Athletic iconography in Spike Lee's early feature films.
This lively interest in sports has clearly influenced his more recent work, as several of his latest films have featured athletes as subjects and actors. But his interest in sports also colored, if a bit less obviously, his first five feature films, none of which deals with explicitly athletic plotlines. From a slew of references to Knicks great Bernard King in She's Gotta Have It to the Mets telecast that accompanies our first look at Angela Tucci's brothers in Jungle Fever, allusions to professional sports--and specifically to New York sports--form a consistent pattern in Lee's early films.
Certainly, such references point in part to the close relationship between Lee's visual style and contemporary urban fashion. Air Jordans and Laker jerseys, after all, are not unique to Spike Lee joints; they were common sights on New York streets in the late 1980s. But much as Lee blended hip-hop tunes with Negro spirituals and jazz melodies in creating the complex soundtracks that echoed the very diverse voices of his characters, his references to athletic gear and jargon are not simply received stylistic statements. (1) In Lee's first five films, when characters chat about professional sports or wear a particular team jersey, the references usually advance our specific understanding of both the speaker and the situation. As S. Craig Watkins has noted, Lee's characters often represent distinct fields of discourse, and perform specific narrative functions (140). Lee's use of athletic iconography furthers this strategy, using established cultural codes as a means of characterization, and it creates, by extension, a general atmosphere of competition, or conflict, in which voices and visual images jostle and compete for legitimacy. While a parade of replica jerseys, athletic anecdotes, and photos of athletes thus grounds his early work in a relevant urban idiom, such references also allow Lee to nuance, as we shall see, the themes of racial conflict, individual pride, and social history that consistently characterize his work.
Lee's interest in athletic iconographies has no better, or better-known, ambassador than the flamboyant Mars Blackmon, the likable loser who is one of Nola Darling's suitors in the breakthrough 1986 film, She's Gotta Have It. Dressed when we first see him in a Knicks jacket and a Georgetown tee-shirt, Mars knits himself to two high-profile basketball squads of the early 1980s: to the New York NBA team that starred the acrobatic King, and to the Georgetown program that had won a national title in 1984, and finished second in the 1985 college tournament. The Knicks jacket, of course, also links Mars to the city in which he works as a bike messenger. The shirt is less geographically specific, but a quick look at Georgetown's hoops program in the 1980s reveals an equally basic relevance. Georgetown, then coached by John Thompson and thus one of the few teams in the country with an African American behind the bench, fielded several of the nation's best college teams in the mid-1980s--and some of its blackest. Led by Thompson, who spoke candidly on race and recruited heavily from Washington's inner-city high schools, Georgetown's squads were often entirely comprised of African Americans. Thus, by wearing the gray Georgetown tee, Mars suggestively links himself to college stars like Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning, but also to a quiet sense of black pride.
Such a claim may seem tenuous, or overeager--how much pressure, after all, can a cotton shirt bear? A good deal, it would seem. In discussing promotional shirts issued in conjunction with his first two films, Lee argued that "somebody wearing your T-shirt is a walking billboard" (Grant 18). In his early films, he often extended this idea, using tee shirts to indicate his characters' political views and stylistic habits; as Douglas Kellner noted, the white and black tee shirts worn by a racist Pino and a more open-minded Vito in Do the Right Thing hint at their racial attitudes (78). And this interest in the symbolism of shirts could also encompass the world of professional sports. In Five for Five, published in conjunction with his fifth film, Lee reflected on the number five, and soon turned to the numerology of baseball jerseys: "Joe DiMaggio, Johnny Bench, and Ed Charles-they wore the number five" (11). Lee, in other words, knew his uniforms and knew what they stood for.
So do his characters. In Do the Right Thing, the white cyclist who runs over Nikes worn by Buggin' Out is initially harangued for his clumsiness, but his critics soon turn to his shirt, a replica Larry Bird jersey, as a more concrete subject of ridicule. Invoking the best-known white basketballer of the 80s, Clifton's shirt (cut from the Celtic green that the team wore on road trips, and thus suggesting a basic foreignness) stands out in black Bed-Stuy. In fact, his jersey not only marks him as foreign, but also creates, when read in context, a clever visual tension between Clifford and the group that surrounds him. Ahmad, one of the young men who gather to mock Clifton, wears a replica Magic Johnson jersey. This juxtaposition seems certainly intentional; Johnson and Bird were the two most prominent stars in the NBA before the emergence of Michael Jordan, and their rivalry was built around a series of dichotomies. Bird was an occasionally awkward Indiana country boy who played for an East Coast team, while the more urbane Magic played a fluid and fast-paced game in Los Angeles. In fact, the two players came to epitomize, for a number of writers, an explicit difference between white and black basketball. Jeff Greenfield had treated this difference as early as 1975, arguing that the black game was characterized by a basic grace and fluidity, in contrast to a white game, epitomized by the Celtics, that tended to be "jagged, sweaty, stumbling, intense" (375-76)--all adjectives that would seem to apply to Clifton as well. In several ways, then, Lee's decision to clothe Clifton in a Bird jersey appears remarkably appropriate: Clifton, like Greenfield's typical white ballplayer, is sweaty and stumbling, and he literally fouls Buggin' Out (by sullying his sneakers). He is, like the athlete summoned by his shirt, a white man in a predominantly black league.
Perhaps because the image of Bird as an isolated white star was so powerful in the 80s, Lee referred to the Celtic star in several of his early films. (2) Without exception, Bird's name is uttered to invoke racial isolation, primarily whiteness estranged. At one point in Mo' Better Blues, for example, a performing comic jokes onstage about Giant, who sits alone at a bar. The comic compares Giant to a white man "trying to sneak in here in the colored section," and then swiftly transitions into an anecdote about Bird and the Celtics. The implication, of course, is that Bird, like Giant, is an outsider. Similarly, in She's Gotta Have It, Mars's frustration with Greer's affected style finds its voice in an implicit reference to Bird at the awkward Thanksgiving dinner. After suggesting that Greer had voted for Reagan, Mars (who overtly states his preference for Jesse Jackson) extends his essentially racial attack with a reference to basketball: "What do you know--you're a Celtics fan." Hoping to embarrass the straight-haired Greer, Mars questions his rival's adherence to black principles by accusing him of voting for a white presidential candidate and of following a white basketball team. (3)
A second reference to Bird in She's Gotta Have It shows, however, that the Celtic star did not necessarily indicate discord in Lee's films. In a touching conversation in a city park, Mars and Jamie, another lover for Nola's affection, find rare common ground in a discussion about hoops. Taking a seat beside Jamie, Mars rather predictably steers the conversation towards the Knicks, saying that he had once been stood up at Madison Square Garden by Nola, and had consequently missed the entire first half of a Knicks game in which King had scored 35 points, and even dunked over Bird. For Mars, King's performance was doubly triumphant, as it led the Knicks to victory and defeated Bird's white team. But Jamie, more moderate than Mars, stands up for Bird, noting that "the white boy's bad, and you gotta give him credit. Larry Bird's the best player in the NBA." A shocked Mars can only sputter, "The best? He's the ugliest motherfucker in the NBA!" But his comeback, which focuses on Bird's appearance, tacitly admits Jaime's point about Bird's talent. Bird thus works (again) as an emblem of racial difference, but he also functions as an analogy for whites like Clifton in Do the Right Thing, who carve out a niche in Lee's neighborhoods: because such men are exceptions, black characters admit, perhaps even grudgingly admire, their earned right to work in Bed-Stuy or in the NBA.
Those white men are never completely accepted, though. In Lee's early films, open references to, or affiliations with, black athletes constitute one of the truest forms of black pride and individual strength. In a tender scene in She's Gotta Have It, a confident Nola wears a Bernard King jersey as she oils Mars's scalp. The jersey recalls Mars's description of King's triumphant dunk over Bird, but it also means that Nola is dressed like a King, while Mars, stripped of his athletic gear and so reduced to his glasses, is more fan than athlete. Hyperbolized as a huge pair of eyes, he is subsequently forced to gaze as Nola finally opts for Jamie, instead of Mars himself. Association with an athlete and an athlete's accoutrements can imply, then, strength or potency. For when, Nola appears in a pair of Everlast boxing shorts after she dumps Greer, the conceit is confirmed. Epitomizing a long history of African American women as combative beings, Nola's literally competitive clothing marks her as a powerful woman.
Although idiosyncratic in several senses, Lee's 1988 School Daze did allow him to expand his references to professional sports. An example appears in the film's opening sequence: A print of a slave ship gives way to a series of photos of famous African Americans and critical moments in African American history. The montage includes several images of black athletes, including Jackie Robinson in a white Brooklyn Dodgers uniform, Willie Mays, and Muhammad Ali. Preceded by photographs of influential musicians, and followed by images from the Civil Rights movement, these pictures of athletes thus form an implicitly important segment of African American history. More than a year before the release of Do the Right Thing, Lee thus created, in a sense, a Wall of Fame that rivals Sal's forthcoming tribute to Italian Americans: a bank of portraits of cultural heroes linked as much by race as by accomplishment.
Robinson seems especially carefully chosen for the School Daze sequence. He was, of course, the first African American to play ball in the major leagues, and he went on to a Hall-ofFame career as a second baseman with the Dodgers. The photo of Robinson thus depicts an African American baseball player and a famous episode in the history of American integration. But it also bears more local relevance. Robinson was born in Cairo, Georgia, in 1919, and then spent his entire 10year career in the majors with the Brooklyn Dodgers. In a loose sense, his life thus paralleled Lee's own, as the young director (although a native Brooklynite) had moved from Morehouse, in Atlanta, to Brooklyn after graduation. This associative link between Lee and Robinson would become more concrete in Do the Right Thing, when Lee, as Mookie, would wear a Robinson jersey throughout most of the film. But the opening moments of his second film intimate an admiration for Robinson that is at once cultural and personal.
Allusions to professional sports in Lee's second film are equally precise. Dap, an idealistic black undergraduate who covers the walls of his room in emblems of a general pan-African pride (a Red Stripe poster evokes Jamaica and a poster of Nelson Mandela recalls Dap's fight for divesti ture), includes a poster of Patrick Ewing, in his Georgetown basketball blue. The implication, again, is that Ewing is an appropriate icon for young blacks interested in their roots. On the one hand, Dap follows Mars in his admiration for a contemporary African American athlete. On the other hand, for the film's first extended dance sequence, in which Jigaboos and lighter-skinned Wannabes taunt each other, Lee uses flamboyantly contrasting colors to point towards an active social conflict, rather than passive individual association. Both groups of women wear loose shirts that evoke football jerseys, and the clashing colors of the shirts (blue and orange for the Jigaboos, and silver and black for the Wannabes) depict the ideological distance between the women. But this difference is not only chromatic; it is also symbolic, as the colors reference one of US football's best-known rivalries, between the Oakland (or Los Angeles, as they were in 1988) Raiders, who wear black and silver, and the Denver Broncos, who share the blue and orange of the Jigaboos. Thus, Lee uses vigorous colors to symbolize the gulf between the two groups of women--as befits a face-off during Homecoming weekend. In fact, Coach Odom's pregame speech also references jerseys' colors significantly. In a rant that conflates athletic intensity and religious fervor, the coach condemns the visiting team's dark uniforms by screaming, "The devil's wearing black jerseys!"
The ensuing montage, in which the Mission boys are soundly whipped, is intriguing for the fact that at no point do we see any football being played. Lee turns his camera on the scoreboard, and shows us the bleachers, the coach, and the players on the sidelines, but he never films a single down or tackle. Critic Stanley Kauffmann pointed to a similar lack of formulaic conceit when he remarked on the conspicuous absence of drugs in Do the Right Thing (81-82). (4) The absence of real athletic competition is just as notable in all of Lee's early works, which, I am arguing, allude often but only tangentially to sports, not in portrayals of real or imagined plays but through such codes as still photographs, emblazoned caps, and coy verbal references. In School Daze, one character combines basketball imagery with "the dozens" to deploy the African American vernacular ritual of signifyin(g) on another character: "I heard your mama held Kareem to 15 points." In Lee's films, sports are filtered through such folk rituals, through the doubled gaze of filmic images of television screens, and through characters' memories, but curiously, sports persistently function as trope and sign, for they are not pictured directly.
This absence does not signify that there are no athletes in Lee's films. There clearly are. The Jigaboos and the Wannabes dance a vigorous number that is nothing if not athletic, and the dance of the Gammas similarly requires strength and flexibility. But these moves are made by characters not dressed for formal athletic competition. In setting the stage for the Mission football game, and in then turning his camera to the crowd, Lee implicitly suggests that the spectators are the true competitors of sports events. As a result of repeated indirect references to sports and of Lee's concurrent reluctance to picture athletic action, his sets become allegorical fields, and his characters, like the Wannabes and Jigaboos, are virtual rivals. Interestingly, the tensions created through these "athletic" rivalries are never resolved. The social and personal conflicts at the center of Lee's early plots cannot be resolved through the "play" of professional sports, but instead only by genuine social, and political, action: by Nola Darling's choice of a single lover, or by Mookie's decision to heave a trash can through the window of a pizzeria--or, perhaps, by a gesture of viewers who constitute Lee's actual audience itself. Lee's athletic references imply a tense context of conflict, but his Brechtian impulses reject any simple or allegorical resolution through purely passive identification.
Spike Lee's third film also uses costumes in creatively symbolic ways. Overseen by Ruthe Carter (who had also designed costumes for School Daze and who would work on later Lee productions), the costumes in Do the Right Thing are bold and idiosyncratic, and they generally suggest a basic individualism. Many of them, of course, have no connection to athletics. On the one hand, the fiery, skintight leotard worn by (Rosie Perez acting as) "Tina" in the film's grinding opening sequence points to an overtly physical confidence, and the "Bed-Stuy: Do or Die" tee-shirt that affirms Radio Raheem's devotion to his 'hood evokes brazen pride in place. Raheem's hand-lettered shirt also ties him to the graffiti that cover the walls of his neighborhood, and links him to the substance of those graffiti, which refer to otherwise anonymous acts of urban violence. On the other hand, the audacious Hawaiian print worn by (Danny Aiello acting as) Sal hints at a very different relation to the same environment. Covered in cactuses, Sal's shirt suggests life in the heat of an internal desert: a sadly appropriate image for the proprietor of the only white-owned business in a neighborhood that is, in several senses, overheated. Raheem's shirt, then, presents his environment as a source of pride, while Sal's shirt signifies an environment that can sustain life, but is nonetheless hostile. Even their costumes, then, underline the irreconcilability of the views of the two characters, and the allusively military iconography of Raheem's camouflage shorts further conveys that this is not a conflict that will be solved peaceably.
Moreover, Lee uses wardrobe to emphasize the theme of conflict in Do the Right Thing through the several costumes that refer directly to sports celebrities and, by extension, to relevant episodes in sports history. For example, for most of the film, Mookie sports what is perhaps the most interesting costume choice, a Jackie Robinson jersey. Because Robinson was a Brooklynite by circumstance (but not birth), his white jersey links Mookie to the city of Brooklyn in the same way that Raheem's tee shirt declares his territorial allegiance to Bed-Stuy. The white jersey implies that Mookie is on his home turf. Less literally, Mookie's replica jersey also points to one of his primary roles in the movie: Just as Robinson had broken baseball's color barrier (and much as Lee was doing groundbreaking work in the largely white film industry), Mookie embodies, as he wears the jersey, a brand of racial tolerance. He works for a white-owned pizzeria, he (gently) throws Buggin' Out out of the pizzeria after the initial flap about the Wall of Fame, and he dates a Latina. In short, while wearing the Robinson jersey Mookie seems to work towards a sense of compromise in an obviously tense setting. (5)
But after he showers, he sheds his Robinson jersey, donning instead a shirt emblazoned with the logo of Sal's Famous Pizzeria. In the process, Mookie also seems to move away from the spirit of proud integration connoted by the Robinson jersey, and becomes more openly abrasive. Wearing a shirt bearing the name of a white restaurateur, rather than a celebrated African American, Mookie soon tries to shut the door on four patrons who arrive at the pizzeria shortly after closing, thus working towards a stark, forceful division instead of a peaceful compromise. A few minutes later, in the film's climactic scene, he completes his movement away from compromise by lobbing a trashcan through the window of the pizzeria. Both shirts, then, evoke ruined structures that once stood in Brooklyn--Sal's parlor still smoking, and Ebbets Field, the home of the Dodgers, demolished in 1960--but they also loosely relate to the two divergent courses of political action that are suggested in the film's recurring juxtapositions of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Mookie's Robinson jersey suggests a more peaceful integration, within the parameters of an extant system, while frustrations expressed in his pizzeria shirt imply a much more violent, and less patient, standpoint.
Perhaps the most important (and the most expensive) piece of athletic iconography in Do the Right Thing is the pair of sneakers on Buggin' Out's feet. Air Jordans, introduced by Nike in 1985 in conjunction with Michael Jordan's rookie season, had already been retooled several times by early 1989. Popular with a wide range of consumers, the shoes bore a number of connotations. Obviously, they could evoke Jordan, the young Chicago Bulls guard whose fluid, acrobatic moves seemed to defy gravity. At the same time, they also spoke (albeit rather more obliquely) of wealth, and even of an insistence on blackness. Retailing for roughly $70 per pair, the shoes cost Jordan substantially more, as the NBA fined him $1,000 every time he wore them in a game, because of their illegal black detailing. Undeterred, he wore them on the court night after night.
These various associations, of course, dovetail rather neatly with Buggin' Out's personality; the shoes fit him, in other words, in several senses. Incensed by the absence of photographs of black athletes in Sal's pizzeria, Buggin' Out wears a product named for a black athlete. In fact, Michael Jordan's style of play was sometimes read, like that of Magic Johnson's before him, as the epitome of black hoops. Thus John Edgar Wideman, in 1990, argued that Mike and Magic had introduced a degree of spontaneity and play that was deeply African American, and they had rendered basketball "more of a player's game, returned it closer to its African-American roots on the playground" (396). Buggin' Out's strident calls for the addition of photos of blacks to Sal's Wall of Fame also find a loose parallel in Jordan's insistence upon flaunting the league's rule against black detailing: Both men question existing prohibitions of blackness. Finally, the shoes also allow Lee to heighten the contrast between Buggin' Out and Clifton, who accidentally sullies the sneakers. Clifton, sweaty and unkempt (and apparently just a bit out of control), has clearly been exercising; he thus contrasts with Buggin' Out, who wears athletic shoes but remains composed, and hardly perspires on the hottest day of the summer. Alarmed at the blemish on his pricey shoes, Buggin' Out quickly protests, only to learn that Clifton has recently bought a townhouse on the block. Here is another point of difference, as Buggin' Out wears his wealth as part of an outfit as symbolic as it is functional, while Clifton has invested his money in real estate instead of his outward appearance. As wide as the rift between Mookie, who finds time to shower and change shirts while on the clock, and Sal, one of the few characters to own a business on the block, the distance between Buggin' Out and Clifton is depicted as the distance between costume and real estate, between accessories and assets.
One other obvious reference to Jordan, and to Jordan's image, in Lee's third film involves a violent visual pun. Jordan, a virtual acrobat in the air, was famous by 1989 for his long, graceful leaps: As Michael Eric Dyson has argued, the nearly unbelievable ability to defy gravity, commonly known as his hangtime, was a central aspect of Jordan's image (411). Lee, in fact, advanced the image in several television commercials that he shot for Nike; in one, aired in 1990, a fictional professor explains Jordan's abilities in humorously formal scientific jargon, and in others, a pathetic Mars hangs weakly from the rim, in a sharp contrast to Jordan's easy motions. Jordan's soaring dunks seemed, to many, illustrations of how the game should look, and Wideman's essay, while florid, might again be taken as typical: "When it's played the way it's spozed to be played, basketball happens in the air, the pure air; flying, floating, elevated above the floor, levitating the way oppressed peoples of this earth imagine themselves in their dreams ..." (389). But at a critical moment in Do the Right Thing, Lee gives hangtime a very different meaning. As Radio Raheem is suspended in a chokehold by the police, his breath constricted and then cut off by a billy club, Lee cuts for an instant to Raheem's feet, clad in large Nikes, and dangling helplessly above the ground. Ed Guerrero is right that the image functions as "a gruesome metonym for lynching" (78), but it is also, when taken in context, a bald reference to Jordan, and it is, if unexpected, terribly powerful. In a perversion of Jordan's autonomous grace, Lee shows a powerful man suspended entirely against his will, and fatally unable to return to earth. Raheem's murder is thus doubly difficult for (black) spectators to gaze upon because it is pictured in a way that perverts Jordan's singular grace and agility. (6)
In fact, Lee goes still farther in blurring the line between sport and violence. During the brawl between Sal and Raheem, Lee abruptly cuts to one of the photos on the pizzeria wall: an image from a 1951 bout between Rocky Marciano and Joe Louis, the great African American prizefighter. The iconography of the photo, of course, is closely linked to the two men who grapple on the restaurant floor; it evokes Raheem's earlier speech about the fist-fight between Love and Hate, which he had described as a vicious boxing match, and it involves, like the conflict between Raheem and Sal, an African American and an Italian American. In both fights, moreover, it is the black man who is ultimately defeated. And in Raheem's case, this defeat is openly violent. A reference to professional sports thus elides into an image of violence--repeating a transition in a conversation of the three old men on the sidewalk, who speak first of Mike Tyson's boxing, and then of his long history of muggings. As Gerald Early has noted, the line in the US between the boxer, or the athlete in general, and the criminal has always been fine; in Lee's film it is repeatedly erased, as Sal also turns a baseball bat into a weapon (383-84). At the end of the film, however, the hot violence of the city street will congeal and give way to a pickup basketball game: Violence, in turn, gives way to sport. Through such transitions, Lee implies that sport and violence are closely related, and if we rarely see a basketball court in his early work, perhaps it is because the sweaty, constricted city block offers a stand-in arena for the struggling characters in their Laker blue and Celtic green.
In the opening scene of Lee's 1990 Mo' Better Blues, four children arrive at Bleek's door to see if he can play; one boy wears a Mets cap, and another a Mets jacket. Inside, Bleek's father watches the Mets play on television. The New York ball club, in other words, unites the neighborhood, and an interest in the Mets links generations. But little Bleek, when he appears, wears a generic red baseball cap, rather than Mets gear; he may share a broad interest in baseball, but he lacks the appropriate gear. And he also, we soon learn, stands on the other side of another divide. When he asks if he can join the other boys, his mother insists that he stay inside and practice his trumpet. Quickly, Lee then offers a concise visual emblem of Bleek's quandary. While the young boy holds his trumpet, his father holds a baseball, promising that he will take Bleek to a game. Baseball or trumpet: Opposed to each other in the first moments of the film, the two objects represent two alternative traditions, two disparate communities. In his fourth film, Lee uses baseball, which he characterizes as a sort of communal history, and jazz, built around strands of spontaneity and individual genius, as twin discourses that must ultimately be reconciled.
Baseball and jazz are verbally and visually related to one another throughout Mo' Better Blues. When we first see Giant, he uses a sports metaphor to criticize the sax player in Bleek's band. "It's your team," he tells Bleek, "it's your band. You're the coach.... Fire his ass." A few minutes later, to provide our first view of the interior of Bleek's apartment, Lee takes two slow, fluid shots of a large fragment of a baseball scoreboard and the album cover of Coltrane's classic A Love Supreme. Baseball and jazz once again: Thus Bleek's abode integrates the same traditions that dominated his childhood. Even unpredictable events suggest the close relationship in his life between sport and music. A game of catch with his father ends abruptly because of a mild arm injury, and in the very next scene, in which Clarke and Bleek make love, a minor lip injury aborts a kiss.
But jazz and baseball are not pure parallels; rather, Lee presents them as distinct traditions that offer different lessons. In Mo' Better Blues, baseball establishes generational continuity. An adult Bleek plays catch with his father; later in the film, when Bleek has a son, his own father offers the grandbaby a glove and a ball. These two objects, present in the film's opening scene as well, tie the familial generations to each other, and they firmly structure the movie. At the same time, the references to baseball also imply an interest in a specifically African American history. As Bleek and his father play catch, they wear replica jerseys that link them to specific traditions. Bleek wears a Giants jersey with the number 24, recalling Willie Mays, the great New York Giants outfielder. His father wears a Pittsburgh Crawfords jersey, which evokes a Negro League team that has folded decades before. The home white of Bleek's jersey links him, as it does Mookie's in Do the Right Thing, to the city that rises around him; the history of both shirts implies a respect for the achievements of black ballplayers both before and after integration. And both of these allegiances are voiced again, if subtly, when we see Giant betting on a slate of major league games. His name recalls the Giant uniform worn by Bleek, and his complaint about the Mets--"the Mets need some more black ballplayers"--baldly extends the pride in race suggested by the jerseys.
Jazz, of course, is also a primarily black enterprise. Although Bleek's quintet plays in a club that is owned by two Jews, the musicians and the bulk of the audience are African Americans. Spike Lee pays tribute to his own father, a successful composer who scored music in each of Lee's first five films, by emphasizing the connection of history to jazz through props like the Coltrane album. Bleek's devotion to music significantly precludes his entry into several forms of community. As a child, his trumpet lessons come before his young friends; as an adult, he makes it clear to Clarke that his practice time is not to be interrupted. Music is, by implication, a solitary and almost monastic pursuit, one unabashedly privileged over friendship or love. The frictions that drive Bleek's saxophonist to leave the band are first visible in the form of long solos: Shadow is too interested in his own music. Even Bleek's instrument, capable of such sweet sound, becomes a blunt weapon in the hands of the thugs who rough up Giant. Music divides, and even injures.
In Do the Right Thing (1989), Lee had directed Sal brandishing a baseball bat to demolish Raheem's boom box. In Mo' Better Blues (1990), Lee directs the violent use of a trumpet to rupture the various links between sports and aesthetics, baseball and jazz, that the film has earlier established. In the end, then, it is Bleek's mission to steer a course between the two, and he can accomplish this mission only by softening his nearly militaristic attitude towards music. Thus, the film closes with a scene that echoes its opening, despite an interval of years, but offers one major modification. Four kids again appear at a doorstep, and, holding a football instead of a baseball, they come to see if Miles, Bleek's son, can come out. The son's name suggests, of course, a conscious connection to jazz history, and the situation itself, so close to Miles's own childhood, evokes continuity and repetition. So, too, does the initial response of Miles's mother: She mentions the importance of practicing his instrument. But Bleek, subtly rupturing the sense of cyclicality, intervenes, letting the boy run outside to join his friends, and thus establishing an appropriate balance between past and present, and music and sport. (7)
Lee's next release, Jungle Fever (1991), centers on an adulterous relationship between Flipper Purify, a black architect, and Angela Tucci, his white secretary, and continues the filmmaker's exploration of themes that emerge in his earlier work. Set entirely in New York City, the film examines frictions within and between Italian American and African American urban communities, while also addressing issues as diverse as male and female eroticism, drug abuse, religious conservatism, and police brutality. It opens and closes, like Mo' Better Blues, with intentionally similar scenes that link the contents of each picture to larger issues in African American aesthetic traditions, and, once again, in Lee's film pictorial and verbal references to athletics function as powerful rhetorical and thematic devices.
A potent example of the eloquence and relevance of Lee's athletic references appears in the splashy opening sequence, a thoughtful synthesis of several iconographies. While Stevie Wonder's title track plays, Lee alternates shots of Bensonhurst and Harlem, alluding to the neighborhoods of his two protagonists and visually situating the film in the city. This urban accent permeates the opening credits that, figured onto traffic signs, insinuate the daunting distance between the racial worlds that Flipper and Angie separately represent. In the middle of the sequence, Lee includes a shot that condenses several of the film's themes and foreshadows a later discussion. We see a wall, presumably in Brooklyn, covered in graffiti supporting the Italian national soccer team (forza azzurri) and the New York Rangers. The graffiti suggest a basic urbanism, as in Do the Right Thing, but they also differ significantly from the extra-diegetic scrawls on the wall in the earlier film ("Dump Koch"; "Tawana told the Truth"). Here, the voice is not imperative, and it does not try to address the viewer directly; rather, it is exhortative, and it implicitly addresses, in plain Italian, the Italian team. In other words, the syntax of the graffiti suggests a closed ethnicity instead of the open possibility of political action that is central to Do the Right Thing. In this light, however, the reference to the Rangers suggests, in conjunction with a subsequent conversation in the soda shop, a strand of equally exclusive racism. As a small knot of Italian Americans discusses sports later in the film, one of them notes that African Americans "took over sports.... What we got left--hockey?" Hockey, in other words, is a racial preserve; if soccer implies Italian pride, hockey, in the same frame, would seem to denote a white exclusivity. The graffiti and conversants exclude Flipper, the black lover, from the Italian American community before viewers have met him.
References to professional sports also distinguish the homes of the two primary families. When we first see the Tucci family at home in Bensonhurst, they are watching the Mets on television; the game soon becomes a foil against which Angela's two brothers lay down barely concealed racist remarks. On the one hand, they bid good riddance to Daryl Strawberry, an African American star who had left the Mets for Los Angeles after the 1990 season; they've concluded that any born-again player is not worth retaining. On the other hand, when Flipper is kicked out of his home by his wife, he returns to his childhood home where his walls are decorated with a photo of the 1970 world champion New York Knicks and a cover of Sports Illustrated (from February 4, 1974) that pictures Muhammad Ali over the caption "All Again." The images, presumably posted by the young Flipper, imply a relatively distant past, two decades gone, and thus contrast the discussion of the Tucci brothers, who dismiss a player who had left the Mets less than a year before. Flipper's outdated photos conjure in him a powerful nostalgia that underscores the fresh loss of his wife; they evoke quietly and ironically the sort of lost past that he seems to contemplate as he lies in his boyhood bed. Finally, the pictures of basketball and boxing, sports fully racially integrated by the end of the twentieth century, describe a socioethnic realm that is implicitly condemned in the exclusive, racist graffiti and soda shop conversations of Bensonhurst.
Basketball and boxing, the sports depicted in Flipper's room, also color two critical moments in his adult experience. When Flipper tells Cyrus, his closest friend, about his extramarital affair, he does so on an otherwise empty basketball court. In fact, Cyrus implies that the two friends have had numerous momentous conversations on the same spot. Basketball in Harlem is thus linked to a tradition of honesty and confession in black (male) friendships. Boxing, meanwhile, bridges Flipper and Angie. After a difficult dinner with Flipper's parents, in which his father flatly condemns their relationship, Flipper and Angle playfully shadow box in a parked car. Their innocent jabs surely express their frustration with the difficult circumstances of their disruptive relationship, but the punches soon reveal a common sports interest, too--although it is tellingly characterized by racial difference. When Flipper, throwing ghost punches, mentions Tyson, Angle replies that Tyson was trained by Gus D'Amato, meeting his reference to a black fighter with a reference to an Italian American coach. Sparring, Angie lists several great Italian fighters; in turn, Flipper argues for the primacy of Ali, and their mock punches gradually melt into an embrace. Their body language thus echoes the tone of their conversation, in which an ethnocentric "argument" melts onto warm common ground. Despite their culturally different perspectives, Angie and Flipper share an interest in boxing history.
But any sense of union is immediately and irrevocably ruptured by the arrival of two white police officers, who mistake Flipper for a rapist and violently pin him against the car. Race and racist assumptions destroy the two lovers' separate peace. The cops' real violence powerfully mocks the couple's playful shadowboxing of a few moments prior. Just as Lee's camera focuses on a still image of Marciano and Louis in the middle of the melee in Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever links boxing and police brutality, apparently hinting that racial divisions underlie both athletic contests and urban conflicts. Sport, again, is inextricably related to violence, and Angela and Flipper, nominal lovers, are cast against their will into a larger context of competition.
Such an image solves nothing. More metaphor than manifesto, it distills the film's central themes without pointing to an obvious solution, and describes difficulty without offering a remedy. Of course, there may be no easy remedy. Scholarship on Do the Right Thing has slowly moved towards an acceptance of the ambiguity and ambivalence that color Lee's early work, and many of his references to sport involve a comparable complexity, creating what Henry Louis Gates has called a porous quality that centralizes choice (1). The team jerseys and the recurring references to the Mets or the Celtics allow Lee to individualize his characters and to create a broadly competitive arena, but they do not indicate, as easily, a winning strategy. Apparently, social ills must be resolved outside the bounds of Lee's films.
In a sense, Lee's reliance on symbols culled from the world of professional sports yields a very public version of exactly what Buggin' Out finds missing in Sal's pizzeria: a pantheon of famous African Americans. Through intelligent references to historical and contemporary athletic figures, Lee creates a landscape of accomplished black stars, and Buggin' Out's cries for fair representation could be satisfied, suggests the camera, if he would only look about him--or, in the parlance of the film, if he would only wake up. (8) But the precise contours of such irony are tricky. If the jerseys and shoes reflect, on the one hand, an identification with heroes, and inscribe a sense of community, they are also, on the other hand, mere passive props; if they recall heroes, they also imply, through contrast, a lack of true heroism in the 'hood. At the same time, it would be naive to deny that the replica jerseys and high-priced sneakers also represent a consumer culture that defines, as Douglas Kellner has argued, Lee's characters as much in terms of what they wear as what they are (99). Lee uses athletic codes in a thoughtful manner, but it should not be forgotten that he was employed by Nike for most of the late 1980s and early 90s, and that he directed several TV ads for the shoe giant. In fact, his ads often featured visual styles and even characters that were directly related to his early films, and his films in turn often seemed influenced by the marketplace: In one of the most powerful scenes of Do the Right Thing, Sal and Mookie throw $100 bills at each other in front of the smoldering pizzeria--with the broad Nike swoops on their shoes prominently featured.
Iconographic, cinematic, and thematic decisions, then, should not be divorced from economic realities. But in Lee's case, perhaps the opposite is also true. In late 2001, Lee auctioned a ticket to a Knicks game, and gave the resulting $101,300 to a fund for children and widows set up by the New York Fire Department in the wake of the September 11 attacks. Interestingly, Lee had originated this idea in his character Bleek: During a scat in Mo" Better Blues, Bleek offers to give up his courtside Knicks tickets as a proof of his love for Clarke, and the character's equation of sports spectatorship with self-sacrificial civil service thus anticipates the director's.
For Lee, then, the world of sports is clearly not a pure realm of escape; rather, it is both a living industry and a source of meanings both individual and social. Knicks jackets, in Lee's early films, can assert a particular ideology, and Knicks tickets, in Lee's hands, can provide genuine charity. In short, Lee signifies on a familiar set of cultural forms to offer thoughtful social critique. (9) Familiar jerseys suddenly refer, in their new context, to widening rifts and to historical analogies. They also suggest, in Lee's hands, a new attitude towards sports. Lee came of age in the 80s, and thus is a decade younger than a generation of black sports fans who had seemed to care, as Gerald Early argued of the mid-1970s, "nothing for nostalgia and love, instead desiring only the newest currency in the improvisations of style and moves" (380). Currency (in the form of Nike contracts) remains important in Lee's early films, but one of his particular strengths has been to realize that nostalgia and love, and politics and history, also have a place in a thriving US film industry, and that they can be represented, to a degree, through the rich inheritances and the developing idioms of professional sports.
(1.) For a thoughtful analysis of Lee's use of music in Do the Right Thing, centered on an argument that the film's use of polyphony is essentially political, see Johnson.
(2.) In the production notes for Do the Right Thing, Lee humorously refers to his apparent reliance on the figure of Larry Bird: "I'm sorry, Larry Bird, but your name will be mentioned in a film of mine once again" (27).
(3.) Lee would gain a sort of revenge on the Celtics in 1992; according to Alex Patterson, while giving a very popular series of guest lectures at Harvard, Lee (jokingly?) refused to admit any Celtic fans (226-27).
(4.) Kauffmann was not alone in his curious objection; see Lyne for a survey of complaints regarding Lee's omission of drugs.
(5.) On the symbolism of the choice of a Robinson jersey for Mookie, George writes: "The Jackie Robinson jersey that Mookie wears does not suggest that he's a racial pioneer but that he's a man watched closely by interested parties on both sides of the racial divide. Both sides think he's loyal to them--that's how he survives" (80). Kellner (78) and, later, Guerrero (17) also discuss the same subject. Lee's production notes from the film, however, suggest that the inclusion of the Robinson jersey was largely fortuitous: "I knew I wanted my character Mookie to wear tight basketball shorts underneath a pair of loose-fitting shorts. I got this from basketball players.... So, I had an idea for the bottom of my costume, but I was stumped on what to wear on top. Cecile Holmes, one of the bigwigs in Black music at CBS records, knows I'm a baseball fan, and once gave me a Jackie Robinson jersey. The night before we started shooting, I was still undecided about my costume, then I remembered the jersey" (110).
(6.) Raheem is thus not like Mike. But he does resemble, before his violent death, another NBA star perhaps even closer to Lee's heart. In raising a single, solitary fist after defeating Puerto Ricans in a boom box showdown, Raheem echoes the trademark gesture of Walt Frazier, a prominent Knick guard in the 1970s who lived and dressed, like Raheem, flamboyantly, but celebrated with a raised fist.
(7.) In this sense, Bleek occupies a position characterized by the same sort of difficult dualism or ambiguity noted by James McKelly in an article on Do the Right Thing (220).
(8.) As Guerrero has pointed out, Lee further undermines Buggin' Out's protests by placing a large billboard of Mike Tyson behind him, even as Buggin' Out calls for the inclusion of black images (3738).
(9.) McKelly offers a useful definition of signifying: it "manifests itself as a vernacular stratagem which on the one hand puts to use the modes of discourse which the colonizing hegemonic discourse has made available to it, yet on the other hand always already imbues these culturally endorsed forms with a 'signal difference' which renders them at once both conventional yet subversive ..." (224).
Caponi, Gena Dagel, ed. Signifyin(g), Sanctifyin', & Slam Dunking: A Reader in African American Expressive Culture. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1999.
Dyson, Michael Eric. "Be Like Mike? Michael Jordan and the Pedagogy of Desire." Caponi 407-16.
Early, Gerald. "The Hero of the Blues." Caponi 379-87.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. "Do the Right Thing: Issues and Images." The New York Times 9 July 1989, 2:1.
George, Nelson. "Do the Right Thing: Film and Fury." Lee 77-81.
Grant, William. "Revisiting the Times: Do the Right Thing Revisited." Reid 16-30.
Greenfield, Jeff. "The Black and White Truth About Basketball." Caponi 373-78.
Guerrero, Ed. Do the Right Thing. London: BFI, 2001.
Johnson, Victoria. "Polyphony and Cultural Expression: Interpreting Musical Traditions in Do the Right Thing." Reid 50-72.
Kauffmann, Stanley. Distinguishing Features: Film Criticism and Comment. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1994.81-82.
Kellner, Douglas. "Aesthetics, Ethics, and Politics in the Films of Spike Lee." Reid 73-106.
Lee, Spike, ed. The Films of Spike Lee: Five for Five. New York: Stewart Tabori & Chang, 1991.
--, and Lisa Jones. Do the Right Thing: A Spike Lee Joint. New York: Fireside, 1989.
Lyne, William. "No Accident: From Black Power to Black Box Office." African American Review 34 (2000): 39-59.
McKelly, James. "The Double Truth, Ruth: Do the Right Thing and the Culture of Ambiguity." African American Review 32 (1998): 215-27.
Patterson, Alex. Spike Lee. New York: Books, 1992.
Reid, Mark, ed. Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing. New York: Cambridge UP, 1997.
Watkins, S. Craig. Representing: Hip Hop Culture and the Production of Black Cinema. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1999.
Wideman, John Edgar. "Michael Jordan Leaps the Great Divide." Caponi 388-406.
Kerr Houston has taught medieval art history at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore since 2002. He would like to thank Professor Helen Robbins and all of the students in the film studies course at Lyon College for repeatedly reminding him of the complexities and the beauties of film.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2004|
|Previous Article:||Biko Agozino. Counter-Colonial Criminology: A Critique of Imperialist Reason.|
|Next Article:||In the swamp.|