The Spike Lee Brand
A Study of Documentary Filmmaking
Foreword by Mark A. Reid
SUNY Series in African American Studies
New York: State University of New York Press, 2015
Hardcover. 226 p. ISBN 978-1438457635. $80
Reviewed by Ryan Engley
The University of Rhode Island
Synecdoche—a part standing in for the whole—is an important quality of fiction filmmaking. When used deftly by directors, as in the opening shots and sequences of 2001 : A Space Odyssey, Vertigo, and The Silence of the Lambs, for example, viewers learn crucial information about a film before a line of dialogue is even spoken. Synecdoche applied to groups of people in everyday life, however, contains within it the power of stereotyping. One needs only to recall, as Patricia Williams does, “the outcry in every national medium, from the New York Post to the Times to the major networks, in the wake of the [Tawana] Brawley case: who will ever again believe a black woman who cries rape by a white man?”.(1) It is apparently easy—in the case of women and people of color—to imagine the actions of one as representing the desires and interiority of the many. It is in this gap between the usefulness of synecdoche as a device for fiction filmmaking and its potential to be exploited for racist stereotypes that Delphine Letort intervenes to craft an exciting study of Spike Lee’s documentary filmmaking.
In The Spike Lee Brand : A Study of Documentary Filmmaking, Letort’s objectives are to provide “an in-depth study of Spike Lee’s documentary filmmaking, highlight[ing] their twofold value as documents providing valuable sociological records and as texts illustrating the director’s idiosyncratic view” and “to decipher Spike Lee’s documentaries as original contributions to the understanding of African-American cultural memories” [5,7]. Lee’s “intertextual work aims to debunk the visual stereotypes of African Americans reinforcing race and class prejudices in the media” . Letort also discusses the “fictional” aspect of Lee’s documentaries; adding music and editing “to convey the atmosphere embedded in archival footage,” disturbing the strict temporality of the images themselves . Letort argues that Spike Lee’s documentary film style recuperates synecdoche for African-Americans, using a part to “complexify” (in her terms) the whole. She explains:
Lee’s documentary filmmaking challenges the stereotypical representations of African Americans [in media] . . . His films beg to question the politics of representation behind highly mediatized topics, which are reductively epitomized by individuals whom the mainstream media spotlight: Michael Jackson embodies the 1980s’ music revolution; Michael Jordan symbolizes the black athlete’s exceptional performances; O.J. Simpson represents the archetypal black criminal; Martin Luther King stands for the whole Civil Rights movement, etc. 
In Kobe Doin’ Work, for example, “Lee turns [basketball] into [homoerotic spectacle] through aestheticizing the black bodies, indulging in the pleasure of watching the athletes move and pass the ball” . Jordan Peele’s recent fiction film Get Out is about, among many things, how white people attempt to control and “get inside” the black body. By confronting stereotypes and societal attitudes that “confirm” stereotypes in Kobe Doin’ Work, Lee is able to film a different aesthetic for black bodies.
The chapter structure of Letort’s study is to place a number of Lee’s nonfiction films under different interpretative contexts (e.g. When the Levees Broke : A Requiem in Four Acts is explored under the focuses of “History and Memory : The African American Experience” and “Media and Race”). Each chapter brings Lee’s nonfiction films—with his two Hurricane Katrina documentaries receiving the most thorough treatment—into conversation with a number of different concepts explored to their fullest: Lee’s idiosyncratic documentary style, his use of “polyphony” through cinematic techniques such as montage, his approach to temporality, how his work highlights race in the media, and Lee’s representation of and place in Black Nationalism. These issues serve as the key conceptual touchstones in each of the book’s four main chapters. Importantly, Letort aims to rescue the artistic merit and cultural value of Lee’s documentary filmmaking from a critical world that has largely dismissed this output. In her introduction, she quotes film critic David Sterrit, who dedicates a scant few pages to address Lee’s Hurricane Katrina duology in his Spike Lee’s America, writing that “neither film is particularly distinctive or distinguished in artistic terms, but together they comprise a work of humanistic cinema that is as laudable as it is monumental” [qtd. in Letort 4]. Even when Lee’s documentary cinema is being praised, it is only for its effort rather than its aesthetic or artistic invention. This is the critical context in which Letort intervenes.
Letort’s book—as its subtitle promises—doubles as a text that offers a strong argument about documentary filmmaking generally, through its survey of a coterie of theories on documentary filmmaking. Sourced from a variety of critical voices like Siegfried Kracauer, Paul Ricoeur, Bill Nichols, and Sheila Curran Bernard, Letort’s research brings its own argument on the ethics, limits, and uses of documentary film through the specific example of Spike Lee’s nonfiction cinema. At one point Letort broaches the issue of ethics and authorial bias in documentary filmmaking, declaring that such ethics are unstable, despite the principles of “Direct Cinema” holding that one should tamper minimally with recorded events. “[T]he obtrusive presence of Michael Moore’s on-screen persona,” for example—or Lee’s “fictional approach” to documentary film—determines how the issues, historical documents, and interviews are engaged with .
It is this precise idiosyncrasy in Lee’s authorial voice, this throwing away of the “objective lens” that makes his documentaries worthwhile, or, as Letort puts it: “Lee’s documentaries…articulate a highly subjective version of the truth” . In Lee’s first Katrina documentary, for example, Letort observes:
Rather than adopt the expository mode of documentary filmmaking, which puts forth the indexical quality of the recorded footage and the truth value of the verbal commentary helping shape a logical argument, Lee’s documentaries are reflexive tools insofar as they question the informative value of the archival records which compose his film materials” .
As Letort sees it, “Lee unveils the filmic apparatus during his interviews, revealing their staged dimension for example, which may be read as a sign of his desire to lay bare the technical aspects of the film’s construction in an attempt to convey authenticity” . Rather than hiding the constructedness of his nonfiction films, Lee embraces this fictive quality. Letort uses this to note a split between Lee’s fiction and nonfiction work: “his feature films include multiple references to extradiegetic reality whereas his nonfiction films exhibit fictional devices that dramatize the documentaries’ search for truth” .
Part of Lee’s idiosyncrasy—his stylistic “brand”—involves his filmic approach to memory and temporality. This, Letort observes, is the theoretical undergirding to “Lee’s historical perspective in documentaries . . . he articulate[s] the dialectical relationship between the present and the past through the interplay of archival documents and interviews” . Letort often notes Lee’s play with temporal spacing in The Spike Lee Brand, saying at one point that
Lee makes the distance between the present and the past by filming the photographs [in Four Little Girls] and inserting them in a temporal sequence, which enhances the chromatic change that has transformed the snapshots and dramatizes the emotional tone that pervades the voices of parents and friends disclosing their memories of the girls .
As opposed to relying on the bare materiality of the “historical discourse” of archival documents, “Lee uses such cinematic techniques as editing and close ups to appropriate them in his own reasoning” .
One of the overarching argumentative through lines in The Spike Lee Brand consists of putting “Lee the Nonfiction Filmmaker” into productive tension with “Lee the Businessman.” Letort challenges Lee’s documentary canon by putting it in conversation with his [literal] commercial output (most notably in “The Legacy of Blak Nationalism: Culture and Politics” chapter). As she writes, “some of his advertising films have even contributed to producing stereotypes—including his promotional campaigns for Nike” . And so this is the complicated issue of the “brand” in The Spike Lee Brand. How do we negotiate the work of a man clearly dedicated to undoing the myths and synecdoches of Black America (like the aforementioned case of Tawana Brawley) with his commercial work that pushes an advertising ideal, possibly even stereotypes? When does brand of filmic style, with recognizable artistic flourishes, consistent narrative invention, become “brand”—a selling out for a carefully crafted image that undermines the serious artist? Letort asks this important question. As she mentions, “Not only was the relationship [with Nike] profitable to Spike Lee and Michael Jordan, but it also helped the [Nike] brand gain worldwide appeal, influencing patterns of consumption and behavior among the youth” . This and attendant issues prompts Letort to state—provisionally, it must be said—that “Spike Lee seems too involved in the corporate system to represent the radical streak of Black Nationalism” . One might feel compelled to conclude that Lee’s complicity with Nike’s exploitative brand hurts his Black Nationalist credibility and undermines the authenticity of a documentary investigation like A Huey P. Newton Story (or even Lee’s Malcolm X). However, as Letort points out,
Rarely mentioned is the fact that Lee’s documentary Jim Brown : All-American was partly financed by the adverts for which Nike CEO Phil Knight gave him a check. Such information seems to imply that Lee may have compromised his ethical stance to be able to finance committed works—including his two New Orleans pieces .
This tension between Lee as an artist and Lee as a businessman solidifies itself as the overriding argument of Letort’s entire study by the first line of her conclusion:
From made-for-television documentaries to big-budget blockbusters, the sheer variety of Spike Lee’s films reflects his struggle to combine art and commerce prompting us to explore the tension between profit and creativity which characterizes his career” .
Letort’s implicit argument here is that one cannot separate the commercial aspect of Spike Lee from any other. As Letort says, “Spike Lee embodies the businessman as artist who makes creativity happen, overriding the limits between art and commerce when turning his characters into consumers promoting brands and his advertising videos into artistic short films” . This is the productive tension that The Spike Lee Brand engages with throughout its pages and, perhaps more than its careful and laudable treatment of Lee’s nonfiction oeuvre, is what makes this book an important entry within the fields of film studies and African-American cultural studies.
(1) “The Death of the Profane”, from The Alchemy of Race and Rights: Diary of a Law Professor. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1991 : 51.
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