By Haley Vassiljev
A young drug dealer, trapped in a dead-end life in an inner-city housing project, makes an unlikely hero for a major film.
But that’s one of the things that makes Spike Lee’s Clockers so unusual, according to Michael Gillespie, an associate professor at the City College of New York, who spoke during the Film and Media Studies symposium on Feb. 26. Clockers transforms the story into a tale about coming of age and figuring out which path in life to take.
“There are so many things about Spike Lee that remind me why I care about cinema, and why I care for it in the terms of art,” said Gillespie, the author of the book Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film. “There needs to be a bigger emphasis on black film as art rather than as a category, a diagnostic.”
He added that Lee can take stories and make people see basic truths of life.
“The value of Spike Lee lies, in my opinion, in that he is the last great American auteur.”
Rider’s annual film symposium was held on Feb. 26 and 27 and focused on Lee, his work and other African-American-directed films, and featured student panels, film screenings and screenwriting and film competitions.
Gillespie spoke as part of a panel that also included Paula J. Massood, a professor of film at CUNY Brooklyn College, and Ashley Clark, a journalist and film programmer.
“The most fascinating thing about Lee is that he moves around genres,” said Massood. “As someone who loves film and watches a lot of film, I see that consciousness in his work.”
She then went on to talk about other Lee films including Do The Right Thing and Jungle Fever, which she wrote about in her book Black City Cinema: African-American Experiences in Film and Making a Promise Land: Harlem in Twentieth Century Photography and Film.
“Lee went on to inspire a whole host of other young filmmakers and inspire Hollywood to start making films that dealt with urban issues,” said Massood. “He made his own version of these films of young men living in city spaces and coming of age. On the one hand, his films deal with violence in the city, and on the other hand, he is concerned with representations of violence.”
Clark spoke about the movie Bamboozled, a controversial story about blackface in America that produced many mixed reactions.
“This history of American blackface entertainment felt worlds away to me, as an English person,” said Clark. “I saw Bamboozled in London when it came out in 2000, and I didn’t like the movie at all.
“It’s not set up to make you like it.”
Clark said movies are typically written so that the African-American characters end up in a better lifestyle from where they started.
“Bamboozled does something completely different,” said Clark. “It’s a powerful statement on national memory. It’s a film that’s prepared to rub America’s face in its racist past while explicitly connecting it to the present.”
He explained that Bamboozled includes multiple references to other films about the media and media spectacles.
“When you’re watching Spike Lee films, you know you’re watching a work of a film fan, and it gives you an extra level,” he said.