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IMAGINE this: a white director who has just made a film that turned a zillion percent profit walks into a major movie studio. He wants to make a musical. Lots of production numbers. Lots of extras. Lots of locations. He'd get at least $20 million. Probably more.
Spike Lee, a Black director/screenwriter, made his first feature film for just $125,000. She's Gotta Have It is a classic Hollywood Cinderella story. Besides the critical kudos, Lee's film earned $8 million. That's 6400 percent profit.
And so Columbia gave Lee $6 million to make his second feature, School Daze. Six million dollars is a lot of money for, say, a car. But in movie terms it's just enough for a beat-up Buick. No wonder Spike Lee has a chip on his shoulder.
Let's keep in mind that Elaine May, a white filmmaker casting two white stars, squandered over $40 million on Ishtar, which, in terms of quality, makes Daze look like Citizen Kane. Trust me. I'm one of the four or five people who saw it. And as Lee pointed out in a letter to the New York Times on Sunday, the industry average is $18 million.
Lee wrote that vociferous letter in response to Janet Maslin's article entitled "From Hits to Misses, But Why?" in which Maslin discusses the sophomore jinx that allegedly plagues successful rookie directors.
Maslin contends that Lee succumbed to "fiscal seductions" and that the musical numbers in Daze were beyond Lee's "technical abilities." Maslin also says that while She's Gotta Have It was "enjoyable small," Daze, which she called "bigger, bolder" in her original review, was a failure. She's Gotta Have It, Maslin writes, "may not have aimed this high, but on the other hand it hit its mark."
Now, don't get me wrong. Daze is not a great movie. But its failures have nothing to do with an excess of money or a lack of technical abilities. Daze is an intelligently conceived film that is too confused, too scattershot and too erratic in style to work.
To say that Lee lacks technical ability is imprecise and unfair. Remember, six million bucks is peanuts, especially for a musical. The musical numbers in Daze don't work because they don't seem to fit the film. Instead of using younger styles of music like rap or funk, Lee used mostly jazz, which creates an old-fashioned feel to numbers that should be boisterous. These show bad choice, and not lack of ability.
And keep in mind that a lot of talented, even brilliant movie directors have occasionally made terrible musicals. Francis Ford Coppola's One from the Heart went over like one from hell. And John Huston's Annie doesn't deserve to see tomorrow.
MASLIN'S argument isn't scintillating and she doesn't come to any valid conclusions. Second movies are often bad. So what? Maslin is not our most perspicacious movie critic (she rhapsodized over John Hughes' last teen flick, Some Kind of Wonderful). But writing for The Newspaper has certain responsibilities. One of those is not to make potentially racist suggestions, like the one that Black directors should limit themselves to making movies about sex. She insinuates that Lee should go back to where he came from--back to low budget, back to struggling to get by.
Unfortunately, Lee generalizes in the same way Maslin does. He writes "Ms. Maslin probably considers the numbers in Chorus Line, Flashdance and Footloose great cinema. What does she know about song and dance? I bet she can't even dance, does she have rhythm?" Lee has a right to be angry. But it is in his best interest to be fair.
Lee concludes with a request. "Do me a favor," he writes, "don't review my work anymore." I don't remember hearing Lee gripe when Vincent Canby called She's Gotta Have It "a witty, low-keyed comedy." He can't have it both ways. If he wants audiences to see him as a Black director making movies for and about Blacks and take him at his word that he doesn't want the white press to review his work, then he's destined to remain outside of the mainstream, and we're sentenced to miss out on an original talent. But if he wants to be treated like every other filmmaker, he's destined to be misunderstood, as Maslin's inept analysis proves.
It's no wonder he's angry.
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