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Marc Lamont Hill's List of Overrated Black People: Spike Lee, Part 1

Posted on October 26 2009 10:16 am
David Swindle is the Managing Editor of NewsReal Blog and the Associate Editor of FrontPage Magazine. Follow him on Twitter here
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See Part I: Michael Eric Dyson

See Part II: Melissa Harris-Lacewell

Just because Marc Lamont Hill is no longer working at Fox News it does not mean NewsReal should stop trying to help him with his list of “Overrated Black People.” (And he has yet to publish his list at his blog or accept our invitation to contribute names to our list.)

So far NewsReal’s list has primarily focused on public intellectuals. However, the damage of affirmative action has certainly crept into other arenas as well.

So #3 on the Overrated Black People list: filmmaker Spike Lee.

As some of NewsReal’s readers might know, for the past several years I’ve been a professional film critic. I’ve written reviews of films since 1999 and been doing so for WTHR, Indianapolis’s NBC affiliate, since 2006. One of my focuses in film has been “auteur theory” — seeing the director as the “author” of his film and looking at his whole body of work to see recurring themes.

Over the years I’ve done “auteur criticism” of dozens of directors. And Lee, being one of the most prominent filmmakers of the past 25 years, has been one of them. I have not seen every single one of his pictures but I’ve seen most and can diagnose his strengths and weaknesses.

Lee is notorious for injecting his radical politics into his films. (He even once made a film glorifying Black Panther murderer Huey P. Newton.) It’s more or less impossible to find a Lee film without some expression of his leftist faith. Some are more blatant than others. However, that’s not what he’s being criticized for today. No, the issue isn’t that Lee is leftist; it’s that he’s overrated.

Lee is a remarkably inconsistent filmmaker. Similar to his New York colleague Woody Allen, perhaps only every fourth film of his is worth watching. (For this discussion we’ll put aside his TV work, short films, and documentaries. However I will add that his “4 Little Girls” documentary is one of his must-see pictures.)

Let’s break it down:

She’s Gotta Have It (1986)

Lee’s low-budget debut was one of the films that would help launch the independent film movement which would truly blossom in the ’90s. “She’s Gotta Have It” tells the story of a sexually promiscuous liberated, “independent” black woman who’s currently dating three men. The film’s mainly of historical interest. It’s acting is lousy by Lee’s own admission. While watching it ask this question: Would this film have launched anyone’s career if it was made by a white director with white characters? Or was it an affirmative action success championed by a leftist film culture?

School Daze (1988)

“School Daze,” a quirky musical inspired by Lee’s experiences at Morehouse College, sets the pattern for the failed experiments that would follow throughout the director’s career. The film falls flat regarding acting, plot, and characters. The only thing that keeps the film alive is its collection of a dozen or so poorly-defined, but still interesting ideas. For this film the key concept of note is Lee’s depiction of the conflict within the African-American community between light-skinned and dark-skinned blacks.

Do the Right Thing (1989)

DTRT is Lee’s second-best film. While it’s leftist to its core if one can put that aside there’s still plenty to enjoy. The entertaining film is packed with memorable scenes, likable characters, and a warm atmosphere. It’s Lee’s only successful film which he wrote himself.

Mo’ Better Blues (1990)

The first collaboration between Lee and Denzel Washington  is set in the world of jazz music from which Lee’s father emerged.

Jungle Fever (1991)

If one needs an example of an overrated Lee film then “Jungle Fever” takes the cake. The film sloppily jams together two plots: a crack addict struggling with his addiction and his brother who’s having an interracial love affair. Aside from the award-winning Samuel L. Jackson performance and a nice supporting turn by John Turturro it’s worth passing.

Editor’s Note: See Part 2 of this profile of Spike Lee’s grossly overrated filmography tomorrow.

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