A quarter century after Malcolm X was assassinated, Spike Lee understood the famed black leader had become, as he wrote, “so many things to so many people.” Malcolm X became the subject of Lee’s sixth feature, a film that achieved a perfect, intimate unity of artist and material. The 1992 release, Malcolm X, was a masterwork, featuring an astonishing, perfectly measured performance from Denzel Washington (for which, yes, he wuz robbed of that Oscar). This was the film Lee knew he was born to make. It delivered on the promise of his exciting earlier work, most notably Do the Right Thing, a treasure of smaller scope, and She’s Gotta Have It, his vigorous, hilarious official debut. Malcolm X succeeded as a movie epic, and as an homage to the man who had most painstakingly secured for himself and advocated for others “a total Black self-respect,” as Lee put it. For the filmmaker, it seemed like a summation, a pinnacle.
So, you’re young, Black, self-respecting and respected, and you’ve made your magnum opus. Where do you go from there? Instead of letting that question intimidate him, Lee has remained ambitious, independent, and industrious. Which doesn’t mean he always got game. His new film, She Hate Me, is, as he describes it, “very simple. It’s about sex, greed, money and politics.” And I suppose it’s the simplicity that bothers me. That, and the sex, greed, money and politics. Compared with the theme of total Black self-respect, those seem like blurry targets, and combining them the way he has—in a blunt, wide-swinging satire—doesn’t do much to sharpen the focus.
The story is this: A corporate whistleblower (Anthony Mackie) gets canned from his job and cornered into supporting himself by selling his sperm to lesbians. (Or at least we’re supposed to believe he was cornered into it; blacklisted from Wall Street, he might have just tried selling shoes, but I guess the private insemination services, paying $10 thousand a pop, seem more conducive to maintaining an established lifestyle.) The corporation in question is evil and powerful, as today’s corporations are supposed to be; it deals in pharmaceuticals and clandestinely shredded documents, and sports a roster including Woody Harrelson as Head Corporate Bastard and Ellen Barkin as Second Bitch in Command Who Swears a Lot (I’ve since taken to calling her Ellen Fuckin’ Barkin). In case you didn’t believe me about the evil, the company has a miracle drug for HIV, but the Bastard is just too greedy to share it with the world. Now, regarding the lesbians, there are many of them, they really want children, they have determined that actual intercourse is the best way to go, and they challenge our hero’s stamina, not to mention his ethics. Oh, and—very important—one of them (Kerry Washington) used to be his girlfriend.
Indeed, we’ve got the makings of a good concept here—our protagonist, screwed by The Man, screwed by the women. But we know this would have been only half-right for directors like Frank Capra or David Lynch. Why does it seem so wrong for Lee, too?
Not because he can’t handle big ideas with humour and panache. Not because he didn’t do his homework. There was a lesbian culture consultant, who hosted seminars and panel discussions, and Mackie did hang around at Wharton and Harvard, gleaning MBA cred. There are some glimmers of good performance—from Ossie Davis, John Turturro, and Mackie when he warms up—and some fine visual flourishes. Terence Blanchard clearly worked hard on his companionable score.
Maybe it’s just that the artist and the material don’t find that essential intimacy. Lee is so passionate about his work that if he seems to be faking it even a little bit, the romance ends. At best, the She Hate Me script, a collaboration between Lee and Michael Genet based on Genet’s story, seems self-derivative, like Lee is just going through his own motions. At worst, it’s the stuff of a film school first draft.
She Hate Me doesn’t have to be another Malcolm X. None of Lee’s later films do, and none of them will. But because Malcolm’s epic ambitions were achieved through an inherent, hard-won dignity, even a minor shortage of poise in Lee’s later work seems like a long fall from the pinnacle.
She Hate Me most comes to life, if you’ll pardon the expression, in the bedroom—as many of Lee’s movies do. He’s acutely sensitive to private human contact, be it earnest or funny or tender or rough. Detachment, a preferred mode of angry satire and, in fact, the quintessential mind-set of the very institutions at which this film tries to take aim, just doesn’t suit him.
Maisonneuve contributing editor Jonathan Kiefer writes about the arts for various publications in San Francisco, where he lives. One of his cats is named after Preston Sturges. Read his exploration of San Francisco cinema ("San Francisco Dreaming") in Issue 9, on newstands now. Film Flâneur appears every other Thursday.