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Spike's Mo' Commercial This Time

By Garrett A. Price iii

Spike Lee does Nike, GAP, and Levi's advertisments, has started a company to market merchandise based on his films and has spent over a million dollars for a summer house on Martha's Vineyard. None of these actions, by themselves, are objects of condemnation. But when a person declares, as Lee has done, that he doesn't care about mainstream Hollywood and strongly implies that he is above petty commericial interests, such actions begin to to take on the aura of self-indulgent hypocrisy. Lee's latest work, Mo' Better Blues, has a similar air about it.

Mo' Better Blues

Produced and Directed by Spike Lee

Co-Produced by Monty Ross

Universal Pictures

Mo' Better Blues, produced, written and directed by Lee, centers around the life of Bleek Gilliam (Denzel Washington), a gifted trumpeter and leader of a popular New York jazz quintet. Gilliam is an arrogant introspective artist who puts his music first and everything else in his life a distant second.

According to an old fable, a bankrupt depression-era investor, asked how he lost his fortune, responded, "Gradually, and then suddenly." This accurately describes the evolution of Gilliam's professional and personal life; as we are introduced to him in the beginning of the film, he is a disaster waiting to happen. Doomed, if you will, from the start.

Gilliam's relationships with the important people in his life are, to put it mildly, unhealthy. In his single-minded pursuit of his music, Gilliam manages to put off almost everyone. In his personal life, he locks out both of his female companions, Indigo (Joie Lee, the director's sister), a schoolteacher, and Clark (Cynda Williams), an aspiring jazz vocalist. Gilliam appears wildly indifferent to the fact that both Indigo and Clark are in love with him. When his father asks him if he loves one of them, Gilliam responds, "I like her...I like women." He treats them as interchangeable sex objects. Gilliam's attitude is effectively conveyed by a well-directed scene in which alternate views of him in bed with each of the women are spliced together with hilarious and poignant results.

Professionally, Gilliam runs his quintet like a dictatorship, repeatedly squashing members' attempts to express themselves and justifying his behavior by the fact that he is the star. "It's my name on the marquee," he tells Shadow (Wesley Snipes), who is arguably as talented as Gilliam. "When your name is on the marquee, you can run things your way." Gilliam continually refuses to fire the group's manager, childhood friend Giant (Lee), despite the latter's obvious ineffectiveness and serious gambling problems.

The audience is not overly surprised, then, when Gilliam finds himself unable to play the trumpet after receiving a broken jaw in a brawl. Gilliam's loss elicits mixed feelings. It is sad to the extent that his entire reason for living is snatched away, ironically while defending Giant from thugs looking to collect on gambling debts. At the same time, Gilliam's decline and fall is predictable--considering the previous structure of his life--and is, to a large degree, well-deserved.

What is surprising is the fact that the film, after some two-odd hours, continues on. Had Lee decided to end his film at this point, Mo' Better Blues would have been a tragic tale about a man, who, through his own arrogance, brings about his own destruction; a reaffirmation of a moral universe where our actions inevitably have reprocussions. Simple, to be sure, but not insulting.

Lee however, chooses to employ motifs even more basic to Western civilization, and for that matter, mainstream Hollywood moviemaking. The last fifteen minutes of the film are a testament to the moral cleansing power of the family. Gilliam, at absolute rock bottom, turns to Indigo in what begins as one of the film's most powerful scenes and quickly deteriorates into one of its most unbelievable. Gilliam begs Indigo, whom he had not seen or spoken to in over a year, to take him back. "I love you," he tells her for the first time, "I want you to be my wife. I want you to have my son."

This dialogue sounds every bit as preposterous on screen as it does on paper. What is even more surprising is that Indigo takes Gilliam back. What begins as an attempt to represent the arrogant Gilliam at his lowest, utterly humbled, comes off as somewhat unconvincing.

The film ends with the equivalent of a typical Hollywood everyone-lives-happily-ever-after scenario: a ten minute cinematic whirlwind through the next eight years of Gilliam's new life. He and Indigo get married, have a son, and eventually move into the same Brooklyn brownstone Gilliam grew up in. What Gilliam now does for a living is a complete mystery. Lee does not take the time to explain this. He seems concerned only with driving home the virtues of the family and having his film neatly end the same way it began. The film opens with the young Gilliam practicing the trumpet under his mother's watchful eye while his friends urge him to come outside and play; the film ends with Gilliam's son, Indigo, and his son's friends reprising the same scene more than two decades later.

So this is the Mo' Better Blues that is passing itself off as Spike Lee's latest work. It looks like a 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks production, and sometimes it even sounds like one. But the meaning, the sense of purpose, which pervaded School Daze and the brilliant Do the Right Thing are noticably absent.

The film is stunningly photographed by Ernest Dickerson, and the costume and set design (Wynn Thomas) play strong supporting roles. Mo' Better Blues is, without a doubt, beautiful to look at. The film's music score, written by Bill Lee, the filmmaker's father and a jazz musician himself, is strong, with both the title track and "Harlem Blues," sung by newcomer Williams, deserving special credit.

The acting, under Lee's capable direction, is strictly first-rate. Denzel Washington's performance is nothing short of tremendous. Washington portrays the various aspects of Gilliam's life--the arrogance, the defermination, the hopelessness--with convincing power and emotion. Even the difficult onstage scenes and trumpet close-ups seem natural enough. Another Oscar nomination, this time for best actor, should be in the offing.

Wesley Snipes also turns in a strong performance as the competitive and ambitious Shadow. His fine portrayal is certainly aided by the fact that his character is the most believable. Giancarlo Esposito, who plays the quintet's flashy pianist, deserves mention as well. Nothing ill can be said of the remainder of the cast, who do not disappoint.

What is at times disappointing is Lee's script. At some points, Lee's writing shines. Particularly noteworthy are the exchanges which go on between the band members backstage, in practice, and at parties. There, Lee's wit comes through in humorous and insightful glimpses into the machoism of contemporary Black males. Lee's scripting of the female characters is considerably weaker. Their personalitites are a bit flat, if not stereotypical, and their dialogue, far from natural and convincing, consists of contrived speeches which Lee lazily uses to move the plot along.

Similarly, Lee's use of metaphor, so effective in School Daze and Do the Right Thing, is very uneven. On one level, Lee rises to his previous standard in his attempts to discuss the exploitation of Black jazz musician by white businessmen. Both the characters of Indigo and Gilliam's mother are endorsements of the role of the Black women in American history. It has been universally acknowledged that the Black woman has played a stronger role in supporting Afro-American society than the Black male has. And Lee's pro-family theme is particularly relevant to Black society in times where more than two-thirds of all Black children are born into single parent households.

These metaphors, however, have their weaker, and sometimes uglier sides. The themes concerning Black society come across as sappy, too typically Hollywood. No doubt, Lee could have found more powerful ways to convey his message. But especially disconcerting is Lee's scripting of the two Jewish night-club owners who refuse to give Gilliam's group their fair share of the lucrative profits. The two characters are viciously stereotypical, bordering on the unacceptably offensive. They appear saddeningly hypocritical in light of Lee's protests against the stereotyping of Blacks in American films and society.

Mo' Better Blues is not the typical jazz film; it does not attempt to glorify the individual achievement of some famous musician. Neither is the film a particularly strong statement about the relationship between Black and (mainstream) American society. So what is Mo' Better Blues about? In one sense, it is certainly about the powerful function of the family in modern human society. In another, it is a film based on a tried and true Hollywood formula.

But at the considerable risk of armchair psychoanylizing, I venture that that is not all this film is about. Mo' Better Blues has a strong autobiographical quality about it. I suspect that, together, Gilliam, the driven artist, and Giant, the pawn of economic forces--noticably non-Black--represent Lee himself. In light of Lee's previous praise of his own close family and his equally strong condemnation of a film industry he has found to be exploitive and racist, some of Mo' Better Blues's themes take on new meaning.

Mo' Better Blues is an intensly personal film; a film that has more in common with his first work, the Woody Allen-esque She's Gotta Have It, than with his two later, more overtly political works. This, taken with the film's use of Hollywood cliches and Lee's self proclaimed radicalism, is what gives Mo' Better Blues the self-indugent hypocritical air I spoke of eariler. Yet despite the uneveness of the script, solid performances (especially Washington's), lush visuals, a sensuous music score and Lee's subtle wit, easily elavate Mo' Better Blues into the class of strong, if not great, films. Lee's standards are very hard to live up to, even by the controversial filmmaker himself.

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