Hannah and Papa J

Hannah and Papa J

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Concerning the first 30 minutes of Spike Lee's Chiraq

Dear Hannah,

I just finished the first 30 minutes of Spike Lee's Chiraq, which I had expected to be a very good movie with a very bad message, and was surprised to find that it was a very bad movie with a partially good message.  For years we've been hearing Spike Lee's name in association with cinema, and had every reason to believe it was because he was a good filmmaker.  Now that I've seen part of his film, I realize that I had only heard about him because he's a loud filmmaker.  Like the Black Lives Matter movement, he's someone to be watched not because you want to watch him, but because he wants you to watch him.  It's notorious in the world of entertainment that any publicity is good publicity.  Spike Lee is well aware of this truth, and as he lacks the talent to make us love him, has had the prudence to have us hate him.


Many black men, of course, are known for starring in the greatest American films; but very few of them are known for writing or producing them.  The recent outcry about the Academy Awards, taken in combination with Spike Lee's urbanly-acclaimed abomination, leads me to believe that the reason black men haven't been winning any awards as directors is because they're terrible at directing. And even worse than directing, they're terrible at writing -- which is why so many black activists are complaining about the whiteness of our most successful writers, but not about the blackness of our most successful sportsmen.

The great virtue of the black moralist seems to be the virtue of the Christian community -- which happens to be a vice in filmmaking.  Even when they're right, their virtues are preached so loudly that it makes their movies embarrassing.  They seem to have missed the Hollywood maxim if you want to send a message, use Western Union.  Chiraq and God's Not Dead are both equally embarrassing by trying to be equally convincing.  They've both convinced many people to keep from doing many stupid things that they were already not doing.  Beyond their rabid partisans, they've convinced almost nobody: both the gangsters of the black community and the atheists of the white remain exactly as they were -- with the exception that they have a lower opinion of black and Christian artists.

To be fair to both the black and Christian communities, neither of them has been entirely welcome for a long time; in much of America for the former, and in Hollywood for much of the latter.  Blacks in particular, as Alexis de Tocqueville notes in Democracy in America, were subjected to a kind of slavery and oppression unknown to the slave-owning societies of ancient Greece and Rome.  In Greece and Rome the slavery was physical, and many household slaves were highly educated, and were relied upon not only for the most ambitious of projects, but oftentimes for the education of the ruling class's children. In America the slavery was not only physical, but devastatingly psychological, and blacks were subjected to the cruelties of the whip alongside an extreme prejudice toward their intellectual development.  A racial slavery meant the birth of a new class of subservients, who could never escape the stigma of servility, since from birth to death they were trained to feel inferior, not as slaves, but as blacks.

A stifling of intellectual and creative powers, combined with a constant spiritual degradation for the purpose of a permanent dependence, led many blacks to give up on the most valuable and honorable pursuits -- very much like the Jewish diaspora was forced to give up on political ambitions, and spent their energies on business and banking*.  And feeling locked out of politics and the most dignified avenues of industry, blacks flew in numbers to callings in which they could more easily succeed -- into singing and dancing and other forms of valuable but inglorious entertainment.  The effects of this moral disaster can be proved with a casual observation.  A white man calls successful whites tycoons or capitalists or moguls, which always implies a mastery of ideas and money and men.  A black man calls successful blacks ballers, and many of their poorest dream of becoming nothing more than rappers.

The most honorable thing I can say about Spike Lee is that he's determined to buck this trend entirely.  He knows what he has to do to consider himself an equal: he wants to be renowned as an intellectual director. The problem lies in how he wants to get it. Like so many black activists (and to be fair, most writers in general), Spike Lee thinks he's already as good as the greatest. The truth, which is so difficult for any artist to hear, is that he isn't.  His innovative ideas, combined with the tackiest of approaches, save him from any accusations of mediocrity, but fit him for every allegation of gaucherie.

What he is good at, like Kanye West and Dennis Rodman, is self-promotion.  He's also good at making a statement.  Chiraq is full of sermons which strike at the heart of black America's problems without necessarily providing an answer.  His obvious attacks on the anti-snitching mentality, a mentality which is ironically and constantly celebrated in white shows such as Downton Abbey, proves that what's good for one group may not be good for another, and that Spike Lee knows the difference. He assails a culture of ignorance and the crippling influence of television, and cries (supposedly) with Malcolm X that the only way to hide something from negroes is to put it in a book.  He knows that black women are capable of controlling their sexuality instead of giving themselves to the worst of layabouts and criminals.  He states that getting wasted is not an acceptable method of recreation, and that black hoodlums can rise above a tribe-like mentality and become something more than enemies.  In an alternate universe he may have made a fantastic Republican.  In the present universe, he exists primarily to annoy them.  He swears that whites are racists, while simultaneously admitting the problems of the black community.

But showing evils in a negative light isn't showing goodness in a positive light.  He gives black people leaders, but leaders that are more interested in stopping terrible things than talented in building excellent things.  He struggles against pain without giving us pleasure.  He reads the poets of ancient Greece (upon which Chiraq is actually based), but lacks the dignity of Demosthenes.  He wants black neighborhoods to be as good as white neighborhoods, but appears opposed to the tastes and prejudices of the white community. To know our virtues, the things responsible for making white neighborhoods clean and safe, he would have to get to know us as families and businessmen and parishioners and patriots -- which is something his constant slandering and implacable hatred has made (for the moment) impossible.

But Spike Lee is dreaming -- and dreaming of dignity.  There are many men who dreamed of dignity and never got it; but you can often work with a dreamer.  The people you can't work with are the people without imagination. Spike Lee, in his embarrassing film, is attempting to be the black community's inspiration.  And while we may laugh at him for his failures and his unwarranted displays of self-esteem, he is attempting to do the one thing the black community needs. And that is showing, in indisputable terms, that change is really possible -- and that change begins with the man in the ghetto.  In this we wish him the best of success.  We only wish, first, that he would allow whites to discriminate against the same behaviors he discriminates, and second, that he would succeed before asking others to celebrate his successes.

Your father,
-J

*There have been several theories proposed about the economic success of the Jewish people as a whole, and the least useful one of them is the theory proposed by religious Jews themselves.  It goes, in short, the same way their "histories" go -- that their entire success has little to do with anything other than divine intervention, and that divine intervention has little to do with anything other than their adherence to Biblical Law.

I've already proved why this theory is ridiculous in my essay How to tell if God is trying to kill you, so I'll leave it alone here out of respect for your attention span and go on to the next theory, which is that after the Jews were thrown out of the Promised Land and into the rest of the world, they were incapable of assimilating and interbreeding with the nations which hosted them, and ended up living in a kind of perpetual exile.

There were, of course, Jews who blended in better than others.  But the ones who stuck most closely with their religion couldn't assimilate; and the overwhelming differences between them and their neighbors, combined with an implacable aversion to the cultures of their host countries, bred a kind of suspicion that eventually kept them from holding places of government.  And so leaving aside the ambition of nationalism and the sentiments of patriotism, the Jews were forced into very particular avenues of production and business.

This perpetual exclusion, combined with a religion that equated material success with heavenly blessing, and a system of ethics that defended property and praised prosperity, led the Jewish people to very quickly outpace their neighbors, who had by that time of the Jewish expulsion been Romans, who thought business was beneath a nobleman, and afterwards Catholics, whose Savior had said some very difficult things about rich men getting into heaven.  Living in foreign territories and building up a healthy capital, the Jewish people were able to practice usury by lending to Gentiles, the only kind of usury which wasn't prohibited by Jewish law.  And so the flower of Jewish genius grew and faded completely enclosed in a world of business -- a business which has given the Jewish people an immortal reputation as successful peddlers and bankers, and established them as the objects of international jealousy and suspicion.

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