Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The Films of Spike Lee: She Hate Me (2004)

She Hate Me (2004)
Directed by: Spike Lee.
Written by: Spike Lee and Michael Genet
Starring: Anthony Mackie (John Henry "Jack" Armstrong), Kerry Washington (Fatima Goodrich), Jim Brown (Geronimo Armstrong), John Turturro (Don Angelo Bonasera), Q-Tip (Vada Huff), Woody Harrelson (Leland Powell), Dania Ramirez (Alex Guerrero), Monica Bellucci (Simona Bonasera), Lonette McKee (Lottie Armstrong), Michael Genet (Jamal Armstrong), Ossie Davis (Judge Buchanan), Brian Dennehy (Chairman Billy Church), Ellen Barkin (Margo Chadwick), David Bennent (Dr. Herman Schiller), Joie Lee (Gloria Reid), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Frank Wills), Michole Briana White (Nadiyah), Paula Jai Parker (Evelyn), Bai Ling (Oni), Sarita Choudhury (Song), Jamel Debbouze (Doak), Isiah Whitlock (Agent Amos Flood), Lemon (Eugenio Martinez), Kim Director (Grace), Rick Aiello (Rocco Bonasera), Don Harvey (G. Gordon Liddy).
Out of all of Spike Lee’s films, I’m not sure there’s one as universally disliked as She Hate Me – at least among those who have seen it, which I guess is not many (according to Box Office Mojo, it’s the second lowest grossing film of Lee’s career at only $366,037). It is easy to see why critics savaged the movie – and audiences mainly stayed away. The film is overlong and overstuffed – running two hours and fifteen minutes, and lashing out in all sorts of different directions its runtime. It not only indulges, but actively embraces, stereotypes about the virility and sexual prowess of black men, and could easily be read as massively homophobic in its depiction of all the lesbians in the film. It’s far easier to rip this movie to shreds and move on, rather than sit with it – and actively engage in what it has to say. I hadn’t seen the film since it came out years ago – and yet, the film has stuck with me – I’m not going to make the case that it’s a misunderstood masterpiece – it certainly is not that, but I do think that Lee is a smart filmmaker, who knows precisely what he is doing with this film. He probably even knew the reaction the film would get.
The film centers on John Henry “Jack” Armstrong, played by Anthony Mackie. He is a young, successful executive at a pharmaceutical company, whose stock price keeps going up and up because they keep saying they are about to introduce a vaccine for AIDS. Early in the film, the doctor in charge of that drug jumps out a window, and leaves his video diary to John – a diary in which he confesses that the vaccine they are hanging all their success on doesn’t really work. Overcome with a pang of conscience, John reports this to the SEC – which sets off everything else that happens in the film. He is promptly fired from his job, cannot even get an interview anywhere else, and has his assets frozen because – even if it was him who prompted the investigation, he is also now the subject of it. And here’s where the movie takes a strange twist I don’t think anyone could have predicted. John’s ex-fiancĂ©e Fatima (Kerry Washington) – who left him a few years ago when she discovered she was a lesbian – comes to him with an offer – both she and her girlfriend Alex (Dania Ramirez) want to get pregnant – and will pay him $5,000 to make that happen (the old fashioned way). Soon, Fatima is bringing all her lesbian friends around for the same procedure – at $10,000 a pop. John has a remarkable ability to not only impregnate all these women – often 5 a night – but bring them all too screaming orgasm while doing so.
This central conceit of the film is what overshadows everything else in the film. Lee is really making a statement about capitalism in the George W. Bush era – and really, America forever – where the rich get richer by exploiting those beneath them, and if they happen to be black all the better. There is a subplot involving Frank Wills (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the night guard at the Watergate, who actually discovered the break-in, and ended up dying early, alone and penniless – even while most of the perpetrators of the crime ended up making a lot of money. Lee is making a case here – as he did in He Got Game (and to a lesser extent, Girl 6, which Lee seems to have learned from, as John’s “audition” for the women is handled much better than the similar scene that opened Girl 6)– about the commodification of black bodies in order to get rich, and stay rich. The film is a none too subtle indictment of late stage capitalism – and lets you know that during the opening credits, which is a series of America currency floating by, ended with a Three Bill Dollar with George W. Bush’s face next to the Enron logo on it (like I said, not exactly subtle).
So yes, Lee drives his point home by embracing stereotypes about the sexual prowess and virility of black men – even if John has to pop a Viagra now and then, and chug red bull between sessions, what he accomplishes is still fairly amazing. I think this stretches back to Jungle Fever – another film that he built upon stereotypes about black men and their sexual ability, but that time he wanted to undercut it – show it as a dangerous fetish. His goal here is similar, but his methodology is precisely opposite – by taking that stereotype to the extreme, he shows just how utterly and completely ridiculous it really is.
Less easily defensible is his depiction of homosexuality and homophobia in the film – although I will say I feel it is an honest, if flawed, attempt on Lee’s part to deal with the issues. His first two films – She’s Gotta Have It and School Daze both contain material that really is homophobic. Since then, Lee has largely either avoided the issue altogether, or else has depicted masculine groups who respond negatively to being called gay (like Summer of Sam) – although that’s not the movie being homophobic, but rather the characters. Here though, Lee is deliberately trying to address it – he is trying to get to the root of John’s discomfort with homosexuality – whether his discovering Fatima with another woman upset him so much because it was the woman he loved cheating on him, or because it was with a woman. The black community has always been portrayed - fairly or not – as more homophobic than the white community. Lee I think is wrestling with those feelings in himself in this film, and doing so in a less than perfect way. I do think the reason that John not only has sex with all the lesbians in the film – but also is able to get them all to screaming orgasm – is Lee indulging in another clichĂ© to show how ridiculous it really is – that all a lesbian needs to become straight is a really good dicking. The scenes in the film are ridiculous, but knowingly so. It’s also telling how the women Fatima brings over to his house progress – the first group of women are all stereotypically hot, and as each new group arrives, they become more and more the stereotype that people have in their mind as lesbians (the get bigger, stronger – they wear more flannel, etc.).
She Hate Me really is more in line with Bamboozled than any other film Lee had made until this point of his career – although a far less successful version of it. Both films embrace stereotypes, and then brings them to an absolute extreme level. Both films lash out in a million different directions at a million different targets. In both films, reasonable viewers will find things they agree with, and things that will offend them to their core. That’s all by design for Lee – and is the most daring things about the films, and the reason to watch both. Neither are films that will be embraced by people who like to see their politics reflected back to them by their entertainment. Both want to challenge and provoke and disturb. It’s just that Bamboozled does it all far better than She Hate Me, and Lee seems to be more on target there.
Like much of the rest of the film, the ending of She Hate Me is a mess – but unlike the rest, it’s not a very interesting mess. The film comes fairly close to moralizing and definitely gives way to speechifying in the last 15 minutes or so with ideas that Lee seems to be delivering earnestly, but are almost as problematic as the ones he is rallying against for much of the rest of the film.
So yes, She Hate Me is a hugely problematic film – and I haven’t even mentioned that the film is nowhere near as interesting as drama as it is as a social document, and visually the film doesn’t quite live up to the stylistics normally on display in a Lee film (not that Lee doesn’t continue to experiment throughout the film). But I will say this for She Hate Me – as flawed as it is, as much as it is admittedly one of Lee’s least “successful” efforts (whatever that means) – it gives you a lot to chew on and think about – as the length of this review no doubt indicates. I wish more people would see She Hate Me – many (most) would probably hate it – but they wouldn’t forget it.

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