Spike Lee’s She Hate Me is a total mess of a film. It’s sprawling and digressive, all over the place; and its main plot line (black man serves as superstud to impregnate lesbians who want to have babies) is too over-the-top to be taken seriously, but not over-the-top enough to work as satire. The film seems to be an attempt to address homophobia, but its ostensible message of tolerance is overlain with smug condescension, in precisely the same way that the anti-racist messages of “liberal” Hollywood films of the 1950s and 1960s (like Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner) were compromised by their ultimately racist and condescending portrayal of black people (see James Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work for the ultimate analysis of these latter). And She Hate Me concludes with a reaffirmation of bourgeois family values — the restoration of a “kinder, gentler” patriarchy — that is the obnoxious ideological message of so many of Spike Lee’s films.
And yet, and yet… As with nearly everything Spike Lee has ever done, I loved nearly every minute of the film. Should I call it the triumph of form, or technique, over content? In part; though I don’t think form and content can really be separated. It is more a question of the way Lee’s cinematography and editing create a sort of counterplot, running underneath, and in dialectical tension with, the often didactic intentions of the screenplay.
The best comparison here might be to Scorsese — another great director whose camera never falters, even though he has frittered away most of his later career on pretentious, unconvincing, and utterly pointless projects. And the comparison, I think, goes entirely in Lee’s favor: his bad films, like She Hate Me, are a hundred times more interesting, emotionally moving, and thought-provoking than such Scorsese white elephants as The Age of Innocence, Kundun, and Gangs of New York. Lee is simply the more inventive and formally adventurous filmmaker of the two. Scorsese and Lee both have highly individual, auteurist styles. But whereas Scorsese uses his style to embalm his material, Lee’s style is a flexible instrument that he will bend to any purpose: he is willing to try almost anything once, and he is continually turning out extreme experiments, that don’t always work but that always show a cinematic intelligence and exuberance, no matter how dubious the material. This is the sense in which, as I’ve said before, Lee — for all his fame — is actually the most underrated of American directors.
In She Hate Me, the counterplot — and Lee’s exuberant inventiveness — come out in the way he moves the camera, the way his framings (indoors) and tracking shots (outdoors) always lead to a sense of space as psychologically charged with the psychological demands and ambivalences of the characters, and in the hysterical rush and overload of the montage sequences (most notably, one in which the protagonist — played with understated elegance by Anthony Mackie — impregnates a series of hyper-stereotypical glam lesbians, and a later one in which said lesbians all give birth, with much groaning and screaming). There’s also a series of bizarre, almost surreal digressions: like the animations of Mackie’s character’s sperm racing up the vagina and into the uterus, or the sequence where John Turturro, playing a Mafia don, does an impression of Brando in The Godfather, or — best of all, perhaps — the sequences that take on the story of Frank Wills, the night watchman who discovered the Watergate burglary, but who sank into despair, poverty, and an early death after his service to democracy went unrecognized (there is one scene especially where Wills is taunted by Haldeman, Erlichman, Gordon Liddy, etc., plus Nixon himself, or an actor wearing a grotesque Nixon mask).There’s also a climactic scene, where Mackie does his Jimmy Stewart impression (think Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) before a US Senate hearing where he’s being bullied by Brian Dennehy as an old, corrupt committee chairman. (I think I forgot to mention that the film is not just about impregnating lesbians, but also about corporate corruption and greed, with Woody Harrelson doing a turn as a Ken Lay-style sleazeball CEO). Not to mention the German mad scientist who gives Mackie’s character cornball advice and then kills himself in the movie’s first five minutes. And so on and so on….
These scenes are all utterly bonkers: they detract from any hope of making a coherent and convincing film; but they are what makes the movie come alive. She Hate Me is a completely crazy potpourri of stereotypes, non sequiturs, stylistic affectations, and random observations. Almost every five minutes I found myself shaking my head in disbelief and wondering: what the hell did Spike Lee think he was doing? But this is precisely what makes She Hate Me into such a fascinating, and (for me, at least) compulsively watchable film.