Cinematically speaking, it’s one of those “oh, that scene” moments: suffocating heat, an ice cube tray, Rosie Perez’s naked, heaving breasts. An exceedingly tight close-up of Rosie Perez’s naked, heaving breasts. And you’ve got Spike Lee—clearly enjoying his auteur/actor privileges—rubbing an ice cube over said breasts, paying crooning homage to “the right nipple” and “the left nipple.”
Like all “Spike Lee Joints,” the ice cube scene between Tina and Mookie from Do the Right Thing was beautifully shot, a carefully choreographed dance of light and shadow, sexuality and humor. But was it erotica, or exploitation? Or both? Were you bothered by Tina’s bared breasts? Or by her bared teeth as she berates Mookie in a shrieking crescendo of abuse?
Spike Lee has long had an interesting relationship with the women who inhabit his films. It is, of course, the artist’s prerogative to play the provocateur. Fair enough. But when it comes to his female characters, it’s as though Lee can’t decide whether to worship them or punish them. Case in point, Do the Right Thing, now celebrating its 20th anniversary: On the one hand, you have the saints: Mother Sister (Mookie’s mother figure) and Jade (Mookie’s sister). And on the other hand, you have the sinner: the cruelly castrating Tina (Mookie’s baby mama).
Call it Spike Lee’s woman problem. From Do The Right Thing to School Daze to Jungle Fever to He Got Game to She Hate Me and virtually every other fiction film Lee has written and directed, his female characters have never been afforded the complexity of the men in his films. (He admitted in an interview for an authorized biography in 2005 that he’s allowed "unreconstructed male chauvinism" to play a big role in his films.)
It all began with She’s Gotta Have It. Which is too bad. If you were grown and black back in ’86, when She’s Gotta Have It made its critically acclaimed debut, it was hard not to be enamored of all things Spike. Here was a film that created a space for black independent filmmakers, a film that was smart and funny and featured black folks who were smart and funny, too. (And, it should be noted, smart, funny black folks who weren’t named Eddie Murphy.)
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.
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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