as surrogate parents to their grandchildren and other neighbourhood children, taking an active role in raising the next generation. Thus in a community in the West Indies, or the southern US, the very old and very young are equally visible and they are engaged in dealing with one another on a daily basis.
While my own heritage speaks to this same form of relationship between the very old and the very young, many of our traditions have been lost with the increasing secularization and "Americanization" of Jews that took place following immigration during the Second World War. Most of our original ways of dealing with age and most of our basic understandings of experience, competence, and wisdom, have given way to nursing homes, retirement communities, and any number of other more subtle ways we have chosen to ignore our elders (and the mortality they remind us of). It is always important to go beyond the surface when issues of intergenerational relations are dealt with in mainstream Western cultural productions. Two of Lee's films that can contribute to a meaningful discourse on intergenerational relationships are the above mentioned Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever. We can investigate this potential by first looking at the representation of the different generations in the films and then seeing how Lee has the generations interact with one another. …