Review: Todd McGowan’s Spike Lee

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Review: Todd McGowan’s Spike Lee

“In 1989, 10 films got awards [at the Cannes Film Festival] and Do the Right Thing wasn't one of them. I don't use awards as validation, but when all is said and done, if the choice is between a director like Steven Soderbergh and Spike Lee, they'll give it to the golden white boy every time.” These words were spoken by Spike Lee following the 1991 Cannes Film Festival, where his new film Jungle Fever had just lost the Palme d'Or to the Coen brothers' Barton Fink. Several writers, including Gene Siskel, weren't fans of Lee's “straight talk,” which led Siskel to ask: “Does [Lee] stop to think before he speaks?”

Todd McGowan's new book remains largely inconsiderate of Lee's public persona, instead focusing the analysis exclusively on the director's films, seeking a link that unites them. For McGowan, excess and its negotiation is the defining unity of Lee's filmmaking—an excess that “draws the spectator's attention to form” and “disrupts the smooth functioning of society and makes evident the failure of all elements to fit together.” However, McGowan seeks to move past prior understandings of excess and claims that a new theory is needed to understand Lee's films, “one that focuses on the intimate link between excess and passion.”

McGowan's decision to ignore the specificity of Lee's life and engage a rather theoretical, straightforwardly auteurist reading of Lee's oeuvre yields specific, fascinating readings of individual films, but one gets the sense that Lee's work is being used here as an explicative tool for theoretical engagement and not the other way around. Such is not the case with David Sterritt's Spike Lee's America, released in 2013, which seeks to situate Lee's work within historical contexts, using Lee as the primary figure of analysis. The contrast between the two books is striking, primarily because each author has taken a decidedly different approach, but each elucidates important components of Lee's films.

That lack of scope—and subject specificity—makes itself apparent in a small detail: McGowan's failure to refer to Lee's films as “joints” at any point, a label which all films but a few documentaries have carried.

If Sterritt's book lacks the ability to recoup lesser discussed or regarded films in Lee's oeuvre (he contends that Girl 6 and She Hate Me are “unfortunate projects”), McGowan has no such qualms and even aligns them quite brilliantly within his larger understanding of Lee's work. In Girl 6, excessive dimensions of passion often manifest through fantasy and become seamlessly intertwined with the real world. Thus, Girl 6 (Theresa Randle) defines her existence through fantasy and is afforded engagement with a realm of excess filled with potential danger, but also the capacity to organize her enjoyment. With She Hate Me, McGowan explains how the film's apparent incoherence (and here, the author does acknowledge the negative response from critics) is actually an attempt to acknowledge Jack's (Anthony Mackie) singularity, which is rendered invisible once Jack is forced to commodify himself: “our psychic investment in capitalism and its demand for a form of universalized prostitution arises, Lee's film suggests, through the act of turning away from singularity.” The degree to which McGowan's insights work for a reader are likely dependent on one's capacity to hear that excess, passion, and singularity are not the key to just a few Spike Lee joints, but all of them; while useful as an approach, McGowan's readings cumulatively point to little outside of themselves, and as such the book seems to lack a larger scope.

That lack of scope—and subject specificity—makes itself apparent in a small detail: McGowan's failure to refer to Lee's films as “joints” at any point, a label which all films but a few documentaries have carried (even Lee's 4 Little Girls retains the designation in its opening credits). The oversight points to McGowan's primary interest in his theoretical precepts, where Lee's films become examples to demonstrate their function. McGowan provides no evidence that Lee himself has ever stated these aims, so to claim the entirety of his oeuvre as devoted to revealing these societal functions is at times forced and almost comprehensively insular.

Nevertheless, McGowan does provide some spiffy readings of individual films and makes provocative claims regarding Lee's best films, namely that Summer of Sam and Bamboozled “are perhaps [Lee's] two greatest works.” McGowan unites both films under their interest in paranoia—a paranoia which “sees excess everywhere except in itself.” Summer of Sam, then, is understood as a racial parable about lynching, where “excess creates an image of passion that one's own passion is at risk.” These insights are personified in the film through Joey T (Michael Rispoli) and his gang's deluded insistence that punk-rocker Richie (Adrien Brody) is the Son of Sam. These events surround the actual killer, Berkowitz, who “sees excess all around him, yet is the true figure of excess.” Bamboozled also uses race and paranoia to articulate an illusion of authentic “blackness,” which is embodied by a white TV executive's (Michael Rapaport) insistence that by engaging black culture, he can access its authenticity; he becomes black and, even, dons blackface without concern.

As evidenced by these claims, McGowan provides insightful close-readings, perhaps even more so than Sterritt, whose strengths lie more in historical synthesis. Taken together, these two books—the only single-authored texts on Lee's films—provide an excellent starting point to penetrate Lee's complex aesthetic sensibilities, but by no means does either book exhaust the material (the director's documentaries receive little attention in both books, for example). As a rather narrow-focused examination of the man's work, McGowan provides a consistently proficient, thoughtful, and compelling means of approach—and that's the double truth, Ruth.

Todd McGowan's Spike Lee is available now from University of Illinois Press; to purchase it, click here.