Saturday, December 6, 2008
Spike on Spike
This was the final week of classes for an undergraduate course on Spike Lee that I co-taught with Professor Salamishah Tillet here at the University of Pennsylvania, and Spike Lee was gracious enough to cap off the semester by visiting the class a couple of days ago and answering the students’ questions.
The course, Race Films: Spike Lee and his Interlocutors, was an examination of Spike Lee’s films from a variety of critical perspectives. The syllabus tried to frame our approach:
“This course requires students to think critically about historical and contemporary cinematic representations of race, class, gender, sexuality, and the urban landscape. The class will examine various Spike Lee films for their aestheticization of broader social and cultural phenomena as well as their engagement with larger theoretical and political concerns. Students will be asked to watch the films closely, placing them in explicit conversation with the concepts and arguments that emerge from assigned readings and classroom discussions. By the end of the semester, students should have a richer understanding of not only Spike Lee’s oeuvre but also of how his filmic offerings are ‘read’ from a variety of analytical and political vantage points—as well as across a wide range of genres and disciplines.”
Tillet and I initially wanted the course to be a seminar or small lecture (12 to 25 students), but there was such interest in the topic that we decided to open it up—to almost 100 undergraduates.
We asked students to read across the humanities and the social sciences, using the work of an eclectic group of scholars (such as Guthrie Ramsey, Laura Mulvey, bell hooks, William Julius Wilson, Wahneema Lubiano, Roland Barthes, Barbara Smith, Michael Eric Dyson, Manning Marable, Oscar Gandy, Mark Anthony Neal, Renee Romano, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Taylor Branck, and Kara Keeling) to provide different contexts and subtexts for our engagements with Spike Lee’s films.
We also asked outside speakers to assist us in unpacking specific themes. For example, Kenneth Shropshire helped us to make sense of Spike Lee’s deployments of professional sports. Marc Lamont Hill unpacked Lee's representations of urban violence. Imani Perry offered a poignant interpretation of Lee's political investments in Southern history. Jason Sokol gave us the critical tools to dissect Lee's rendition of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the 1960s. Gwendolyn Dubois Shaw asked students to look at the controversial debates about art and aesthetics that often serve as a subtle, but important, backdrop for Spike’s films. And Aishah Shahidah Simmons deconstructed Lee's filmic renditions of homosexuality. The entire semester was quite an ambitious intellectual ride.
Spike Lee also happened to released another film this September, Miracle at St. Anna, which was based on a James McBride novel about at a group of Black soldiers trapped in an Italian village during World War 2. (The students are writing their final papers on some aspect of that film.)
But the highlight of the semester had to be Spike Lee spending two hours with the undergraduates this week, answering their questions and responding with a few of his own.
The students pushed him on a lot of themes, including his much-criticized treatment of female sexuality/subjectivity (from Nola Darling in She’s Gotta Have It to Renata in Miracle at St. Anna), his fascination with professional sports (conspicuous in just about every single “Spike Lee Joint” ever made), his spat with Clint Eastwood earlier this year about representations of race in World War 2 films, his portrayal of white ethnic communities, and on and on.
When it was all done, I kept telling Lee how great a job he did. He laughed, and asked me if I thought he was going to be terrible. I didn't, but sometimes celebrities don’t take such events very seriously. Or they get defensive when students ask hard questions, when students do anything but genuflect obsequiously. But Lee didn’t ask for that.
The students challenged him, respectfully, and he tried to answer them without mincing words or dodging potentially controversial issues—and without simply defending himself or his work from “attacks.” The students really appreciated that. And so did their professors. Spike Lee, thank you.