Author: mattbuon

Pompeii and New Orleans

As much as When the Levees Broke is a experience ripe with intimate engagement with its cast of suffering interviewees, it is also quite broadly a fully-realized, highly dense indictment of the Bush administration’s slow-as-molasses response to the tragedy. The film makes no secret of its intentions–the compilation of responses ranging from saddened to frustrated and outright venomous or the highlighting of critically shameful moments like Barbara Bush’s comments or the infamous “Heck of a job, Brownie” soundbite all form a blistering convergence. It is clear that Lee’s intentions for this film were to be mobilize some kind of public gaze onto America’s great shame and thus engender some kind of constructive dialogue, social response, or criticism of the government and those responsible. However, the indictment of the government and media leaves out a critical piece of the puzzle of this tragedy–the American people themselves. While Lee directly implicates how the slow response and disregard for the people of New Orleans was because of the city’s racial makeup and lower-class elements, Lee is far less quick to accuse the American people of their lack of regard. However, upon re-examining the film I feel that one particular scene subtly gestures at the country’s unknowing or indirect complicity in the government’s abandonment of New Orleans during crisis.

The scene in question is the rather jarring moment when–amidst the collective recollection of immediate reactions to the flood casualties–an old man and his wife recount their memory of first hearing about the storm: during their trip to Pompeii. The man’s drawn-out, distant recollection of his vacation spot, limousine ride, and the overall specificity of the details of luxury from his trip feel incredibly out of place against the gravity of this sequence. A little research revealed some distinct irony: this man is Charles McHale; a New Orleans attorney and a key figure in the civil rights movement. I was very confused by this revelation–why would Lee have taken the testimony of such a commendable figure and place it in a context that portrays him as so wealthy and out of touch?

I believe that Lee contextualized this particular footage in order to imply the American people’s lack of action or attention to New Orleans. McHale’s narrative ultimately builds to a comparison between the preserved, ancient corpses in Pompeii to the corpses in the streets of New Orleans; a juxtaposition that Lee realizes visually immediately after:     026-Leiche-in-New-Orleans-nach-hurrikan-Katrina.jpg

The effect of McHale’s narrative is that he comes off in that instance as more of a tourist of Italy than as a resident of New Orleans. I believe that this is quite intentional on the part of Lee. By juxtaposing Pompeii and New Orleans, Lee draws parallels not just between two sites of disaster, but also between two popular destinations for tourism–in the case of New Orleans, this extends to recall the United State’s problematic history of treatment towards New Orleans as we discussed it in class. If we consider this with Lee’s negative portrayal of the media throughout the film, it is as though he is reflecting onto the viewers how the United States’ tourism of New Orleans extended through this tragedy. Through the media’s perpetually twisted portrayal of the events, the American people had constant, 24-7 access to the tragedy, yet it failed to mobilize the proper scale of response–our relationship to the tragedy ultimately amounted to little more than a kind of tourism. We discussed in class how Lee’s actual voice is largely absent, but his personal biases and perspective are very much at play beneath the surface–this is just my interpretation of one such instance.

Chi-Raq as a Documentary (if even possible)?

I’d like to expand a bit on the notion of scope I briefly mentioned in class today with regard to the continuity–structurally and of Lee as a director–between 4 Little Girls and Chi-Raq. If anyone read my previous post about drill rappers responding to the latter, you may have gathered that Chi-Raq personally left a bad taste in my mouth. Much like rapper Lil Bibby, my initial and final criticism of the film which I noted in my post was how much this film should have been a documentary rather than the strange, in-cohesive hybrid between socially imperative text and the adaptation of a Greek tragedy. I don’t mean to suggest that Lee or any director should be artistically constrained in any way, but I felt that had Lee dropped the satirical duality and simply created a documentary about Chicago, his film would have carried more gravity, urgency, and intensity, and perhaps may have lead to some constructive national attention about the problems in Chicago rather than media controversy about the film itself.

My initial viewing of 4 Little Girls only emphasized this reaction, for here was the type of emotional and social gravity I felt that Chi-Raq lacked. The film manages to tell a thoughtful, coherent story even without a contextualizing narrative from Lee–rather than embedding his voice directly into the film, Lee wholly minimizes his personal input and allows those who have experienced it to tell the full story. Because Lee involves an expansive but not overwhelming cast of characters from different angles of the situation, the documentary simultaneously feels both deep and informative, but also highly intimate with its subjects. Therein lies why 4 Little Girls is so effective on an emotional and informational level–Lee contextualizes and conveys the full social and political weight of such a vastly turbulent time in American history, but expresses it through the profoundly personal experiences of several individuals. That powerful merger of micro and macro levels of experience in turn creates a riveting documentary.

My reaction was to lament that Lee did not seek to recreate that type of experiential structure with Chi-Raq–if he could accomplish so much simply by talking to those involved and bringing in some other footage and music, why couldn’t the same effectiveness be replicated? Could he not have sidestepped the Greek tragic elements and interviewed a combination of gang-affiliates, children observing the situation, older members of the community, and city officials? Does that story not write itself?

But it wasn’t long before I began to rethink the simplicity of these ingredients for a documentary as powerful as 4 Little Girls. After all, although both films would speak to a vast, expansive issue within America (racially-motivated crimes, and gun violence), 4 Little Girls is unique in that frames and expresses those larger issues through a single, tragic event. Therefore, Lee’s ability to construct an intimate story is by virtue of the limited cast of individuals directly related to that event, given that they are families of only four victims. When I consider it now, Chi-Raq cannot possess that type of ease into the documentary structure, as the incidents of violence have become so disturbingly, increasingly regular–there is no one specific, cataclysmic event that Lee could use to focus his pool of interview subjects to contextualize the larger social forces at work. If Lee were dropped in Chicago with his camera, where and how and with whom would he even begin to coherently explore what is happening in Chicago? I feel this also speaks to the invisibility of the Chicago problem in the American media–perhaps if some particular incident were ever publicized, Lee might have had a logical point to begin documenting things.

Overall, I feel that Lee was caught between a rock and a hard place–the Greek adaptation lens clearly wasn’t well-received, yet I feel that a true documentary of Chicago might have been impossible from a narrative standpoint given the scale of the issue. I feel some empathy for Lee–perhaps his empathy for the situation was so strong he had no choice but to proceed with some kind of representation to gain attention for Chicago, even with a flimsy, uneven approach.

Drill Rappers’ Responses to Chi-Raq

Perhaps the most interesting way Chi-Raq has manifested itself in the media is its polarization of viewers and critics. The film has a favorable reception of 82% among critics on Rotten Tomatoes, but a far lower score of 5.7/10 among users on IMDb, indicating a palpable discrepancy between audiences and critics. Perhaps critics tend to focus on the film’s high level of technical polish and strong character performances, while viewers may be more concerned with the volatile social implications that stem from the film’s tonal inconsistencies–indeed, the uneasy balance between musical and comedy elements with edgy, topical grounding in Chicago’s violence problem has been a constant source of media controversy.

My discussions with my blog group in class today at one point brought up that these tonal inconsistencies might be the result of Lee becoming somewhat out of touch with today’s youth–far from a product of the environment in Chicago, his stance and mission of satire have been heavily criticized by those who live that reality. As a hip-hop fan, over the past few months I frequently heard criticism of the film and Lee’s intentions voiced by the generation of popular rappers in Chicago. While popular artists like Chance the Rapper and Vic Mensa (despite making a likely regrettable cameo early in the film) have voiced their disapproval, much of the criticism comes from rappers of the drill sub-genre, which primarily focuses on the type of violent lifestyle Lee decries in the film. However, different artists have denounced the film for different reasons.

For this post, I have linked two videos with two prominent drill rappers voicing their opinions on the film: Lil Bibby and Lil Herb. While both criticize the film, the stark contrast of their motivations in disliking the film reveal the complexity of the social affect of living in Chicago today, and the tension between stopping and glorifying the violence among the youth.

Lil Bibby expresses many of the concerns I personally sensed while watching the film, but from the perspective of a Chicago native surrounding by the violence. It feels like a “parody” and while the movie was humorous, a more important mission would have been “making people cry.” Essentially, the film did not make enough of an attempt to accurately portray the chaos and tragedy of life in Chicago, which in turn would turn a national spotlight onto the attitudes of the youth, which Bibby notes are “sad.” Overall, the social impact of the film was “watered down” and lacked the gravitas it could have had.

Conversely, Lil Herb takes issue with the film’s “goofiness” not in that the humor understates the tragedy of Chicago’s reality, but rather that the depiction softens and inaccurately represents the “savage” lifestyle. He is quick to point out how in reality those around him would not “waste bullets” instead of firing them in the air as shown in the movie. He similarly notes the inaccurate portioning of ingredients when Nick Cannon’s character mixes a cup of lean–a drug popular among drill rappers and frequent imagery in videos–as another moment of appropriation and inauthenticity towards Chicago gang culture. He also mentions Nick Cannon as “flinching,” suggesting that the family-friendly superstar is unfit to correctly portray a violent criminal. Unlike Lil Bibby who seems concerned that the film does not do enough to bring attention to the violence so as to mobilize a public response, Lil Herb is unhappy that the film is simply inauthentic, with little regard for the positive social impacts the film might have otherwise had.

I feel that the comparison of these two viewpoints reflects just how tall of an order making this film without controversy would have been, but also the complexity of attitudes among Chicago youth. Lil Bibby illustrates many of the film’s shortcomings in actually producing a meaningful critique of the violent Chicago lifestyle, while Lil Herb’s thoughts imply a glorification of that lifestyle that Lee failed to capture on film. In a sense, Lee was destined to anger some quantity of people in either sense with his more imaginative approach. Perhaps a thoughtful, gritty documentary may have been the only solution, but clearly that does not reflect Lee’s more artful, lighthearted intentions with this film–all in all, it leaves me with the sense that a musical comedy grounded in a fictionalized “Chi-Raq” was an impossibility in terms of appealing to universal tastes.


Another Side, Another Story: Farrakhan’s Statements on the Death of Malcolm X

Lee’s portrayal of Malcolm X’s death is evocative and captivating, but the film only hints at the larger web of conspiracy that lead to his death. Although his severance and tumultuous relationship with Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam are commonly thought to be responsible, Lee hints at the potential involvement of American intelligence agencies in the scene with the bugged hotel room. While Malcolm X’s radical agenda and charisma would certainly have intimidated the powers that be, it remains ambiguous if something like the CIA or FBI influenced his death, and any possible intersection with the Nation of Islam for the assassination is unclear. Although Betty Shabazz insisted on the Nation’s role in orchestrating her husband’s death, the details remain unresolved.

Given the ambiguity with which the film treats those responsible, I became interested in doing some research about the Nation of Islam’s side of the story to try and pinpoint their feelings on Malcolm X and gauge their willingness to reveal their possible involvement. The video I’ve linked is an excerpt of the Nation’s current leader Minister Farrakhan discussing Malcolm’s death in 1993–the results are compelling, and even chilling at points. The video is quite long, and while I recommend watching a little bit at least, I’ve picked out some key quotes and provided my thoughts.

Farrakhan begins by stating how much he loved Malcolm and how hurt everyone was by his departure. He elaborates that “next to Elijah Muhammad, [he] didn’t know anybody greater,” indicating the interesting possibility that X may have inherited the leadership of the Nation had events transpired differently–an interesting what-if to consider. Farrakhan states that X’s true offense was not in leaving the Nation, but in revealing Elijah Muhammad’s affairs with his secretaries to “the white man.” This is interesting bit of context for the Nation’s motivations: Farrakhan indicates the discrepancy in X placing himself on the moral high ground above Elijah Muhammad, yet his relationship with white media. Evidently, that is pure hypocrisy in the eyes of the nation, as the crimes and immoral nature of the white man precludes X from using a moral attack if he is going to speak with them. This paints a very interesting contrast with X’s change of heart during his hajj and his retraction of his disdain for whites–the Nation still very much operates in that alternate frame of mind, which contextualizes their hatred for X.

As Farrakhan portrays it, Malcolm X was a traitor to the cause and to his teacher–he even disparagingly recalls X’s past as a pimp and a hustler to portray how he was brought into the light and willingly rejected it. Farrakhan states that based on X’s disrespect towards Elijah Muhammad, you “[wouldn’t] have to order [him] to kill you,” and that “every Muslim who loved Elijah Muhammad would have killed Malcolm if [they] had gotten the chance.” He doesn’t directly implicate the Nation in murdering X, but his words imply as much, even though he indicates that Elijah Muhammad wanted X to be left alone and unharmed. Still, he goes further, stating that “if somebody attacks what you loved, you would become a killer instantaneously,” suggesting the justified defensibility in killing Malcolm for his disrespecting of Elijah Muhammad.

Lastly of note is how Farrakhan uses the discussion of Malcolm X’s death as a springboard to portray the Nation’s resistance and unity as an entity separate from the United States. Again, he does not state that the Nation assassinated Malcolm X, but he maintains that they “don’t give a damn about no white man law” if Elijah Muhammad is threatened, emphasizing their subversion of white supremacist structures and their willingness to act as they see fit in any circumstance. Farrakhan takes this further, simultaneously building up the imagery of the Nation as a separate, singular entity with its own system of codes that non-members cannot speak on: “And if we dealt with him like a nation deals with a traitor, what business is it of yours?”

There is plenty more to be unpacked and examined in the remainder of the speech; this is just a taste of what grabbed me from the first few minutes. Feel free to leave me a comment if you find anything else worth discussing from the interview!

Anti-Semitism in Mo Better Blues: Contextualizing Lee’s Responses to Backlash

When we examine the historicization of Lee’s films, we can generally find a consistency in his thoughtful grasp of racial dynamics. Whether in portraying an unbiased picture of racial tensions in Do the Right Thing, the complex attitudes clashing in all black communities in School Daze, or the survey of racial diversity in Inside Man, Lee develops multidimensional characters of different races and maintains a powerfully nuanced conception of racial themes and dynamics.

That usual tastefulness and intelligence only makes the portrayal of the Flatbush brothers as crooked Jewish stereotypes in Mo’ Better Blues all the more jarring. In addition to their speech patterns and gesticulations, their cruel, unscrupulous, and greedy nature clearly telegraph a Jewish caricature. Whether claiming that “everyone is crooked” or threatening a lawsuit against Bleek, the problematic nature of the caricature is two-fold: when played for laughs, it is at the expense of Jews; when presented more seriously, Lee appears to be offering a stark statement on Jewish exploitation of blacks in the music industry—either option suggests a negative, shallowly developed portrayal compared to Lee’s usual depth of character.


After Bleek and Giant are beaten in the alley, the brothers briefly suggest sympathy before insisting that the band return to the stage, prioritizing the club’s “full house” over the safety of the employees they’ve exploited. Their final onscreen moments are sitting in the empty club lamenting the night’s cancellation before they are left in darkness. The visual play of this final scene implies that the two are irrevocably tied to the club itself—the film effectively abandoning them within its walls—suggesting that they’re existence is symbiotic with money and business. While the remaining characters go on to right mistakes and repair relationships, the Flatbush brothers go on unseen: unceremoniously villainous and stereotyped through and through.


The portrayal of the Flatbush brothers did not go unnoticed, and it generated much controversy after release. I propose that the more shallow conception of race in Mo’ Better Blues compared to Lee’s more tasteful, nuanced portrayals in other films may be due to the shifted focus on character study rather than broad themes of race, but that is only a personal interpretation. I gathered several quotes from Lee responding to the backlash to hopefully contextualize his intentions with the Flatbush brothers and his attitudes towards racial representations in the film industry, of which he has proven historically vocal.

“I couldn’t make an anti-Semitic film”…“[it’s] a fact” [that Jews run Hollywood] (quoted in James).

This defense might be getting at an accurate statistic, but it seems like a shallow excuse: the Jewish population in Hollywood does not preclude an insensitive portrayal, particularly when it is not the focus of the film as is the case here.

Referring to studio executives that worked on the film: ”I am not anti-Semitic. Do you think Lew Wasserman, Sidney Sheinberg or Tom Pollock would allow it in my picture?” (quoted in James).

In a similar vein to the previous quote, this strikes me as the equivalent of saying you cannot be racist because you have black friends: the studio heads might not have been particularly offended, but that does not mean that viewers would not have a different interpretation of the material, as many evidently were.

“Here’s the thing, though: It’s more than being a stereotype…In the history of American music, there have not been Jewish people exploiting black musicians? In the history of music? How is that being stereotypical? For me, that’s like saying, like the NBA is predominantly black. Now, if that makes me anti- Semitic …” (quoted in Levy)

Here we see a turning point in Lee’s unapologetic response: rather than indicating that he did not intend to portray a stereotype, Lee flies in the opposite direction and contextualizes his characters not as caricatures, but instead grounds them in a historical paradigm of exploitation. The scene in which the brothers extort Bleek certainly feels like a social statement on Lee’s part when examined with this quote in mind–whether or not a viewer feels that this historical argument is sufficient justification is very much still in question.

Lee felt that critics were holding him to a “higher moral standard than what they have required of white filmmakers who stereotype blacks” (quoted in Page).

Perhaps it is not Lee’s status as a black filmmaker that places him under heightened scrutiny, but rather his very forward self-positioning in racial matters both on and off-screen. Still, I lack the evidence to really refute his response, though whether that justifies a shallow portrayal of race feels less affirmative.

What do you make of the implications of the content and juxtaposition of these quotes?

Sources for quotes:


Get Rich or Die Tryin’

Inside Man is quite interesting and unexpected in the way it blends Hollywood mid-2000s thriller tropes with Lee’s unique style, both in a technical and thematic sense. Before watching it I recalled seeing trailers for years ago and having an idea of it being a rather generic looking bank robbery film, yet watching it now shows that Lee still manages to work in his slice-of-life cultural and social commentary while balancing a complex heist plot. Of all these scenes with a more human focus outside of the bank robbery, the one I found the most jarring was the video game scene.

The unexpectedness of the scene is largely in part due to the actual shift in cinematic text that occurs–for one brief moment, the mis-en-scene actually becomes an animated gameplay sequence from the PSP game the boy is playing. I had initially chalked this interlude as another unique, memorable surprise similar to the Bollywood opening theme–in short, another attempt by Lee to break up the vast amounts of exposition and complex plotting with a humorous, unexpected change of pace. However, beyond the value the scene possesses as a strange breather episode and as a character moment for Dalton, it also provides a brief window into Lee’s social commentary on the landscape of African American youth culture contemporary to the film.

To have a black child playing such a violent game and discussing crime so candidly and calmly with the actual bank robber is a source of humor in the scene, yet the juxtaposition of the game footage with the conversation suggests that his attitude on crime is informed by his relationship to such violent media. Although Dalton’s assertion to discussing the game with the boy’s father is similarly played for laughs, the irony of the masked bank robber showing concern over the boy’s exposure to this media further implies Lee’s actual feelings on the subject. The music played throughout the scene is reminiscent of a lullaby, evoking feelings of childhood and innocence–the diegetic sounds of the video game (gunshots, gangsta rap, and cursing) deliberately drown out the non-diegetic score, as if to suggest how these cultural forces impose and diminish that influence. The game’s exaggerated but ultimately not far from inaccurate resemblance to the Grand Theft Auto series visually grounds Lee’s scene in the contemporary discussion over video game controversy, while the boy’s reference to 50 Cent cements Lee’s portrayal of the ties between violent games and hip-hop music in black culture–media that promote violence among the youth.

For some added context, here are Lee’s comments on the inclusion of the scene:

“I just hope people understand that this is an absolute statement about my horror at how violent these games that young kids play are, and also the infatuation with violence and gangsta rap among the black community. It’s not a real game but it’s not that far-fetched from the games that are being sold, and more importantly the mindset behind them. There are just too many black men killing each other as it is.”

Lee’s comment becomes quite salient if you’ve ever played a Grand Theft Auto game, from which the scene unmistakably draws inspiration. While the interface imploring the player to “Kill Dat Nigga!” is certainly a larger-than-life commentary  as contextualized by Lee’s comments, the fact that little else is exaggerated compared to the original game acts as commentary in and of itself.

Clarke and Indigo: A Visual Paradox

bleek      One of the most memorable scenes in Mo’ Better Blues is the simultaneous love scene, in which Bleek’s fragile balance of sexual relationships between Indigo and Clarke collapses in the most striking way possible—a surreal scene in which Bleek appears to be having sex with both at the same time, or rather one seamlessly transitioning into the other and back. The dreamlike qualities of the scene strongly ground our perspective into Bleek’s subjectivity, visually literalizing the dichotomy playing out in his head as he attempts, and ultimately fails, to manage his dual economy of relationships.

Lee plays with continuity editing in order to achieve that dreamlike quality: Bleek might move forward to kiss Indigo only to seamlessly proceed to kiss Clarke, or he may situate himself beneath Clarke only for Indigo to appear on top. Indeed, the constant oscillation between who is on top also implies a constantly morphing power dynamic—at moments Bleek is in the dominant position, while at the other times he is below, implying that in this moment he may not be as in control of the situation as he usually is. That the scene’s editing cuts between his changed positions without showing him physically transition creates that sense of jarring inconsistency that compounds the visual impact of the switch in partner.

However, although Bleek is unable to disengage between the two in the construction of the scene, the scene’s lighting makes the two appear quite visually distinct. A dark, cool blue lighting scheme transitions into a hot, radiant red that not only underscores the passion of the scene, but creates a quality of lighting that differently plays off of each woman’s skin tone. Despite the continuity’s alternation and obfuscation of partner, the lighting marks the distinction between each woman unmistakable, be it Clarke’s fair skin or Indigo’s dark complexion. On one level, this highlights the racial undercurrent of their dynamic—Clarke’s fair skin implies her relation to Western standards of attractiveness and thus the glamor she implies for Bleek, while the darker Indigo is whom we have come to understand as his more stable, healthier match. However, it is also further entrenches us in Bleek’s state of mind—the conflation of the two only further refines and makes apparent their unique features, as if Bleek is paradoxically equating them, yet quite aware of their distinctions as women pulling his life in two separate directions.