This week, I was visiting family in Phoenix, when what started as all pleasure trip turned into a bit of a business. My little brother, who is a student at Arizona State University, informed me that Spike Lee would be there while I was in town. He asked me would I like to attend. Of course my response was an emphatic “yes.” Man, that’s Spike Lee! Of course I want to hear what brother Spike has to say. Than my mind started to work. There are many people who don’t know how influential and impactful that brother was through the late 80s and early 90s with his Spike Lee Joints.
Spike Lee seems to have become a bit of a caricature of his former self. Much more Mars Blackmon then himself. That little guy at all the Knicks games screaming at everybody from Reggie Miller to Lebron James, all while his beloved squads have sucked! The little dude with the funny rimmed glasses, the funny walk, clap and loud mouth. The dude according to writers like Terrell Jermain Pryor are certified “haters” for being openly critical of the “quality” of work that the black community is receiving in cinema.
Spike Lee has been put in that “crotchety old man” group with the likes of Bill Cosby, Danny Glover and Dick Gregory. These media figures that came through the game when you had to really have a compelling storyline in your works to gain the appeal of the audience. An era when Black artists truly wanted to make a difference and educate their audiences, because they knew how much that lacked in schools and in their homes daily.
When Spike made movies like “Do The Right Thing”, “Jungle Fever”, “Mo Better Blues” and “X”, he always had the goal to teach while he entertained. During his appearance at ASU, he spoke of his love of history, which has always been a focus in his work. He has been one of the few mainstream black filmmakers that was had that desire and success at doing just that.
On the flip side, brother Tyler Perry’s direction has always been that of telling the same story with different characters. It’s like how, McDonalds takes the same hamburger patties and puts different sauces and vegetables ( I use that word loosely) on them to make them more appealing. When you take that bite ultimately, it’s still the same meat, that many of us consume incessantly to our detriment.
Now before you put me in that Tyler Perry “hater” group, chill out. Admittedly, I think I have seen all of TPs movies and support them regularly, just like once every six months I crave a Big Mac. I enjoy it, but I know, if I eat too many of them to often, my waistline and my wife won’t be happy with me. To me, Tyler Perry is like fast food and cookies. They need to be enjoyed in moderation. For example, For Better or Worse was too much for me. Way to much drama, too little substance, especially when a quality show like Reed Between the Lines had my attention. But that’s a blog I’ve already written.
Spike Lee’s flicks have always been event-like to me and many of my generation. For 10 years starting in the late 80s, a Spike Lee Joint was the talk of the community. Sure he has had some misses like Girl 6, but for the most part, he exposed his audience to different aspects of the African-American experiences that a lot of us became interested in due to his introduction. Admittedly, the floating platform shots that have been his signature have been annoying at best, but you don’t throw out the baby with the bath water. Spike has always wanted to do things his way to put his signature on his work so that it would resonate for years to come.
What am I saying? Well, that Spike and Tyler are truly different filmmakers that make work that are equally as important in telling our story. Their work is a direct reflection of their backgrounds. Spike is a child of a Jazz music instructor and a teacher. He is a legacy Morehouse man, and not to mention he’s a New Yorker. While, Tyler Perry openly expresses his personal battles and experiences with molestation, homelessness and the gun-toting, Bible thumping, weed smoking, “Christian” relatives he put in a blender to come up with Madea. Unfortunately film studios seem to believe that our market can only ingest one type of film per generation, while general market filmmakers can tell any story they like and get major distribution.
The easiest argument is the one that is often used in this case. Perry’s films make money, while Spike’s not as much. Let’s be clear. No one including Spike, can knock Tyler Perry’s hustle. No one does that better. But do you think that Lil’ Wayne is a better emcee than Nas or KRS-One because he sells more downloads? Do you believe that a Big Mac is better than a Ruth Chris sirloin because they sell more volume? The fact is that it is undeniable that Perry is a better business man then Spike, but not a better teacher.
Ultimately, when it’s all said and done, if I had to choose what to put in the time capsule for generations of the future to use as a case study of what our generations film making legacy would be, I’ve got to go with the little dude from Brooklyn. I guess that’s the professorial, Obama trait in me, overtaking the hustler, Diddy trait in me. I just think our future would be better off.