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 expected to be a good movie with a bad message, and was surprised to find that it was a terrible movie with a decent message.  For years we've heard Spike Lee's name associated with filmmaking, and had every reason to believe it's because he's a good filmmaker.  Now that I've seen part of his film I realize I'd 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 black people want 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, and as he lacks the talent to make us love him, he's had the prudence to have us hate him.

Many black men, of course, are known for starring in the best American movies, but very few of them are known for writing or producing them.  The recent outcry about the Academy Awards and Spike Lee's latest disaster lead 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.  That's why so many black activists are complaining about the whiteness of our best writers, but not about the blackness of our best sportsmen.  But if you haven't got the talent, I suppose you'd better have a movement.

The real virtue of the black filmmaker is the virtue of the Christian filmmaker -- which is a vice in filmmaking.  Even when they're right, their moralizing is so loud it makes their movies embarrassing.  They apparently 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.  In truth they've convinced many of us -- but mostly to stop watching "black" and Christian movies.

To be fair to both the blacks and Evangelicals, neither of them has been entirely welcome in America or Hollywood for a long time.  At least not in the pilot's seat.  Blacks in particular, as Alexis de Tocqueville notes in Democracy in America, were put through a kind of oppression totally different from the slaving societies of ancient Greece and Rome.  In Greece and Rome the slavery was physical, and many household slaves were highly educated, and were relied on not only for serious and skilled labor, but lots of times for the education of the ruling class's children. In America the slavery was both physically and psychologically degrading, and blacks were subjected to violence alongside a debasing and insulting of their intellects.  A racial slavery meant the birth of a new underclass who could never escape the stigma of stupidity.  From birth to death they were trained to feel inferior, not even just as slaves, but as blacks.  Genetics had more to do with it than class.

A stifling of intellectual and creative powers, combined with a constant degradation to keep them permanently dependent, led many blacks to give up on the more lucrative and status-building pursuits -- very much like the Jewish diaspora was forced to give up on political ambition, and spent their energy on business and banking*.  So, feeling locked out of politics and the most dignified careers, blacks flew in numbers to callings where 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 implies a mastery of ideas and money and men.  A black man calls successful blacks ballers, and many of their poorest dream of only becoming rappers.

The best 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 original and high-flown ideas, combined with the tackiest methods, save him from any accusations of mediocrity, but lay him wide open for every allegation of corniness.  

What he actually 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 a solution.  His attacks on the anti-snitching issue, for instance, an issue ironically celebrated in white shows like Downton Abbey, proves that what's good for one group may not be good for another, and that Spike Lee knows when. He attacks a culture of ignorance and the crippling effects of television, and says 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 keeping their legs shut instead of spreading them for the worst criminals and do-nothings.  He says that getting wasted isn't an acceptable hobby, and that black hoodlums can rise above a Stone Age mentality and become something better than enemies.  In an alternate universe he would've made a great Republican.  In the present universe he exists primarily to annoy them.  He swears that whites are racists, while confirming the validity of white prejudices.

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 good at building excellent things.  In other words he struggles against pain without giving us pleasure.  He reads the poets of ancient Greece (upon whom Chiraq is actually based), but doesn't have the dignity, or the talent, of Demosthenes.  He wants black neighborhoods to be as good as white neighborhoods, but stands overtly against the tastes 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 churchgoers and patriots: impossible, at this point, when his racism and idiocy make us want to get away from him.

But Spike Lee is dreaming of dignity.  Lots of men have 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 this sub-par, silly, and embarrassing film, is attempting to be the black community's inspiration.  And maybe we'll laugh at him for his failures and his oversized ego, but he's attempting to do the one thing the black community needs. And that is showing that change is really possible -- and that it begins with the man in the ghetto.  In this mission we wish him the best of success.  We only wish, first, that he would allow whites to discriminate against the same behaviors he hates, and second, that he would a decent movie before asking others to celebrate his movies.

Your father,

*There have been several theories proposed about the economic success of the Jewish people, 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 following God's Law.

I've already proved why this theory is ridiculous in my essay On Putting Pat Robertson to Death, so I'll leave it alone here and go on to the next theory: 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 a religious disgust for the cultures of their host countries, bred a kind of suspicion that eventually kept them from holding places of government.  They pushed us away, and we pushed back harder.  And so, locked out of nationalist feelings and political ambitions, the Jews were forced into production and business.

This perpetual exclusion, combined with a religion that said riches were a sign of God's blessing, a close-knit culture that bred trust between Jews, and a system of ethics that defended property and celebrated prosperity, led the Jewish people to fiscally 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).  Living in foreign countries 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 best 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.