To the editors:
In reviewing Jungle Fever, Jonathan Rosenbaum noted that Spike Lee's "beginning to listen with profit to his actors" who've helped him broaden his conception of his characters. But such apparent praise points to Lee's fundamental limitations as an artist: he cannot imagine characters developing beyond the racial stereotypes they represent. In a movie such as Do the Right Thing, whose subject was racial stereotypes, he came close to creating a masterpiece, composed of short undeveloped sequences that revealed our prejudices and hatreds. But given an interracial relationship supposedly at the core of his narrative Lee cannot imagine for more than the length of half the movie what a man and a woman might come to think and feel about each other--how in short to develop his characters beyond the taboo attraction that first brings them together. So the relationship is broken off in mid-movie with the Wesley Snipes character saying, revealingly, to his lover that sampling the myth of interracial sex was what they really sought and no more.
Lee's limitations aren't limited to sitcom depictions of Italian families. They extend to portrayals of his own people: black women who are hot to trot (She's Gotta Have It), black men out to get white women, goofy preachers and crack heads (Jungle Fever), ghetto blaster youths, lazy older men who sit all day on street corners (Do the Right Thing). Why has Lee gained such popularity with white audiences? Can it be that he presents stereotypes any prejudiced white could easily recognize.
The interest and excitement of Lee's films are generated by his confrontation with American racial prejudices. His development as a filmmaker will be marked however when he learns to write dialogue in which characters speak to the characters before them and the situation in which they find themselves and not to the audience to make some point, and when the narrative develops in terms of the world the film has created and is not jerked around to cover all significant points about the world we inhabit.
While Oliver Stone and others must go back 30 years to make any kind of left of center statement (Mississippi Burning, The Long Walk Home, Running on Empty are all set safely in the past), Lee remains the only major director with the guts to deal with contemporary issues, but he still lacks either the talent or the will to understand, portray and develop even his own people with any depth of insight beyond the prejudices which many Americans take for the truth of the matter.