Spike’s Woman Problem

Looking back at Do the Right Thing's infamous ice scene and Spike Lee's love-hate relationship with his female characters.

At first blush, She’s Gotta Have It was a male feminist manifesto: If she’s gotta have it, Lee seemed to say, then good for her. Until, that is, the third act of the film, when the tone and tenor abruptly changed: Nola Darling gets her comeuppance, in the form of rape at the hand of one of her suitors. The scene could be viewed as a statement about male insecurity. But it could just as easily be seen as Lee’s way of punishing the promiscuous Nola. (In an interview with NPR quoted in The Boston Globe, Lee has since said that if he were to shoot that film today, he’d remove the rape scene.)

With School Daze (1988), Lee’s fictionalized take on his alma mater, black womanhood was sharply divided along two lines—the nice, the dark-skinned “Jiggaboos” and the nasty, the light-skinned “Wannabes.” The song and dance number “Good and Bad Hair” brilliantly sent up colorism in the African-American community. But the female characters caught up in the dispute, unlike the film’s male characters, didn’t get to have an internal life that took them beyond the cardboard cutouts of the down-with-the-cause righteous sista or the frat-loving, airhead Wannabe.

Lee’s good girl/bad girl meme is most striking in Mo’ Betta Blues (1990). Denzel Washington plays a tormented trumpeter who can’t decide between the less conventionally beautiful but good-hearted woman (played by Lee’s real-life sister, Joie Lee) and the more conventionally beautiful woman (Cynda Williams), who is using him only to launch her singing career.

The conniving siren is a trope that Lee relies on frequently, and with great gusto. In 1998’s He Got Game, Rosario Dawson is a teenaged she-devil paid to ensnare the young basketball star, played by Ray Allen. (Meanwhile, a prostitute with a heart of gold saves the b-ball star’s father.) Then there’s 2004’s She Hate Me, in which man-hating lesbians line up by the dozens to use Lee’s beleaguered male protagonist for his sperm. Clearly, this is intended as satire, or farce, but there’s an undercurrent of venom in She Hate Me that just doesn’t track well.