True terror: the haunting of Spike Lee's 25th Hour.
Perhaps, then, it is not surprising that more than a decade after becoming a reliable provocateur Lee directed 25th Hour, Hollywood's first contemplation of the national trauma produced by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Released just sixteen months after the event, the film's post-9/11 New York setting was the representation of a national wounding, still raw. Projecting it upon the silver screen was in itself an aggressive gesture; it was a risk no other Hollywood filmmaker would take until almost five years after the attacks. Yet at first blush it appears that in 25th Hour Lee handles his confrontation of the American imagination with uncharacteristic deference; one critic described the film as a "heartfelt love letter" to New York and America (Massood, "Introduction" xvii). The ideological fire witnessed in Malcolm X seems tamped in reverence to the sensitized post-9/11 audience. Issues of race feel muted in a narrative focused upon the fate of a sympathetic white protagonist; and Lee's treatment of the events of 9/11 is ostensibly apolitical and ideologically open. On its surface, the film strikes its viewer as a collage of intimate character studies, distanced from the public discourses of race and nation that organize so much of Lee's earlier work. However, in the context of Lee's oeuvre, 25th Hour represents not a departure in theme and attitude, but rather a shift in method. The film is in fact a profound contemplation of the way in which race continues to haunt the American mind, and it is an important development in Lee's extensive and evolving artistic project. Modernizing the national gothic tradition, 25th Hour suggests that, despite programs of gentrification, suburbanization and incarceration which have virtually inoculated the affluent white body against racial hazard, America remains deeply troubled by its dark bogeymen. This argument is elaborated amidst a specific post-9/11 historical context that was--among other things--animated by rhetoric of American interracial solidarity marshaled against a cave-hidden threat from abroad. Lee's film carefully hollows out this rhetoric by demonstrating that for the American imagination, even in the post-9/11 moment, the most potent menace lurks at home--in a sepulchral prison system that efficiently disappears black male bodies from civil society and social discourse, while intensifying the terror they produce in the national psyche.
The subtlety and restraint that Lee uses to re-create the hauntings in 25th Hour gives the film a simmering, understated power that distinguishes it from his more noted films of the late 1980s and early '90s, like Do the Right Thing (1989), Jungle Fever (1991) and Malcolm X--films that conveyed ideology in heavy-handed, sometimes didactic, terms that could prompt an unsympathetic (and hyperbolic) critic like Stanley Crouch to declare Lee's aesthetic fascist" (qtd. in Bogle 319). In 25th Hour, Lee constructs the trauma of 9/11 and the nightmare of race in America as correlative subtexts that erupt into the narrative only in brief, dense, evocative flashes. These overdetermined themes are held at the figurative margins of the film, to be glimpsed obliquely--out of the corner of the mind's eye, as it were. In its careful conjuring of the post-9/11 moment, 25th Hour is both tribute and analysis; and in its measured suppression of racial discourse in a narrative that is everywhere animated by racialized terror, the film is a powerful approximation of the protean power of race in early twenty-first-century America. The considerable cultural critique achieved in 25th Hour has, for the most part, gone unacknowledged by critics of Lee's work, both mainstream and academic. Recent scholarship assessing Lee's corpus has hardly engaged the film. (1) In part, this critical neglect may be due to the superficial difficulty of situating 25th Hour within established discourse about Lee. However, once 25th Hour is understood as a remarkable expansion of Lee's narrative method, the film takes its place as a significant and coherent addition to the director's body of work.
September 11, 2001 was one of the "nodes" of history described by Ralph Ellison's protagonist in the prologue to Invisible Man. Commercial airplanes sliced through living buildings, and for many the "swift and imperceptible flowing of time" came to a halt shrilly. Ellison's narrator tells us that in "those points where time stands still or from which it leaps ahead ... you slip into the breaks and look around" (6). Slovaj Zizek, in a well-known essay response to 9/11, hoped that in the stillness of the break produced by the attacks, Americans would look around and realize that the "U. S. just got the taste of what goes on around the world on a daily basis, from Sarajevo to Grozny, from Ruanda and Congo to Sierra Leone" (133-34). Zizek and others hoped that some good might arise in the wake of the attacks. The Serbian philosopher held out the possibility that the taste of suffering might rattle the fantasy-sphere of America's late-capitalist, consumerist society, prompting Americans to gaze upon their own pain and through it experience stronger identifications with the denizens of humanity in the "Third World 'Desert of the Real'" (133). Zizek saw the break in history as a time for American contemplation. Cornel West was similarly inspired by the possibilities for creative suffering afforded by the attacks. He roguishly described 9/11 as the "niggerization of America," arguing that "all classes, colors, regions, religions, genders, and sexual orientations felt unsafe, unprotected, subject to random violence and hated." After the unprecedented attacks America in toto was living the long black experience and was given the opportunity to identify with and learn from its "blues people" (20-21). But competing with the philosophers' hopeful embrace of rupture was a strong current in public discourse that urged Americans out of the "break," toward a return to "normalcy" and the comfortable, swift flow of history. Soon after the attacks, President George W. Bush promoted the "routines" of American living, counseled citizens to "enjoy life" as they had before 9/11, and in a major speech recommended that they "[g]et down to Disney World in Florida." On the one hand, this presidential invitation to Disney sought to encourage Americans to travel, spend money, and revive the shocked domestic and international economy. However, by suggesting that post-9/11 vacationers retreat to America's iconic destination of juvenile escape, Bush implicitly linked American recovery to a suppression--however fleeting--of the new horror of history. As Zizek and West welcomed all of America to the desert of the real, Bush directed the nation toward an oasis of fantasy.
For the mass of Americans who could not make a palliative escape to Florida, the beckoning world of the Cineplex played substitute. Hollywood's magic lens responded to the attacks--if not the exhortation of the Commander-in-Chief--with five years of fantasy that numbed the pain of 9/11 by generally eschewing engagement with reality. The wild success and excess of The Lord of the Rings (2001, 2002, 2003) franchise demonstrated that the desert of the real was not what Hollywood was eager to serve and American movie-goers were eager to imbibe. Escapism and reassurance were the preferred nostrums. Along with the Ring movies, post-9/11 blockbusters like the Harry Potter (2001, 2002, 2004, and 2005) and Spiderman (2002 and 2004) films, The Incredibles (2004), Shrek II (2004), and Finding Nemo (2003)--all among the most financially successful films in history--were falsely cathartic avoidance narratives spun in histories apparently untouched by the rupture of 9/11. These were high fantasy, or "marvelous"--meaning wholly supernatural, following Tzvetan Todorov--children's films financed by the adult consumer. They were, precisely, capitalist products that in the words of Walter Benjamin, "spur the interest of the masses through illusion-promoting spectacles and dubious speculation" (232).
These narratives of wish-fulfillment were also remarkably monoracial (or "raceless"). None were more so than the Ring epics, which constructed a mythic landscape populated by humans, dwarves, elves and hobbits united through a phenotypic "Caucasianess" that crossed various species and set them in opposition to a dark faceless evil. In their effort to banish all semblance of nonfiction anxiety from their spheres of fantasy, these films seem to imagine a universe where utopia is possible because nonwhites do not exist. This was Hollywood's ironic interpretation of the rhetoric of American solidarity that sputtered forth in the months following 9/11. The production of these successful movies also represented a pattern of escapist repression characteristic of Hollywood narrative following national tragedy. In March of 2005, a New York Times article predicted that, "At least another year will pass before Hollywood, notoriously wary of films based on 'current events,' is ready to face the trauma of 9/11 head-on." Indeed, when the movies United 93 and The World Trade Center were released in 2006, they were touted as popular American cinema's first treatments of the events of 9/11. Not surprisingly, the nervous, rigorously managed promotion of these films, and the media discourse that situated them, made little acknowledgment of Lee's 25th Hour.
Unlike the post-9/11 fare that took escapism and repression as watchwords, Lee's film contemplates something of Zizek's "desert of the real" by boldly setting his somber drama in a New York City recovering from the devastation of the attack. Ground zero gapes at the figurative center of the film's stark mise-en-scene, while the symbols of mourning and defiance that came to define the city's populist response to 9/11--the impromptu street memorials, the ubiquitous American flag--appear in elegiac glimpses throughout. Bearing meditative witness to the attacks, 25th Hour differs sharply from the therapeutic escapism that controlled the box office during the period of its release. However, Lee's film is nothing like the documentary-style United 93 and The World Trade Center that later gave filmic representation to historical narratives first proffered and authorized by commercial media outlets. Although aesthetically saturated by the trauma of 9/11 through visual and aural cues, in 25th Hour the aftermath of the attacks provides only the grim atmosphere within which the action of a plot ostensibly unrelated to 9/11 takes place. The movie circumspectly avoids the type of journalistic, public narratives staged for movie audiences in United 93 and The World Trade Center. Instead, the familiar symbols of 9/11 float through the film unmoored, signifying without aggressive authorial control. The history of 9/11 is thus rendered as what Roland Barthes described as a "writerly text" which makes its audience "no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text." Its oblique, impressionistic engagement with the tragedy allows 25th Hour to generate a depth of meaning that is absent in the "readerly texts" of United 93 and The World Trade Center--films which do not invite audience interpretation but which obstinately attempt to make legible and consumable the illegibly sublime horror of 9/11. In their big-budget quests for verisimilitude, these docudramas helped mould American--and global memory, but they are immediately artifacts at which to be wondered. Like the audience of Barthes' "readerly texts," the viewer of these films "is plunged into a kind of idleness.... [H]e is left with no more than the poor freedom either to accept or reject the text" (S/Z 4). These films are instruments that carry out a critical social function. They fix collective memory through moving pictures, but they have none of the aesthetic fecundity of Spike Lee's 25th Hour, which seeks not to etch a history of 9/11, but rather to provoke an open remembrance of the event.
The Flash of Trauma: Representing Race and 9/11
Lee's cinematic requiem for 9/11 works in tandem with an equally subtle contemplation of the persistent influence of race in the national imagination, as it is cunningly carried out amidst archetypal American discourses of innocence, freedom, self-creation, flight, masculinity, and hell. Perhaps ironically, this complex meditation on race emerges from a narrative that seems to eschew the racial themes that are reflexively associated with Lee's work. For just as 25th Hour is flooded by the memory of 9/11 only through evocation, its specters of racial trauma flit only at the edges of the text. Indeed, the film is so fertile because it employs a pattern of implication in which its most significant ideas are suggested--as in a Symbolist poem, or an Impressionist painting--rather than explicitly described. An instrumental sliver of Barthes's The Pleasure of the Text illuminates the evocative method of Lee's film. In his description of pleasurable narrative--which does not treat its reader as a passive consumer of fixed meaning, but instead forces its audience to generate meaning for itself--Barthes explains the excitement produced by that which is mostly concealed:
Is not the most erotic portion of a body where the garment gapes?... [I]t is intermittence, as psychoanalysis has so rightly stated, that is erotic: the intermittence of skin flashing between two articles of clothing (trousers and sweater), between two edges (the open-necked shirt, the glove and the sleeve); it is this flash itself which seduces, or rather, the staging of an appearance as disappearance. (9-10)
The libidinal analogy, characteristic of Barthes, is perverse in the context of a stern tragedy like 9/11, but the logic holds nonetheless. In evoking its subjects without succumbing to the temptation of relentless representation, Lee's film stimulates the imagination allowing meaning, the possibility for interpretation, to proliferate.
When 25th Hour was first released, few popular or scholarly sources earnestly engaged its exceptional encounter with the events of 9/11, and none discussed its racial subtext. The corollary to this lack of critical attention was the film's dismal box-office performance. It grossed just over thirteen million dollars in its first six months on the market, though it cost fifteen million dollars to make. Given its thoroughly anti-escapist evocation of 9/11, the movie's inability to draw Cineplex audiences is not surprising. The dazzling fantasy blockbusters of post-9/11 years share little aesthetic or ideological common ground with 25th Hour. Lee's film--which is adapted from a novel of the same name by David Benioff, who also wrote the screenplay--chronicles the day before its white protagonist, Montgomery Brogan (Edward Norton), must report to prison to begin serving a seven-year jail term. Monty is a sympathetically drawn character, compassionate and mostly pensive. But before his arrest, he was also a successful mid-level drug dealer working for Russian organized crime bosses, and selling product to Manhattan yuppies. The movie offers no high-speed chase, no triumph of righteousness, and no escapes. Monty wards off the reality of his impending imprisonment only by indulging in a small party on the eve of incarceration--a few hours of drinking with his girlfriend (Rosario Dawson), and his two closest friends (Barry Pepper and Philip Seymour Hoffman). These male characters, along with Monty's worn yet noble father (Brian Cox), constitute the significant masculine influence of the protagonist's working-class, Brooklyn-Irish childhood. In its essence, 25th Hour is a mood piece obtaining much of its strength through well-arranged character sketches, a calm sense of mourning for things lost, and some fine acting.
The film's opening credits are set against the night skyline of post-9/11 Manhattan, almost made diminutive beneath twin beams of light memorializing those who died in the fallen towers of the World Trade Center. (2) This sequence establishes the new New York by breaking the metropolis into a series of frank stationary shots that capture the hive of Manhattan's nighttime movement. After 9/11, Gotham lives. But the score's Middle Eastern chant melds with the prominence of the luminous memorial stretching and dissipating heavenward to acknowledge that New York--and the American imagination so influenced by the iconic significance of that city's skyline--has been forever changed. It is a bold, harrowing introduction to the city that acts as both setting and character in so much of Lee's work.
Few mainstream critics were impressed by the anomalous courage demonstrated in the film's unflinching recollection of 9/11. Lukewarm critical responses expressed frustration with Lee's oblique method. The review in the Village Voice asserted that "the filmmaker's main conceptual inspiration appears to be a largely pointless attempt to evoke the post-9-11 moment." And in a flippant, but helpful review to which I will return later, David Edelstein of the online magazine Slate wrote, "the movie is ... muddled by its own ambitions. There is simply no connection between the themes of Benioff's screenplay and 9/11." The dismissive tenor of these responses exhibits little appreciation for Barthes' contention that it "is the flash," rather than the explicitly wrought argument, that produces pleasurable texts. Discomfited by the film's evocative method, many popular critics seemed put off by Lee's avoidance of a clear ideological reaction to 9/11.
However, the decision to allow the themes of Benioff's story to operate apart from any obvious connection to their post-9/11 context provides for a form of realist narrative that is profound commentary in itself. This severance of story and context captures a simple truth. Just as thousands of American babies were born into joy on that now-infamous date, thousands of convicts were going to prison in the months following 9/11--terrorist attacks changed none of this. Lee's narrative structure implicitly argues for the importance of private affairs that bear only an indefinable relationship to the changes and chances in the public sphere. In an American era that increasingly required the individual to forgo personal liberties for the putative public good, Lee's brand of realism was a significant statement. Indeed, for most Americans, and even most New Yorkers, 9/11 represented only a tableau before which "real life" obstinately continued. Lee himself described a directorial approach that sheds light on the (dis)connection between the film's historical context and its central narrative: "Ed Norton and I both felt that we could comment on post-9/11 New York City. So New York City became even more of a character in the film, even though it was a wounded New York City with people trying to cope with their own particular lives. No matter what New Yorkers do, it is really in the back of their minds thinking about the planes that went into the towers. I tried to keep that in the back of my mind" (Aftab 355). Reflective of this mindset of simultaneous acknowledgement and restraint, Lee's film achieves an emotional effect that evades 9/11 docudramas. Ironically, in their documentary-style realism, films like United 93 and The World Trade Center captured the element of 9/11 that was so unreal, yet so familiar--the element witnessed in countless movies that appeared before 9/11: the evil hijackers, the heroic lawman, the exploding tower. These films offer art imitating life imitating art. 25th Hour, on the other hand, defamiliarizes the national tragedy by using it as a backdrop--and not a neatly allegorical backdrop--for the personal tragedy of its protagonist.
Nevertheless, the apparent disconnection between the film's primary dramatic tension and its post-9/11 environment does not suggest that, after that portentous date, the relentless continuance of "real life" goes on without new implication. On the contrary, the film's steady, impressionistic evocation of the attack implies a fundamental shift in the way American life must now be imagined. In the requiem score that surfaces fully at key moments in the narrative, Algerian vocalist Cheb Mami threads a wordless moan through an orchestral arrangement that is by turns Arabesque, patriotic, and funereal. When the score echoes through the opening montage of Manhattan's disfigured skyline, it both elegizes all that is absent in the post-9/11 moment--comfort, complacence, symbolic edifice, and several thousand lives--and calls forth a new, abiding and spectral American fear. Perhaps the score alone is enough to give the lie to a review in The Guardian that announced that the film "has nothing to do with race." Lee's musical collaboration with composer Terence Blanchard deftly represents and documents the evolution of a national imagination grappling with the racialized symbol of the threatening jihadist. Mami's indistinct but unmistakably Eastern vocables obviously allude to the emergence of a powerful wraith imposing itself on the American consciousness from distant lands.
But if issues of race and culture are clearly at play in the contextual realm of the film's post-9/11 mise-en-scene, it is somewhat more difficult to discern their significance in 25th Hour's central narrative--in its depiction of an axial day in the life of Monty Brogan. The love relationship between Monty and his Puerto Rican girlfriend, Naturelle, bears little sign of tension produced by race; although frictional, and significant to my reading of the film, sharp verbal exchanges between Monty and the film's only prominent black characters--two DEA investigators who, in flashback scenes, bust and interrogate the white protagonist do not bristle with the overtly politicized racial antagonism that is foundational to many Lee films. The explicit interracial confrontation that Lee has often exploited to produce narrative tension appears in 25th Hour just once. In a brilliantly surreal scene, Monty responds to the words "fuck you" scrawled on the bathroom mirror of his father's bar. While staring in the mirror, Monty enters into dialog with his antagonistic reflection: he personalizes the public graffiti before turning the curse upon as many New York identity groups as he can conjure. His flailing assault is directed at, among others, Pakistani and Sikh taxi drivers "bombing" down the city avenues, gay "Chelsea boys," Korean shopkeepers "with their pyramids of over-priced fruit," Jewish diamond-peddlers on 47th Street, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and the "uptown brothers" who are reminded that "slavery ended 137 years ago" and advised to "move the fuck on!" Monty's tirade eventually rages beyond discrete identity groups to treat an array of icons before finally targeting his own circle of loved ones, and the city that he must soon leave behind. Of course, in this mirror scene--so aware of its own artifice--Monty encounters himself, and thus each group blessed by his curse is paradoxically celebrated and claimed by this New Yorker--this American--confronting and delineating a personal, and arguably national, identity. When the sequence erupts about thirty minutes into a heretofore realist narrative, content and form resonate in jarring tones. The audience is aroused not only by Monty's unrepentant transgression of so many codes of bourgeois propriety, but also by the scene's unannounced disruption of the conventionally realist mode that organizes most of the film. In this flash of surrealism, which appears for only a few intense moments before being covered over by the concealing garment of the realist narrative, it is evident that Lee is consciously trying his hand at a description of American identity in the post-9/11 moment.
"United We Stand!"
With Monty struggling to come to terms with self via an engagement with New York's diversity, the audience is offered a chaotic portrait of American pluralism. The colliding images that emerge in Monty's litany of curses are productively viewed through the lens of Ralph Ellison's 1977 essay, "The Little Man at the Chehaw Station." In considering American artistic form and audience, Ellison posits a paradox which evokes the precepts of democratic pluralisms enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights: "We stand, as we say, united in the name of these sacred principles. But indeed it is in the name of these same principles that we ceaselessly contend, affirming our ideals even as we do them violence" (Territory 17; emphasis added). With the help of Ellison's assertion, it is possible to read Monty's equal-opportunity invective as a clever and redeeming riff on that most banal cliche of the post-9/11 moment: "United We Stand!" Indeed, as Monty's attack begins, the most astute member of the audience is accosted by a barely audible repetition of the Arabic expostulation, "Allahu Akbar!'--a refrain which, in the American imagination, is misunderstood ineluctably as the mantra of Islamist terrorists. This disembodied voice, eerily filtering into the text, is a purposeful prop by which Lee evokes the new jihadist threat that binds together the diverse cohorts of New York City identified in Monty's rant. Following 9/11, all New Yorkers, all Americans, apparently shared the common antagonist metonymically represented by the spectral refrain inserted into the film's most surreal moment.
This reading of the scene as a celebration of American diversity is seemingly corroborated as the narrative draws to its close with Monty's father driving him toward the inexorable Otisville prison facility that has been waiting to receive the protagonist throughout. As Monty leaves the city, Lee once again assembles New York's human color in stilted portraiture that recalls the earlier mirror scene; the Pakistanis, the Koreans and the "uptown-brothers," that were vessels receiving Monty's apparent hate, are now transfigured into surreal, smiling countenances lining his path of departure. They appear to represent all that is good in the life that the white protagonist has lost; as they slide out of his view, he looks after these faces wistfully. If Monty--and the audience--did not at first understand the full meaning of his earlier tirade, it seems that he, and possibly they, now do, as he leaves New York. The sequence ends with a somewhat forced moment of poignancy in which Monty and a young black boy lovingly communicate by writing their names in the foggy windows of their respective vehicles. Not long after, the film closes with the same ominous Eastern chant with which it opened.
This musical vice, exerting its evocative pressure at both the beginning and end of the film, seems to force the threat of traditional, domestic race friction out of this American text. It appears that the newly potent specter from the East has facilitated the racial reconciliation figured in Monty's exchange with the black boy. Again, the film reads as though it is a reiteration of the early, post-9/11 rhetoric of unity and consolidation that called for the transcendence of race in the name of a patriotism organized against terrorists who had attacked "all Americans." Zizek's post-9/11 essay insightfully comments on the interracial solidarity widely heralded by popular media after the attacks: "[T]he bombings gave rise to a new sense of solidarity," he writes, "with the scenes of young African Americans helping an old Jewish gentlemen to cross the street, scenes unimaginable a couple of days ago" (134; emphasis added). Whether purposeful or not, Zizek's repetition of the descriptor "scenes" suggests the inauthentic quality of media's fixation on post-9/11 racial solidarity. While collective tragedy surely inspired a certain camaraderie among New Yorkers, and among Americans generally, such scenes of interracial benevolence were "unimaginable" before the attacks, not because they did not occur, but because the recording devices of popular media were trained elsewhere, creating different mythologies. The "scenes" called forth by Zizek were flimsy examples of a grand solidarity sought in order to support the patriotic nationalism captured in the cry, "United we stand!"
At times, 25th Hour appears to uphold the esprit de corps of that post-9/11 slogan. The text, however, is simultaneously alive with a countervailing politics that refutes the simplistic nationalism and wishful solidarity inspired by post-9/11 media discourse. With Monty headed toward his prison-hell, and with the smiling faces of New York slipping away, there is the sense that it is too late for easy redemption, both for the narrative's protagonist and for the American cultural imagination that the film continually engages.
As he pitifully gazes from his father's vehicle, it is clear that Monty's appreciation for his city and its diversity" is a belated sentiment that should have come to him earlier. A pronounced ambiguity lurks in the surreal, wooden grins of the nonwhite figures that bid farewell to the protagonist. The young black men that appear in the scene bear particularly mask-like expressions that cover over some unseen emotion. These are not necessarily smiles of good will; perhaps these faces are only happy to see Monty chastened and banished from their city. Furthermore, the symbol of conciliation that registers in the moment of union between Monty and the black boy is cleverly undercut by the very name that the youngster traces in the window: "Tom." The African American imagination that Spike Lee has helped shape knows only one black Tom--the race-traitor. Saddling the boy with his unfortunate name is subtle punishment for a character who naively extends to Monty some unearned sympathy. As Lee's film slyly destabilizes any sense of authentic American communion that its white protagonist experiences, it also delicately scorns the ballyhooed racial camaraderie of the post-9/11 moment.
As though underscoring its rejection of any trite American delusions, the film offers and then retracts an "alternative ending" that would allow Monty to avoid Otisville by heading into the archetypal American West. This final movement imagines the long and happy life that awaits Monty if he will simply ask his father to take the George Washington Bridge across the Hudson and into the open territory of America. However, this closing sequence is a fantasy all the more affecting and attractive precisely because it is unrealized. The film once more revels in its pattern of evocation with--to quote Barthes again--"the staging of an appearance as disappearance." Playing upon a well-worn American trope, the expansive West beckons as refuge to the young, white, male protagonist harried by the encroachment of society, of civilization. However, this romance cannot be indulged--it is offered as possibility and temptation, but then retracted beneath the film's garment of realism. Returning from the reverie, Monty remains east of the river, carried toward his inescapable fate behind the American flag that flies from his father's Bronco. If it was not always so, after 9/11 American abdication and escapism is rendered pathetically wishful. Monty is no Huck Finn; there will be no lighting out for the territory.
The damning abolition of Monty's archetypal dream offers counterpoint to Lee's 1995 film, Clockers, which concludes with its drug-dealer protagonist, Strike (Mekhi Phifer), delivered from the mortal clutches of his profession and his New York City aboard a train headed toward open country and new possibility. With his guileless eyes drinking in the sunset-gilded scene outside his train's window, Strike's black face is an emblem of childlike innocence. As Paula Massood argues in her reading of Clockers, this final image--which is built toward throughout the film--places Strike in a position of potentiality made possible by the powerful symbol of the moving train ("Which Way" 263). Until the film's final moments, Strike was bound within the seemingly inescapable social prison of the 'hood, the projects, the block, the corner. In Clockers, a conventional trajectory of confinement that should lead to the spatial restriction either of the cell or the casket, is disrupted by the mobility that the narrative finally affords its black protagonist. By contrast, Monty's world is at first characterized by freedom and movement. (The opening scene places him in a loud muscle-car, racing through city streets; panoramic camera work and shots of park and waterfront space accent the often-expansive visual narrative.) It is only as the film nears its conclusion, and the mythic freedom of the West is foreclosed, that his impending confinement--his absolute lack of mobility and potential--is felt. While Clockers moves its protagonist out of a confining city and up into an open world, 25th Hour drags Monty hell-ward. As Lee himself declared, "[H]e's going down. He's going to the hoosegow, he's going to the hoosegow" (Aftab 359). (3)
For Monty there is only Otisville looming. But perhaps more important than the denial of freedom represented by the prison are the Otisville inmates who spectrally, wait to exact their own fearful punishment. Indeed, the central narrative of the film is everywhere animated not so much by the horror of incarceration itself as by the imagined sexual proclivities of the already incarcerated. The catalytic power of this fear was so prominent for film critic David Edelstein that he titled his review of the movie, "Back Door Blues: What Spike Lee's 25th Hour is really about." Punctuating his somewhat flip article, he writes: "Not to put too free a point on it, the story of 25th Hour is fueled by the threat of anal rape: It's what preoccupies Monty, and it's the heart of the sexual-panic motif that runs (subtly, mischievously) through the screenplay." Edelstein's thesis is substantiated by recurring moments in the film that linger upon Monty as a prison-house commodity with slight build and smooth cheek. It is the liability of masculine beauty that Monty wants to erase when, in the climactic scene of the film, he prevails upon his friend Frank to beat the vulnerability from his face. The protagonist seeks to disguise himself beneath scars of a pounding so brutal and disfiguring that the sexual predators who skulk in the penitentiary of his imagination might not recognize his comeliness.
Monty's beating is the critical moment in Mikal Gaines's reading of Lee's "ideology of the blues" as it is expressed in 25th Hour. Gaines is interested in the way in which Monty's crimes have vexed his intimate relationship with his closest friend Frank, who apparently believes that Monty deserves the punishment that awaits him. Although he will not say it to his friend, like most Americans, Frank seems to feel that Monty's offenses against society merit the penalty assigned by the state. For Gaines, Frank's bloody violence, instigated by and wrought upon Monty, is a higher form of resolution that transcends the workings of a state-sanctioned regime of punishment that is simplistically retributive. "Frank is able to say with his fists," Gaines writes, "everything that was bound by the restrictions of verbal iteration. Monty simultaneously apologizes while helping to remove the burden of blame from his friend's shoulders." In the ritualistic beating, Gaines sees a form of hypermasculine communication, a healing, an alternative form of social reconciliation, and an implicit critique of a hegemonic "ethics of punishment" that clumsily attempts to assign culpability for and then avenge human suffering. Gaines's interpretation of the film's climactic moment rejects the possibility that Monty invites his disfigurement in a misguided attempt to avoid prison rape: "Surely he knows that no such nonsensical gesture is likely to ensure his safety once incarcerated" (164). But it is difficult to discount the destabilizing power of the "panic" that permeates the film, and which weighs most heavily on the protagonist awaiting his imprisonment. It would also be unwise to neglect a history of American narrative in which characters facing the same specter as Monty are continually robbed of their senses.
The film's climactic violence is charged by the catalytic fear coursing the circuitry of the narrative, a fear generated by imagined figures that are unseen, but whose power is so well understood that they require no description. These figures produce a haunting apart from the Middle Eastern specter that simultaneously chants its way through the text, a haunting so fulsome and profound that it induces in the American protagonist a state of madness. Perhaps only an individual driven to manic self-delusion can believe that the ephemeral facial swellings of a good beating can provide him with the protective disguise needed to endure seven years of imprisonment. Monty's violent, pitiable attempt to alter his identity makes a mockery of the American myth of self-re-creation. However, we must ask, who are these fantasized figures that skulk in the protagonist's imagination, that drive him to such a desperate and painful attempt to make himself anew? Only the American myopia characterized in the nation's literary tradition by Captain Amasa Delano of Melville's Benito Cereno obscures the answer to this question. The primary thesis of Playing in the Dark, Toni Morrison's long essay on race and the American literary imagination, provides the answer: "Even, and especially, when American texts are not 'about' Africanist presences or characters or idiom, the shadow hovers in implication, in sign, in line of demarcation" (45). In his ambitious attempt to memorialize 9/11 alongside a story concentrated upon the fate of white characters, Spike Lee has directed a film that knowingly is shadowed by "Africanist presences."
In discussing silences around race in canonical American literature, Morrison describes the presence of absence in terms that are applicable to 25th Hour. "We can agree, I think, that invisible things are not necessarily 'not there.' That a void a may be empty but not be a vacuum. In addition certain absences are so stressed, so ornate, so planned, they call attention to themselves; arrest with intentionality and purpose" ("Unspeakable" 16). By employing the allusive technique that refuses to explicitly racialize the invisible monsters that Monty (along with the film's audience) imagines, Lee's film arrestingly calls attention to the ghost in the machine without exposing its full identity. This partial shrouding has some resonances with the literary evasions of the nineteenth century that Morrison discusses. Her reading of Moby Dick, for example, suggests that one of the great sins questioned in Melville's book may not have been simply the institution of slavery itself, but "the very notion of white progress, the very idea of racial superiority, of whiteness as a privileged place in the evolutionary ladder of humankind" ("Unspeakable" 24). Part of the intelligence of Melville's novel was perhaps the recognition that, in questioning such foundational articles of faith in nineteenth-century America, symbol and Romance were the most effective instruments--politically as well as artistically. Lee's refusal to openly racialize the specter in his text may be part of a similar recognition about representation. To unambiguously declare that a primal terror of the American white male is his forced sodomy beneath a black criminal is to venture into territory too profane, too visceral for the silver screen. More to the point, however, 25th Hour may be Lee's acknowledgment of a crisis of representation, a tacit recognition that artistic engagement with deep-seated national anxiety around race need not be carried out through direct realist confrontation. For Lee, this willingness to approach the discourse of race in an oblique, detached method represents a departure from the starkly political and--at times--didactic method deployed in his early films like Malcolm X and Do the Right Thing. This departure, however, is not the unconscious sublimation of racial trauma evident in so much Hollywood cinema. It is instead the careful calibration of art in the hand of an experienced and experimental director.
Mirrors and Shadows
In David Benioff's novel, adapted for 25th Hour, the inmates who await Monty are graphically racialized (85, 145). But as with the phantasmal jihadist that enters the film only in evocative flashes, the terrorizing specter of the black prison-inmate haunts Lee's text only in attenuated implication. Rather than reproduce the novel's explicit description of these tormentors, the film, in "writerly" fashion, stages the appearance of its essential specters as disappearance, as noticeable void. Through suggestive cues, the audience is primed to generate its own haunting--to note the void and thus imagine the ghost in the machine.
The film's major black characters coyly imply the shape and color of the catalytic fear circulating in the text. Its sardonic black cops (Isaiah Whitlock and Michael Genet), plainly identified as white characters in Benioff's novel (41), are foreshadowing figures whose interaction with Monty insinuates the race-inflected power dynamic that will prevail within the protagonist's richly imagined prison. Playing the role of Charon, the mythological ferryman who conducts souls across the river Acheron to the shore of Hades, the lawmen are the sole agents of the otherwise unseen state power that guides Monty to his ominous fate--toward an underworld of incarceration that is likened to death and hell throughout the film, toward America's "Undiscovered Country." Although these premonitory characters are the first dark ushers to attend the protagonist's path to the Otisville correctional facility, they are not the last. The aforementioned lineup of nameless black men with their surreal, stilted grins also looks upon Monty--and the film's audience--as he leaves New York City. If we have trouble deciphering these portentous expressions, Lee offers subtle interpretive assistance by situating them before an inconspicuous storefront placard that simultaneously advertises its goods and Monty's imminent prison-house status--"Fresh Meat." These smiles are not symbols instantiating the mythology of post-9/11 race solidarity. Rather, they are the dark, unreal masks of characters that in the twenty-first century haunt the depths of America's imagination and the corridors of its prisons.
The scene of interrogation in which the black cops confront the white criminal with the fate that awaits him in those evil corridors stages a collection of intertextual reversals, reprises, and references that make it a locus of signification in the film. Most clearly, Monty's questioning by the cops represents a reversal of classic scenes of American law-enforcement in which white representatives of state power act upon the virtually powerless black transgressor. The traditional terms of this racialized interaction are transposed as black figures exercise unmitigated supremacy over their white ward. Set in appropriately cell-like confines, the interrogation scene approximates and forecasts the racially determined power structure that obtains within the envisioned penitentiary. The full horror of this reversal is realized as the black lawmen produce a narrative of the apparently inevitable sexual violation that occurs in these hellish prison-house relationships. When Agent Cunningham feeds Monty the nightmare of his future, the black officer briefly surfaces the sexualized racial discourse that sets tension throughout the film. Metaphorizing Monty's whiteness as his prime vulnerability, Cunningham addresses the neutered dealer as, "you vanilla motherfucker," before assuring him that once inside he will be "taking it in the culo by a bunch of guys calling you Shirley." Here again, 25th Hour reads as something of a palimpsest of Clockers which includes a "scared straight" set-piece wherein a group of Connecticut preppies cruising the Brooklyn 'hood for dope are threatened by a white detective (Michael Imperioli) with the promise of "twelve baboons in a cage who are going to be calling you boys Mary all night long."
While the timorous white youth in Clockers are almost comically discombobulated by this racialized vision of violation, Edward Norton's character appears comparatively stoic as his whiteness is turned upon him in the interrogation. It as though he has dealt with this before--and in a sense he has. The work of Richard Dyer and others on the signification of the "star" in film narrative has explored the function of the intertextual, allusional properties that actors bring to the filmic texts they help produce (Turner 120). Considering that the star is a symbol necessarily referencing his own body of work, Norton's casting in 25th Hour confers upon Monty an aura that evokes discourses central to the film. For example, the appearance of Norton's beaten face in the denouement of 25th Hour forcefully recalls his battered visage in Fight Club (1999), and underscores the crisis in white masculinity that is bound to the wounded face in both films. But perhaps more interesting is the way in which Norton's portrayal of a white supremacist who is incarcerated and graphically raped (by white inmates) in American History X (1998) casts its shadow upon 25th Hour. The films are expressly coupled as Monty ornaments his racist tirade in the mirror scene with a line uttered by Norton's character in American History X. (Monty Brogan's admonition for blacks--"Slavery ended 137 years ago. Move the fuck on!"--is a bald reprise of an incredulous question asked by American History X's protagonist, Derek Vinyard: "Lincoln freed the slaves, what, like a hundred and thirty years ago? How long does it take to get your act together?") Through this linkage Lee draws upon the evocative power of Norton-as-star to shadow Monty's character with the pallor of latent white supremacy and the imminence of prison rape. This intertextual allusion works notable alchemy in the interrogation scene with its implications of racial reversal. While the black lawmen offer Monty only a single sentence intimating his future as a racial minority on the inside, through Norton this fractional glimpse is silently joined to the explicit prison sequences of American History X. In particular, the reversal of power relations and vulnerability of whiteness that is discreetly outlined in the interrogation scene but which generates panic throughout 25th Hour--is openly articulated in American History X when a black prisoner starkly confronts Norton's character with his own warning: "Let me tell you something, you better watch your ass, 'cause in the joint, you're the nigger, not me.
Like Cornel West's post-9/11 America, Monty finds himself "niggerized." Once imprisoned, Monty will be a marked body, "unsafe, unprotected, subject to random violence and hated" (West 20). But, more than that, in the sentencing process that leads to his incarceration Monty becomes subject to a law-enforcement regime that has in practice been the most obvious mechanism of black oppression in the post-Jim Crow era. In his perceptive analysis of 25th Hour, Ivan Canadas contends that in subjecting a white protagonist to this regime, Lee attempts to draw attention to arguably draconian sentencing guidelines integral to an American "War on Drugs" that has imprisoned hundreds of thousands of young black men. (4) Canadas wonders if perhaps "a mainstream audience will feel more sympathy if the dealer is a clean-cut representative of the white majority--just a 'normal,' white young man who has made a mistake for which he is going to be cruelly punished." While the quantification of sympathy is a complex business, it is clear that Lee's film is interested in the effects of positing racial reversals. Ultimately, however, 25th Hour is about the threat of racial reprisals. If Monty is a "clean-cut representative of the white majority," likely to elicit sympathy from a theoretical mainstream, his representative identity is precisely what makes him a target for the theoretical inmates haunting the film. In the deep logic of the film, Monty is "fresh meat" for invisible hell-dogs that have been made rabid by social systems that serve the interests of the clean-cut white majority. His impending imprisonment is an imagined opportunity for the dark specters to exact revenge on a protagonist with whom a mainstream audience will identify. Monty's fate is an American nightmare.
A Proper American Gothic
In his oeuvre, Lee has called upon the special powers of a variety of representational modes to carry out his extensive filmic exploration of the Africanist presence in America: The period piece (Harlem Nights), the biopic (Malcolm X), the absurd (Bamboozled), the conventional comedy (She Hate Me), the caper (Inside Man), the social drama (Do the Right Thing), the war film (Miracle at St. Anna) and the documentary (Four Little Girls, When the Levees Broke) are among the genres that Lee has handled with dexterity. While 25th Hour is readily codified as psychological drama, it falls squarely within an additional generic category that illuminates its subject and its evasive artistic method. With its focus upon "the terror of possession, the iconography of imprisonment, the fear of retribution, and the weight of sin" (Goddu 133), the film participates in a venerable tradition of gothic narrative. If many of its central themes are clearly gothic, the haunting, "writerly" form of Lee's film is best understood in the context of seminal theory on gothic literature. The power of the textually hidden black criminal--and his jihadist correlative--is clarified through Ann Radcliffe's nineteenth-century distinction between "horror" on the one hand, and "terror" on the other. For Radcliffe, horror is the comparatively inferior product of the gothic text; it arises when the object of fright is encountered, confronted--when the ghoul goes "boo!" Terror, however, is the expanding dread of the unseen, the feeling that emerges when the clanking of the chain is heard and the mind spins in possibility. Terror is awing and potentially sublime, as Radcliffe describes it in Milton: "his image imparts more of terror than of horror; for it is not distinctly pictured forth but is seen in glimpses through obscuring shades, the great outlines only appearing, which excite the imagination to complete the rest" (150). In the shade of Radcliffe's analysis, 25th Hour becomes a gothic terror movie--its ghostly evocations adapting the exigencies of the twenty-first-century imagination to elemental structures of the genre. (5)
Also, specifically in its concentration upon the nightmare of the black criminal looming, waiting to take violent, sexual possession of the helplessly imprisoned white protagonist, the film is situated in the rich tributary of the American gothic tradition. It was Leslie Fielder who in 1960 pointed out that the "proper subject for American gothic is the black man, from whose shadow we have not yet emerged" (397). (6) Fiedler's "black man" casts a complex shadow on American narrative. Any text representing the horror of black oppression in America will necessarily bear the mark of gothic convention, but American narrative is also touched by the complementary fear of black insurrection and reprisal in the face of oppression. In 25th Hour, the particular horror of the African American experience is hedged in service of the film's representation of the racialized anxiety of the twenty-first-century white American.
Of course, American cinema came to life in the gothic matrix of white racial anxiety. The threat of criminal black violence against civilized America explicitly animates our first feature-length film, The Birth of a Nation (1915), and has characterized American cinema since. In the past, these haunted films produced horror and terror through literal and symbolic representations of menacing black male sexuality. In one sense, 25th Hour follows in this tradition, offering a subtle reiteration of an archetypal American theme. However, Lee's film posits some fundamental shifts in the motif. Historically, the imagined object of transgressive black sexuality was white womanhood; in Lee's film it is white manhood. This reorganized construct of racial anxiety eliminates the medial role traditionally played by white women and offers a distilled agon that pits white masculinity directly against black masculinity. In the evolved American gothicism of 25th Hour, the hapless white male fears that he will be feminized in the shadow of the black sexual predator. This dread of feminization, set in the film's post-9/11 context, suggests the fear of a nation unmanned by the destruction of the Twin Towers--phallic symbols of power. But the unarticulated racial quality of the nightmare dreamed by the film's protagonist is primarily the reflection of a silent anxiety welling in a nation that imprisons a shocking proportion of its black male citizens in a program of incarceration that is itself historically unprecedented in scale, and conspicuously absent from national discourse. Since Robin Wood's theorizing in the 1970s, the gratuitous fiends of Hollywood horror have been thought to represent the return of repressed fears of bourgeois society, but the silent monsters that produce terror in 25th Hour are not symbols of the unspeakable; instead, the feared inmates and the undiscovered country they inhabit are themselves carefully buried in the film. By obscuring these figures, Lee not only enhances their capacity to provoke the sublime terror extolled by Radcliffe, but also produces an approximation of an American public discourse that carefully avoids discussions of the incarcerated and the fear they command in the national imagination.
In her study of the cultural work undertaken in American gothic literature, Teresa Goddu explains that this work "criticizes America's national myth of new-world innocence by voicing the cultural contradictions that undermine the nation's claim to purity and equality ... the gothic tells of historical horrors that make national identity possible yet must be repressed in order to sustain it" (2). (7) While Goddu, along with Fiedler, Morrison, and others, demonstrates that the historical horror of slavery saturates and renders gothic many foundational texts of the American literary canon, any survey of film history must similarly recognize that Hollywood narrative continually returns to the symbolic plentitude of slavery. As Ed Guerrero explains: "Because slavery, and resistance to it, is such a central and formative historical experience deeply rooted in the social imagination of all Americans, cinematic expressions of slavery have become sedimented into a range of contemporary film narratives and genres" (43). Prominent among these is the gothic horror narrative. In 25th Hour, however, horror is not produced by summoning the specter of slavery. Its reliance on the terror produced by the contemporary American penal system is what makes it an important twenty-first-century text. Lee's film assimilates into the American gothic tradition a reality captured in the work of many, including Angela Davis: "The extent to which black men today function as the main human raw material for the Prison Industrial Complex only highlights the many ways in which the prison system in the United States in general resembles and recapitulates some of the most abhorrent characteristics of the slavery and convict lease systems of the late nineteenth century" (43).
In 25th Hour, this (d)evolution of oppression is recognized. The one explicit evocation of slavery in the film is in Monty's brash critique of the "Uptown Brothers" who will cast their ominous smiles upon the protagonist as he leaves the city. Lee's text may be understood as a tacit response to Monty's bitter taunt: "Slavery ended 167 years ago. Move the fuck on!" With the American penal system casting its dark shadow from the heart of the film, 25th Hour both heeds and rejects Monty's instruction, and the myth of American progress it implies. By drawing its gothic power from the substance of contemporary incarceration rather than the memory of historical slavery, Lee's text suggests that the proper subject of a national gothic in the twenty-first century is not the enslaved black man, but rather his imprisoned scion. America has moved on--albeit with damning continuity. In 25th Hour, Spike Lee has moved on as well. While maintaining his relentless critique of America's relationship to its Africanist presence, Lee's "writerly" gothic does not present an open indictment of the "prison industrial complex" as a system of neo-slavery; it does not construct a didactic appraisal of race in America. Instead, his film eerily, and knowingly echoes the discourse of its historical moment, offering only a terrorizing and artful suppression of the essential spook in the American imagination.
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(1.) None of the seventeen essays in The Spike Lee Reader (2007) touch on 25th Hour, and in Fight the Power!: The Spike Lee Reader (2008), only Mikal Gaines seriously engages the film in one section of his article on the use of a blues aesthetic in Lee's work. In an article on Inside Man (2006), Tait uses a parenthetical list to classify 25th Hour among a group of recent Lee films that are "concerned with the larger effects of institutions rather than the depiction of local problems" (41; emphasis in original). Apart from the work of Gaines, and an essay by Canadas (both of which I will address), there has been little scholarly assessment of 25th Hour.
(2.) The opening shots pivot around the commemorative "Tribute in Light" that first illuminated Manhattan nights from March 11, 2002, the six-month anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, to April 14, 2002. Eighty-eight searchlights were arranged to create incandescent beams rising from the site of the World Trade Center; from 2003 to 2008 the light installation annually marked the anniversary of the attacks.
(3.) Because Monty's reverie makes available the possibility that he evades his prison sentence and lives out his days in a forgotten border town, there is some hint of ambiguity at the end of the film. Edward Norton reported Lee's emphatic interpretation of the ending, saying: "Spike was immediately definitive on that: he said there is no reason to make this movie if he does not go to jail in the end" (Aftab 359).
(4.) In the interrogation scene (although Monty's case seems to be within federal rather than state jurisdiction), there is elaborate reference to New York's Rockefeller Laws that will influence Monty's sentencing for drug distribution. Canadas draws attention to the way in which these laws, passed by former New York governor Nelson Rockefeller in 1973, and their effect on the "black community," are especially noted by Lee in commentary produced for 25th Hour on DVD.
(5.) Of course, post-9/11 discourse was unabashedly gothic. Besides reveling in the idea of terror itself, national discourse was alive with voices that bound that terror to American sin in the realms of foreign policy and domestic culture, and with "blowback" theories of "Third Word" and divine retribution.
(6.) Many scholars of American literature have argued that the black experience in America is a gothic text, and that its reflection in art is necessarily gothic. Indeed, Fiedler's assertion about the "proper subject of the American Gothic" was in some ways a clarification and reassertion of the well-known conclusion of Richard Wright's essay, "How Bigger Was Born": "[W]e do have in the oppression of the Negro a shadow athwart our national life dense enough to satisfy even the gloomy broodings of Hawthorne. And if Poe were alive, he would not have to invent horror, horror would invent him" (qtd. in Goddu 131). In her significant study of American gothic, Goddu distills Wright's pronouncement to suggest--perhaps too simplistically--that "the African American is the American gothic" (12; emphasis in original).
(7.) The narrative of Lee's 25th Hour continues in this tradition of gothic critique by suggesting that the threat of incarceration itself--the mere loss of freedom--is not menacing enough to sustain social order and the rule of law in American society. Lee's film implicitly points out that, ironically, it is the "clean-cut majority's" dread of the prison population that gives power to the matron of justice who blindly looks upon American civilization.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2012|
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