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.
The women in Lee’s life have called him out for his cinematic gender issues. In Spike Lee: That’s My Story and I’m Sticking to It, Lee’s authorized biography, Joie describes filming her nude scenes with Washington in Mo’ Better Blues as “horrible.” Also speaking to the biographer, Spike’s wife, Tonya Lewis Lee, criticized the development of female characters in Girl 6, Lee’s 1996 take on the phone sex trade: “It was like, ‘Dress up a lot of pretty, sexy girls and make them talk dirty.’”
And then there’s Rosie Perez, who played Tina to Lee’s Mookie in Do the Right Thing and also spoke to Spike’s biographer. Perez described the filming of the ice cube scene as “very disturbing” and “exploitative.” She didn’t have a problem with a love scene, she said, but the difference between what was on the written page and what ended up being filmed on the set was radically different from what she’d been led to expect.
Lee’s latent misogyny stings because, from the very beginning, his was the voice of the black hipster intellectual, filled with knowing references to Five Percenters, Zora Neale Hurston and John Coltrane. You expect a little more enlightenment from him than you would from, say, Ice Cube or from Tyler Perry with his scheming evil buppies. You know that Lee is capable of doing better. Crooklyn, which was released in 1994, was a rare example of fully imagined female characters, from the preteen protagonist to her doomed mother. Perhaps this is because Lee co-wrote the script with his sister and brother. (Lee seems to do his best work when he’s directing someone else’s screenplay.)
There’s nothing wrong with using an ice cube to show a little cinematic love for nipples. Where Lee ultimately fails is in not showing that, beyond the spectacular breasts, there is a woman who is neither saint nor sinner, but something wonderfully complicated in between.
Teresa Wiltz is The Root's senior culture writer.
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