BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM examines the racial landscape traversed by Spike Lee, from Do The Right Thing through to When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, screening as part of this year’s DOCNZ Documentary Film Festival.

IT’S HARD to escape the pervasive concept of race in the United States. The country originally got its wealth on the back of racial hierarchies. The country basically went to war with itself over the issue. Presidential elections have been campaigned over it. It’s left an indelible mark upon its cultural landscape too: essentially, all art has been filtered through racial discourse – rock n roll, hip-hop, vaudeville prominently – even if the artist did not intend this to be the case. So someone like Spike Lee isn’t simply a film director, he’s a black film director, an impossible burden to sum up an ethnicity that was artificially created through the simple evilness of slavery. No matter what Spike Lee does, he’s read as a “black” filmmaker by reviewers, journalists, audiences, academics – even a movie such as The Inside Man which he didn’t write, and wasn’t the first choice director for, becomes a movie bearing the imprint of a racialised Lee.

It’s a crudely reductive process too – it’s an acknowledgement that Hollywood and its audiences still often refuse to get beyond thinking in a colour barrier, suggesting Spike Lee is still an aberration as far as Hollywood is concerned. If black filmmakers were commonplace or normalised, then Spike Lee wouldn’t have to be qualified every time as a “black filmmaker”. Steven Spielberg is rarely a “Jewish” director, Billy Wilder was rarely an “Austrian” director, and Robert Redford is never a “white” director – they’re all simply seen and judged as directors. And the truth is, Spike Lee is the only black filmmaker who can be respected artistically and commercially by the studio heads to be able to make more than a handful of films. But then that gives the burden of Lee representing all black people, and he therefore becomes trapped himself in the concept of race. Nevermind Lee’s religious, class, educational or artistic background, nevermind his sex or sexual orientation – his films will always be read as done by a “black”.

This forces him to submit himself to examining race as a result, and he falls (willingly or not) into the trap of having to define himself with the framework of “blackness”. He’s often mentioned the difficulty to obtain funding for films without racially related issues. So Do the Right Thing becomes irresponsible according to the “white” critics because he has a responsibility to his black audiences. Black people might riot and torch white properties. They asked ‘why weren’t there any drugs in the film, because it was set in the ghetto?’ It didn’t matter that the film was about something completely different, because it was a film set in the black ghetto, his masterpiece was read in a racialised discourse – it had to confront drugs. Spike Lee was forced to retort why weren’t people asking ‘where were the drugs in Wall Street, surely rich white stockbrokers do stuff like cocaine?’ But it still meant he was forced to defend himself within racialised terms. And in a film like Jungle Fever, two years after Do the Right Thing, he felt compelled to throw in a drug sub-plot because it was set in the ghetto – and it was rather awkwardly done. Even if he doesn’t necessarily confront racial issues (rather New York, the city in which he lives) movies like 25th Hour or Summer of Sam are seen as stories about white men done by a black director (I don’t hear many people ask what Shakespeare was doing as an Englishmen writing about historical Danish monarchs or lovers from Verona).

But it’s hard for Lee when there are so few directors who are able to confront race-relations in the film industry, and given America’s history, it’s probably inevitable that filmmakers would attempt to. However it’s a mindfield. Any film that does involve black characters or themes receives considerable commentary or debate. Contrary to popular opinion, black people are rarely shown as villains in Hollywood – it’s just too controversial. Birth of a Nation did so in 1915, showing the “glorious” rise of the Ku Klux Klan to defeat the evil “black men”, and it faced such considerable protests that studios didn’t dare to court the controversy again until the short-lived blaxploitation era in the 70s when the studio actively targeted “black” audiences (though ironically, two of the recent black Best Actor winners at the Oscars, Denzel Washington in Training Day and Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland both involve black villains). While movies like Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep are revolutionary in their depiction of a predominantly black ghetto, it’s a rare film that would never have got funding by a studio. And that film was buried for nearly thirty years.

Following the somewhat unexpected (despite the fact Lee had previously been profitable) success of Do the Right Thing, the only films (Lee excepted) that got made by a new generation black filmmakers were ones that were set in the ghetto showing awful things happening to the young people in there. It’s still the dominant film being made about or by black people. It’s profitable to show a bunch of black kids shoot each other to death, and it’s profitable to turn it into a genre (hence movies like Boyz N the Hood etc. what became seen as rapsploitation). And just like commercial gangsta’ hip-hop, it means only one stereotyped (and fueled by those in power, and let’s not kid ourselves, the majority of studio execs and record company bosses are white) view of black people is shown, at the expense of all other black representations. No wonder when someone like Spike Lee tries to show something different, subvert these stereotypes, he’s held up as distinctive, and held up as a black filmmaker confronting black issues, and speaking for all black people. And the considerable response to his films generally shows just how complex the whole racial issue is in American popular culture.

“George Bush doesn’t care about black people”. Kanye West’s (in)famous comment during a Hurricane Katrina benefit concert immediately racialised that disaster. The slow response to the crisis, and issues like aid etc. seemed to disproportionately affect black residents of New Orleans. Of course, one could be critical and say it is simply equating “poor” with “black” that allowed this conclusion to be drawn. But since nothing is ever simple when it comes to race, it was predominantly the poor black people affected – suddenly the conspiracy theories and righteous anger didn’t seem misplaced. And when you consider the less than honourable history of the American government’s treatment of its black citizens, it’s no wonder that the government response would cause so much anger. Katrina is now seen as the turning point in George W. Bush’s presidency – it wasn’t the quagmire that is Iraq and the revealing of the constant lies told to the public justifying that war which caused Bush sudden drop in popularity following his 2004 election win – it was Katrina. It therefore doesn’t surprise that Lee would be attracted to the issue, and that he would receive funding for it to make a documentary like When the Levees Broke.

It also isn’t surprising that it would require a considerable running time to work through the issues, given the shattering complexity of race in the United States, and the multitude of voices crowding the hurricane’s aftermath. In When the Levees Broke, Lee arranges a huge number of interviewees, involves a wide variety of arguments, and covers an immense amount of ground. And by all accounts, he does so in an incredibly lucid and thought-provoking way. Lee becomes the voice of an abused-again ethnicity, and consequently rises to make one of the most thought-provoking films in a thought-provoking career. Again, it doesn’t surprise either that Lee has been criticised (and praised) through a racial angle – Times Picayune critic Dave Walker attacked the film for racialising the issue, and not showing enough balance. Criticism like this had the effect of racialising the critical response to a film that was already racialised and about a racialised issue? Confusing? You betcha. But Lee’s got no choice.

It’s the territory that Spike Lee volunteers himself to try and cover, or perhaps the only territory Lee is allowed to cover by financiers. That’s the type of territory that Spike Lee seems to be the only person in mainstream cinema who is given the voice to confront via the medium of film. That’s the territory in which Spike Lee has made his name, the territory that Lee has been pigeonholed into as a filmmaker and the territory which has resulted in him gaining plaudits and boos the world over for decades. That’s the territory that has provoked considerable critical debate in the United States on this film alone, with HBO (who funded this film) calling it the one of the most important things they’ve done. And it seems to be, given how everything is so racialised in the States, it’s all part of the territory of making art as a “black”. And all this, is what will make When the Levees Broke one of the key films to see this year.