Spike Lee and the Coded Racism of "Controversy"
There’s a section of Spike Lee’s Wikipedia page titled “Controversy.” It includes statements he made against Charlton Heston and the National Rifle Association (NRA). In his career, Heston attacked affirmative action, led the NRA for five terms, advocated for “white pride,” blamed gun violence after the Columbine shooting on our country having “more mixed ethnicity,” and resigned from Actors Equity because the union wouldn’t let a white actor play a Eurasian role. Charlton Heston does not have a “Controversy” section on his Wikipedia; his is titled “Political activism.” Lee has no “Political activism” section.
Spike’s “Controversy” section also includes a public spat with Clint Eastwood over his failure to depict Black Marines in Flags of Our Fathers. Eastwood famously gave a speech at the 2012 Republican National Convention to an empty chair, and supported Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 convention, telling people who thought Trump was a racist to “just fucking get over it.” Clint Eastwood has entire Wikipedia pages dedicated to his “personal life” and his “political life,” and the word “controversy” is not used a single time to describe the man.
Spike Lee is a Black man who has spoken honestly about his opinions on race in America for the last 35 years, and thus he is deemed controversial. Spike Lee is a Black filmmaker who has depicted Black lives in America without any of the feel-good sheen that infects the work of many white filmmakers, and thus his films are deemed controversial.
The biggest lightning rod of Lee’s filmography is his 1989 opus, Do the Right Thing, his endlessly poignant, relevant, and painful depiction of a community torn asunder by hatred, by racism, by police brutality and white aggression. Telling the story of a single Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood over the course of one hot summer day, Do the Right Thing culminates with its main character, Mookie (Spike Lee), throwing a garbage can through the window of his employer, Sal’s pizzeria – a joint run by a racist family and outside which Mookie’s Black friend, Radio Raheem, was murdered by police.
Do the Right Thing ended with scrolling quotes from both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X – one on the essential immorality of violence, and the other on the necessity of violence in self-defense against institutions of power. The quotes highlight some tension between advocates for civil disobedience, but their presence exists more to undermine the idea of “right” and “wrong” ways to protest – in Do the Right Thing, there is only reality. Police officers killed Radio Raheem. The Black members of Raheem’s community, including many who had lived and worked side-by-side with Sal and his two sons, could no longer tolerate the subtle and not-so-subtle prejudice that they faced almost daily. A friend was dead because of white aggression. Their form of protest was both the most important yet least relevant decision they could make: the decision to throw a trash can through Sal’s window was the “right” decision, because it was the only thing Mookie could do in response to such a horrific event.
Despite the two quotes running side-by-side, white critics nonetheless attacked the movie for potentially inciting violence – a critique, as Lee pointed out, that was rarely leveled at the white-led, violence-filled action movies of the 1980s. The film, perhaps unsurprisingly, has a “Controversies” section on its Wikipedia page, and is remembered by many for these specious, bad-faith attacks.
Compare this with Eastwood’s movies and we see cultural criticism treated differently. For Flags of Our Fathers, for example, the Wikipedia page lists a section called “Spike Lee controversy.” And while one could argue that the dispute arose from Lee’s criticisms, he still receives unequal treatment: Do the Right Thing’s “controversies” originated from the baseless hyperventilating of certain critics, yet the discussion section is not labelled “White Critic Controversy.”
Perhaps more relevant is the conversation around Gran Torino, Clint Eastwood’s 2008 film about a racist Korean War veteran (played by Eastwood) who moves into a Hmong-American neighborhood. The film cast numerous Hmong-American actors and amateurs, but it also received a bevy of criticism, including from members of the cast, for its “exaggeration and distortion” of Hmong culture. The film’s Wikipedia page has a section titled “cultural accuracies and inaccuracies,” but the word “controversy” is not used once.
Malcolm X, Mo’ Better Blues, Chi-Raq – the list of outrage-inducing Spike Lee films is so long that listing every example would quickly become redundant. And Lee has certainly littered his filmography with certain simplistic and stereotypically unflattering depictions, particularly of women. But our society has repeatedly failed to reckon with its tendency to treat the work and the statements of Black public figures as inherently controversial because of the skin color of the people who make them. From LeBron James and Colin Kaepernick to John Legend and Chance the Rapper, Black entertainers are consistently told to “stick to” their profession, and stay out of “politics.”
This is because, for many people, Black public figures are not layered human beings: they are seen as servants, elevated in society solely to use their talents to provide consumers a product — music, movies, sports, television — devoid of any cultural or political sentiment. Clint Eastwood or Charlton Heston can have opinions on politics or social issues – and can incorporate these views into their art – because they are the views of White America, and because as white men, they are seen as human beings, not just as artists here to please their audiences. Black artists and athletes aren’t given that same freedom — they’re expected to provide a service and hide their humanity.
Spike Lee makes movies about the world as he sees it, as he experiences it. He responds to both art and artists with his honest opinion, informed by decades of living, working, and excelling in America as a Black man. In another society, another country – one that valued Black lives and prioritized racial justice and equity – Spike Lee would not be contentious. But in America,
Spike Lee is controversial.