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: