That was hard to watch. It's my first Spike Lee film, although obviously I'd heard a lot about him, and I picked a challenging one.
As I'd expected from Spike Lee, it's a film of powerful and angry opinions on a racial topic. His theme this time is the portrayal of black people in films and TV. Doesn't sound that bad, right? Well, just wait until you see the movie. It ends (this isn't a spoiler) with a long montage of insulting, painful and embarrassing clips from Hollywood films and cartoons, including D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, The Jazz Singer, Gone with the Wind, Little Black Sambo and many, more. It's downright encyclopediac. You can see Lee's editing choices as he showcases each different kind of stereotype in turn. It's uncomfortable for me to watch and I'm a white Englishman. The idea of being black and growing up with these being the standard portrayals of black people in mass entertainment... well, Lee has opinions on this.
The plot involves a black TV executive called Pierre Delacroix who says things like "good day, gentlemen" and talks as if he wants to present Masterpiece Theatre. Challenged by his boss to come up with a challenging hit show about black people, he decides to pitch something unbroadcastable and get fired. (All his other shows portrayed black people as positive role models and of course those all got cancelled.)
Theoretically we've seen this before. Mel Brooks's The Producers, for instance, was about a deliberately offensive musical about Adolf Hitler. What's different about Spike Lee's version though is that the results aren't silly or even entertaining, but excruciating. People have accused this movie of being racist, on the grounds that it contains uncomfortable racially charged content. Black actors wear blackface make-up. They live on a watermelon plantation and refer to themselves as "The Alabama Porch Monkeys" or "Sleep n' Eat", which incidentally refers to the real-life vaudeville black actor Willie Best. They're shown clips from the most offensive black-and-white movies you could hope to find, as reference material. This isn't meant to be funny. On the contrary, it hurts to watch. If you can sit through this movie from start to finish without wincing, looking away from the screen or thinking of using the fast-forward button out of self-defence, you're made of stronger stuff than me.
Does it work as a movie? For a lot of people, no. The images overpower the message. I certainly wouldn't recommend watching this for entertainment, but I respect the power of what Lee's saying. I certainly won't be forgetting it in a hurry, so I think the answer to my question is that yes, in the sense that its creator intended, it delivers its message.
It's not just an ill-focused scream, either. On the contrary, Lee has specific targets. You get white people calling themselves black, for instance, or even saying that they're blacker than black people. Delacroix's boss does that, for instance. The interesting thing is that compared with Delacroix he's not entirely wrong, but even so it's hard to miss Spike Lee's point by the time you've got white folks saying this while wearing blackface in the audience of their new favourite TV show. He gives his TV executives every chance to defend the indefensible, which of course annihilates their eloquent arguments that in many cases you'll still hear today. He also raises the issue of to what extent we should be condemning the black performers themselves, who in the old days could be said to have been just doing a job... but here?
Sometimes it's even taken from life. The award ceremony scenes are parodies of acceptance speeches by Cuba Gooding Jr and Ving Rhames, while what happens to the Mau Maus is based on something similar that happened to a California street gang in the early 1990s.
Then there's the fact that Lee makes this story real. While Delacroix is perpetrating his horrors, we're always in touch with ordinary people and what's really happening to them. When he has his initial idea, for instance, Lee intercuts this with a police raid. This grounds our reactions and ensures that we're always thinking of how such a show would really be received, especially out on the streets. Hint: it's not going to turn out well.
Leaving aside all that... actually, on second thoughts I can't. It's impossible. This movie is screaming in your face, which all but drowns out the usual considerations like acting, direction and so on. However there's a Wayans sibling (one of the ten!) playing Pierre Delacroix, giving his unnatural dialogue an appropriately unnatural delivery. That's the role he's playing. I thought he was good. There's also Jada Pinkett Smith (The Matrix sequels, Scream 2) as his personal assistant, playing what you could almost regard as the movie's conscience. It shouldn't surprise anyone that all the actors here are taking their jobs very, very seriously, but what's of additional interest is that the singing and dancing is excellent on "Mantan--The New Millennium Minstrel Show". They're genuinely good. This isn't just racist rubbish, but instead racist and of high quality.
This is an appalling film. However it's deliberately so and if you're not appalled by it, then you're either new to Western civilisation or else a scary broken person. Would I recommend it? If you want entertainment, hell no. As something to please the masses, it flat-out doesn't work. However if you want something with more anger and attitude than any other movie I can even imagine, you've found your baby.
"If the truth be told, I probably know niggers better than you."
"Yes, continue, great niggerologist."