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Lee film ready to show biased, simpleton Katrina picture

One of my special interests is politics in the cinema, having taught a course on it for nearly 15 years and publishing in the area. One of the films covered in the class is Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” (1989) which displays both Lee’s skill as a filmmaker and his dishonesty in doing so. Early indications are we can expect the same from his film about Hurricane Katrina’s impact on New Orleans, “When the Levees Broke.”

I didn’t get invited to see its premiere (imagine that), but New Orleans Times-Picayune television critic David Walker saw it prior to that and, while he avers that he will leave analyzing the politics of the films to others, he can’t avoid pointing out some himself, for Lee is a relentlessly political filmmaker who makes his opinion clear, to varying degrees of subtlety, regardless of whether the facts support his views. This has marked his entire film career.

“Do the Right Thing” was Lee’s first excursion into politics, The film recounts events, loosely based on some real-life occurrences, of a day leading to a race riot in an imaginary neighborhood in Brooklyn, a work Lee expressly made to try to influence the 1989 New York City mayor’s election to oust Ed Koch and put David Dinkins, the city’s first black in the office. Whether by his film, that’s what happened, leading the city into a decline requiring the rescue of Rudy Giuliani.

In this film, Lee shows some nuance in illustrating the events leading up to some residents of a black neighborhood destroying the only restaurant willing to operate there, owned by a guy of Italian descent. The grievances that mount on both sides appear legitimate even as they place emotion ahead of reason. But just because he shows both sides doesn’t mean he doesn’t present one as the legitimate one – the riot was understandable because, he argues, the non-white community was tired of being subjugated and had a right to “defend” itself against its oppressors.

He does a great artistic job but, in the end, it is a fraud. Lee wants to make audiences think he is dispassionately presenting the arguments of which the superior validity lies with “black self-defense” side. Instead, the film is rigged with biased, if not absolutely false information, about the larger issue of race relations in America. There are numerous examples in the film, but to name perhaps the most notorious of them, at one point graffiti is shown proclaiming “Tawana told the truth.” Presented as such, without context or further explication, signals that Lee considers this to be unimpeachable.

The phrase refers to the sensational charges made by a young black woman, Tawana Brawley, who a couple of years earlier claimed she was kidnapped and abused by white law enforcement men. Professional activists like Al Sharpton (who appears in this latest film) immediately took her side and used the claim as evidence of continued white suppression of blacks. But it quickly came out that Brawley had manufactured the entire story to escape parental discipline from being out too late. Even after that, Sharpton and others continued to insist that “Tawana told the truth” (and were successfully sued for defamation as a result). Lee knew she had lied when he made the film.

For this reason, we can expect nothing less from Lee with this film; specifically, Lee will try to throw more blame on white and/or conservative America than on the storm itself. His lineup of commentators interviewed in the film shows no hint of any balance to what Lee calls a “documentary:” Gov. Kathleen Blanco, Harry Belafonte, Sean Penn, and Kanye West among others, all vocal critics of Pres. George W. Bush and the Republican majority in America, if not of Bush’s response to the aftermath of the storm. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin seems the best he’s willing to do to provide any mediocre balance to this biased presentation.

Lee, of course, is an avowed hater of Bush and even more of Sec. of State Condoleeza Rice (clips framed unflatteringly of both of them appear in the film) and who has not repudiated the ridiculous, absolutely unsubstantiated myth that the levees in New Orleans were not intentionally breached to wreak havoc on blacks. Perhaps the imagery of tragedy will be moving, but any value it has gets cancelled by its simplistic, sophomoric screed. This is why we cannot expect an honest look at the tragedy from this waste of celluloid – especially from an activist who has the audacity to claim he presents things honestly.


Anonymous said...

oh leave the politics in film for you? Have you even seen the doco? If anyone is unbalanced, biased and has skewed, partisan vision it is certainly displayed by you in this article. It is rare that I read something and hate the writing so much that I write to them, but dude, you call yourself an academic, I wouldn't publish that shit on a blog page.
Unlike someone who is posing as a journalist, Spike has no obligation to be balanced. His films "are artistically and politically honest", should you not have wrote?
What makes something a political film? Have you heard of the term subjectivity? Truth is constructed by individuals, who operate under their own truth, get with the political program hey.
It is sad to see such a drivelling and beard scratching waffle feining as a review of a political film
Adrian Dodd
Newcastle Australia.

Pondering American said...

Mr Dodd
Not all Truth is subjective. IN the end Louisiana FOlks are getting tired for being used for POlitical purposes. Wheter it is by Tancredo on the right of Spike Lee on the LEft. THe whole thing is unsightly

Jeff Sadow said...

To extend upon the last comment: actually, the truth never is subjective. Objective truth can be discovered, an idea from as far back as Aristotle and Plato who argued right reason would discover it.

Think of it this way, if you state, "All truth is relative," guess what you've done? You just presented in a way intended to be unimpeachable an absolute, non-relative truth. Thus, it self-negates the entire notion that truth is subjective.

Consider the logic behind the first comment: "Truth is constructed by individuals, who operate under their own truth." OK, well, communists killed over 100 million in the name of their perverted ideology but, hey, it was the truth as they saw it. How about those Nazis offing 6 million Jews and others? Sorry, with that logic we've got to give them a pass because it was their truth.

Think about it.

Anonymous said...

It's so sad that you give Mr. Lee no credit. I have a family who survived Katrina living here now...and they are damaged by all that happened to them before and the insults and injuries that they face in my state everyday. I won't even bother to waste the more profound observations that I have made since Katrina...because it would be wasted here. I'm not a professor....just a human being.

Anonymous said...

"Just a human being" I fear, is part of a problem that will sadly remain in America. Human beings come in different sizes, shapes, and "colors". Those with certain characteristics have always, and will always view those without these "characteristics" as "different", and therefore subject to thoughts that could lead them abuse, neglect, or even annihilate the other. One has to be in control, while the other squirms underfoot. This predicament usually forces the human beings with the similar "characteristics" to learn to depend on themselves more, and to organize their talents and strengths, so that it will serve them when they need it the most. Maybe Katrina was also a failure of a people to recognize that their destiny lies in their own hands, and that they will be "handed" nothing that will propel them to greater heights, or even to save their lives.

When will those people stop sleeping and realize the truth of their overall predicament and run to one anothers aid? Why does this sleeping giant continue to slumber? Can even Katrina wake him up? Time will tell.