Mo Better Blues

Mo’ Better Blues | A Love Supreme

Screen Shot 2016-03-28 at 8.40.24 PM 1.pngScreen Shot 2016-03-28 at 8.41.02 PM.png

Spike Lee originally wanted to name “Mo’ Better Blues,” “A Love Supreme” after John Coltrane’s most celebrated album. However, Coltrane’s widow Alice wasn’t in favor, so Lee found a different name. Still, Lee employs the prolific album in a powerful montage towards the end of the film. The scene chronicles the marriage of Bleek and Indigo, the birth of their child, and his early adolescence. Both the montage and record were greatly condensed. Although only the first suite of the album was used, the album itself was fairly short as well. It clocks in at around thirty minutes, which is surprising given Coltrane regularly played solos longer than that. It marks Bleek’s gradual redemption from a dark period of depression and isolation following his injury. Similarly, Coltrane recorded A Love Supreme following a tortured period of heroin addiction and alcoholism. Coltrane writes in the album liner notes, that “during the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life.” Its fitting that A Love Supreme should be introduced in the film at the time Bleek finally finds something he loves more than himself. Lee described the movie as “a love story between couples, between friends, between father and son, between generations.” Coltrane’s masterpiece exists as a statement of love and thanks for redemption from spiritual enslavement. He frequently gives thanks to a God, generally understood as the monotheistic Judeo-Christian entity, that he never specifies. His collection of books included The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Autobiography of a Yogi, and his wife Alice would later become a devotee of the Hindu guru Sathya Sai Baba. Coltrane doesn’t specify because he speaks of love and spiritualism in a broader sense, entailing anything that motivates individuals to strive for deeper meaning. A Love Supreme is relevant to the scene because Bleek’s shocking revelation, despite not involving drug addiction, points to the significance Coltrane’s spiritual awakening.


Hubris and Addiction in Mo’ Better Blues

As Grace wrote in her post, Mo’ Better Blues (MBB) “was the first jazz film to be produced and directed by an African American [as well as] the first jazz film to depict an insider’s perspective.” In commentary on the production of MBB, Ernest Dickerson, Lee’s principal cinematographer said: “We didn’t want to focus on the self-destructiveness of jazz musicians, like White filmmakers had done in the past,” where Dickerson is referring specifically to the focus in the films Bird, directed by Clint Eastwood, and Round Midnight, from Bertrand Tavernier.


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:


Mo’ Better Blues| Role of Women

I wanted to continue the discussion behind the role of women in Mo’ Better Blues by looking at the character development of both Clark and Indigo. Julia mentioned in an earlier post she was uncertain as to whether or not Lee’s poor depiction of women was intentionally trying to make a point or whether there was a misguided clumsiness involved- I would like to argue regardless of Lee’s intention, he’s reiterating a stereotype which offers women are incapable of independence and exist for the sake of men.

With the introduction of two love interests, Clarke and Indigo, women are immediately introduced as interchangeable, sexual objects. Bleek’s relationship with each woman is shallow. He chastises them, tells them they come second to his own interests (his career), and they remain complacent in this treatment.

Bleeck chastising Clarke, Pt. 1

Bleek chastising Clarke

This first screenshot captures a moment where Clarke surprises Bleek with a visit to his apartment. He lectures her for interrupting his practice and reminds her that he has allotted a time slot for her which she needs to respect. Clarke apologizes with sex.

Indigo vying for Bleek's attention

Indigo vying for Bleek’s attention

The next screenshot takes place moments after Bleek and Indigo have sex. He has just scoffed at her request to accompany his band and advises her she needs a lot more practice until she’s on his level as an artist. As he leaves her in bed to work on his music Lee deliberately mutes her speech and overrides her dialogue with music, explicitly demonstrating her irrelevance after she’s fulfilled her sexual obligations.

Indigo accompanies Shadow's band

Indigo accompanies Shadow’s band

By the end of the film, Clarke and Indigo continue to be dominated by the men in their lives. After her break up with Bleek, Indigo immediately begins a relationship with Shadow who promises her an opportunity to perform in exchange for her companionship. By focusing on her sexual engagements and reliance on yet another male figure, Lee seems to suggest that that she is only able to advance as an artist through objectifying her body.

Bleek and Indigo start a family

Bleek and Indigo start a family

Clarke also continues to subject herself to Bleek’s desires throughout the end of the film. Lee doesn’t give us insight into whether a family and life of domesticity is what Clarke wants- he only reveals to us those are Bleek’s ambitions. Time and time again Bleek’s desires as a male dominate the narrative and places Clarke in a position without agency.

I agree this critique fails to acknowledge that the inclusion of these plot lines may have been utilized for purposes of drama and entertainment, but I’m interested to hear what others think about this.Do you agree in my assessment that women are portrayed singularly and overdependent? Does it matter what Lee’s intentions were if it’s lost upon the viewers?

Upholding Mo’ Better Blues | Part II

It is unfair to critique Mo’ Better Blues without mentioning the film’s immense cultural impact. Released in 1990, Mo’ Better Blues was the first jazz film that was not only produced and directed by an African American, but it was also the first jazz film that depicted an insider’s perspective.

Before Mo’ Better Blues, the two renown jazz films were Clint Eastwood’s Bird, a film based on the saxophonist legend Charlie Parker, and Bertrand Tavernier’s ‘Round Midnight. When Woody Allen decided to make another jazz film, Spike Lee decided that it was time for him to step up and change the norm.

“I saw Bird, Clint Eastwood’s portrait of Charlie Parker, in the fall of ‘88. Bertrand Tavernier’s ‘Round Midnight, which was released two years before, was a slightly better film, if only because of saxophonist Dexter Gordon’s performance. Both were narrow depictions of the lives of black musicians, as seen through the eyes of white screenwriters and white directors.


Upholding Mo’ Better Blues | Part I

Deconstructing “The Cycle”

The Cycle in PNG

Generational Transmission of Dreams

During our discussion of the final montage in Mo’ Better Blues, we spent a lot of time discussing what it meant for Bleek to “Repeat The Cycle”. Frankly, I had a very hard time understanding the connection of this notion to the montage, because I didn’t think that it applied to the film.


Mo’ Better Blues

In class we talked about Clarke as a “success” and the fact that many people started to root for her by the end of the film. However, I saw Clarke’s character as a representation of the way men limit women’s access to the public sphere, specifically in the music industry. By the end of the film, Clarke is a very successful musician with Bleek’s old band, but she only receives her big break after engaging in a sexual relationship with Shadow. That’s not to say that she isn’t talented, or that she is with Shadow only to further her career, but I was surprised that we didn’t discuss her success in the context of her sexual relationships because a clear point may be drawn from the relationship between the two. The idea that men in Clarke’s life impact her musical success is also supported by the scene in which she asks Bleek to collaborate while in bed. For her, her intimate relationships and career are not separate, because, it seems, that one is the pathway to the other. But Bleak has the ability (or privilege?) to keep them separate.

This returns my thoughts to our discussion of Spike Lee’s possible clumsiness around gender and sexuality– I continue to oscillate between whether I think Lee attempts to make a point with his unequal and derogatory representations of women or if these representations are part of that clumsiness.  In class we talked about how we may settle this debate by looking at what the film gives us to dissect and therefore look for Lee’s intention– but I run into a similar dilemma, swinging back and forth between whether I am interpreting poor representations as meaningful or if his representations are intentional. Does anyone have any thoughts?