by Dr. Boyce Watkins
Just like everyone reading this article, I’ve come to love and respect Spike Lee immensely over the years. He is a cinematic pioneer and legend, opening the door for nearly ever black filmmaker in Hollywood. I said as much when I spoke with Tyler Perry a year ago about his on-going feud with Spike, making it clear that I appreciate what both men bring to the table for black people.
When it came to the Tyler vs. Spike debate, I saw much of this as a regional conflict: The very subtle black southern baptist tradition against the more progressive, in-your-face norms of Harlem activism. Being a southerner who eventually moved to New York, I am able to at least try to understand both perspectives. Spike is correct that black people are more likely to get opportunities when we shuck and jive for white folks, but Tyler has single-handedly exported black Hollywood to Atlanta by creating more jobs than nearly any other black filmmaker in history. So, while Tyler’s characters are more likely to get approval from white folks, empowered black men like Spike should certainly study Tyler’s exercise in economic self-sufficiency….I found myself complaining a lot less about racist white people when I no longer had to work for them.
But going back to Spike, I can appreciate someone who understands that the size of your paycheck does not justify anything you might want to do. As a professor of Finance who has trained scores of students for careers on Wall Street, I have studied the power and impact of money more than you’ll ever know. But I’ve also gained an understanding of how money is used to enslave people, especially African Americans (see commercialized hip-hop as an example of how corporate money is being used to fund black male genocide). One of the worst things you can ever do is form an addiction to a commodity that is controlled by the descendants of those who spent 400 years oppressing you.
In Spike Lee’s most recent criticism of one of his peers, he has decided that the new film, “Django Unchained” is “disrespectful to his ancestors.” Hearing these words made me question my own plans to see the film, since I respect what Spike has to say. I was looking for an explanation, or anything that might help me to better understand where Spike was coming from.
Spike did make this remark on his Twitter account:
“American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust.My Ancestors Are Slaves. Stolen From Africa. I Will Honor Them.”
OK, that’s a little better, but I still need more. The truth is that I am not a big fan of Quentin Tarantino, so I am an easy sell on this kind of critique. While being both brilliant and creative, Taratino seems to push a bit too hard for shock value. One of the ways he loves to shock his audience is by using the n-word more than any gangster rapper in human history. I’ve never heard Quentin explain why he uses the n-word so much, so I have no idea if his intentions are noble or insulting. I would imagine that he could write great scripts without turning my stomach in every other scene and reminding black people of their own horrific dehumanization.
But in fairness to Jaime, Kerry Washington and other black people who trust Tarantino more than I do, I’d love to hear Spike explain in more detail why he won’t see the movie. I also think that those who disagree with Spike should be obligated to explain their concern in some way other than simply saying, “He’s just a hater.” African Americans who provide important and sometimes uncomfortable critiques of the world around them should not be simply categorized as “haters.” Every now and then, you need to say something that will challenge people to think a little more deeply about how they live and spend their time. Doing anything some white guy tells you to do because you’re getting a big paycheck can turn you into a wealthy slave.
Spike should probably write an op-ed or do a more in-depth interview around the topic. Also, if he hasn’t seen the film himself, this certainly weakens his critique and adds relevance to those who accuse him of being jealous of other filmmakers. I would hope that Spike would at least watch the film before he challenges it in such a brash and disrespectful way. But let’s be clear: It’s refreshing to see a public figure who is willing to be honest in a world where everyone is trained to sit back like little corporate puppets and smile at the destructive ignorance sprouting up all around them. We need black people who are willing to think for themselves and Spike Lee is certainly one of them.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is a professor at Syracuse University and author of the book, “Commercialized Hip-Hop: The Gospel o Self Destruction.” To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.