Sunday, August 5, 2018

The Films of Spike Lee: Girl 6 (1996)

Girl 6 (1996)
Directed by: Spike Lee.
Written by: Suzan-Lori Parks.
Starring: Theresa Randle (Judy/Girl 6), Isaiah Washington (Shoplifter), Spike Lee (Jimmy), Jenifer Lewis (Boss #1 – Lil), Susan Batson (Acting Coach), Debi Mazar - Girl #39), Peter Berg (Caller #1 – Bob), Michael Imperioli (Caller #30 - scary caller), Kristen Wilson (Salesgirl #1), Debra Wilson (Salesgirl #3), Naomi Campbell (Girl #75), Gretchen Mol (Girl #12), Richard Belzer (Caller #4 – Beach), Larry Pine (Caller #33 - Wall Street), Coati Mundi (Caller #8 – Martin), Delilah Cotto (Caller #8 – Christine), Anthony Nocerino (Caller #6), Tom Byrd III (Caller #18), Madonna (Boss #3), John Turturro (Murray - the Agent), Quentin Tarantino (Director #1 – NY), Ron Silver (Director #2 – LA), Joie Susannah Lee (Switchboard Operator).
Spike Lee is a great director, but his biggest blind spot has always been female characters. His female characters always seem more like constructs – ideas – more than human characters. This was true even of Nola Darling in his breakthrough film She’s Gotta Have It – who was less developed than any of the men in the movie, and is certainly true of most of the supporting female characters in his films. The best female characters in his film up until this point are ones like Annabella Sciorra’s in Jungle Fever – where she brings more to the role than what was on the page, or Zelda Harris’ in Crooklyn – which was based on Lee’s sister and co-writer of that film, Joie. He has improved – somewhat anyway, over the years. – Teyonah Parris’ Lysistrata in Chi-Raw is one of his best female protagonists, and the Nola Darling of the 2017 Netflix series version of She’s Gotta Have It is far more complex than her cinematic counterpart. But it still remains a weakness of Lee’s – which is perhaps why Girl 6 is the weakest film he has ever directed. Lee doesn’t seem to understand his main character at all, and lead actress Theresa Randle doesn’t help much. Lee was smart enough to use a screenplay written by a woman – Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks – but he doesn’t really find a way into the material – to bring it to life in any way that makes sense. The film was meant to be empowering to its female protagonist – but it doesn’t really play that way.
Randle plays Judy, an aspiring actress living in New York. We first see her at a humiliating audition for a famous director (Quentin Tarantino playing Lee’s vision of who Quentin Tarantino is – this was before Jackie Brown, when the two argued in the press about Tarantino’s use of the n-word in his films, but no one who saw Girl 6 could question how Lee saw Tarantino even then). The director insists on seeing Judy’s breasts for the audition – and while she doesn’t want to, she shows him anyway. Lee makes the curious decision to show us in the audience her breasts as well, which kind of makes him as bad as the director he is denouncing at that moment.
After that, Judy tries to find work – but cannot get it anywhere. She ends up – after a series of interviews – working for Lil (Jennifer Lewis) as one of her many phone sex workers. After a brief training session, Judy finds she is a natural at it – the men love her, and keep on requesting her. And she finds herself enjoying her work – perhaps too much – and becoming too involved with those who call in. All the other girls are faking it – Judy is not.
That right there is probably the biggest problem with Girl 6 – the film never really finds a way to make it convincing that Judy would love her clients – and the phone sex she is having – so much. It doesn’t matter who is phoning in, what their fetish is, Judy seems to get off on it. With one caller, they start talking about his sick mother – and she even agrees to meet him in person (he doesn’t show). Another caller is scary, and makes threats that may carry over into real life. Lee has said that he wanted to take the power away from the male callers, and give it to Judy in the film – but that doesn’t really work out. The men are mostly sad guys, who have a fetish they want to live out (not so much in real life, but the fantasy of the phone version) – but I’m not sure how that translates into her having the power.
The various subplots and digressions in the film don’t add much either. Isiah Washington is on hand as Judy’s ex-husband, a kleptomaniac, but he’s not a well thought character in any meaningful sense. Lee himself plays Judy’s neighbor and friend – basically a sounding board for her problems – but he doesn’t add anything to the movie other than judgmental comments about her “phone bone” stuff. There are three digressions – when Lee re-creates Carmen Jones, Foxy Brown and The Jefferson’s with Judy at the center – these are amusing, but serve no real purpose to the movie.
Ultimately, you can say that about the whole film. Not much in the film seems to connect with everything else in the film. You keep watching the film, thinking that is going somewhere – that Lee is building to something and that something never gets there. The central character remains a blank, and she’s lost in a story that doesn’t go anywhere or have anything really to say. Lee is usually such a confident filmmaker – but here, he doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing.

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