Anyone who's ever paid any attention to writer-producer-director Spike Lee knows that his films, more often than not, focus on themes of responsibility. They acknowledge the purity of pleasures but always consider the consequences. With the African proverb "Not to know is bad; not to wish to know is worse," the cinematic soothsayer paints his latest mural of social turmoil, She Hate Me.
In title, She Hate Me refers to ex-XFL player Rod Smart (now with the Carolina Panthers). Smart famously emblazoned his jersey with the words "He Hate Me," in apparent reference to his gridiron foes. (Smart has other enemies in the socioeconomic woes which contributed to the various imprisonments of his best friend, brother, and mother.) John Henry "Jack" Armstrong (Anthony Mackie)—Lee's hero in the film—takes to calling his estranged ex Fatima (Kerry Washington) "She Hate Me," though the "She" could also refer to "Lady Liberty."
As such, Lee kicks off the film with glorious opening titles replete with waving flags fashioned to resemble American currency and a jazzy, minor-key theme by Terence Blanchard. The sequence culminates with a $3 bill marked with a smiling George W. Bush and an Enron seal. Armstrong works as the youngest VP at Progeia, a biotech outfit on the cusp of an AIDS vaccine. Before research physician Dr. Herman Schiller (David Bennent) leaves the company the hard way, he drops bread crumbs of advice ("Careers aren't real...one day, it's all for naught") and evidence of corporate crime at the company's highest level; not for nothing, the company's logo emphasizes the letter "I." When Jack blows the whistle, Progeia president Leland Powell (a white-collared Woody Harrelson) ceremoniously drops the ax on Jack, Jack's fellow VP Margo Chadwick (Ellen Barkin, looking not unlike Martha Stewart) bristles and squirms, and allegations blow back to Jack from an ungrateful Securities & Exchange Commission.
Lee's conception, though, is pregnant with twin tales. Jack and Fatima's "hate" stems from a brutal breakup occasioned by Fatima's lesbian experimentation. Now in a committed lesbian partnership, Fatima approaches Jack with an offer: $10,000 a "pop" to impregnate herself and her girlfriend Alex (Dania Ramirez). With a frozen bank account and no job prospects, Jack allows Fatima to be the agent for a stream of lesbian impregnations. Despite learning "what it feels like to be a sexual object," Jack still has strong feelings for Fatima, and Fatima hasn't entirely shaken him off, either. Pressures from within and without—the baby-making business and political efforts to scapegoat Jack in the Progeia scandal—add to the complications of the ensuing love triangle among Jack, Fatima, and Alex.
Lee's films are full of historical allusions which enrich his allegories. Certainly, history in the making informs Lee and co-screenwriter Michael Genet, from the strange case of fertility doctor and seventy-time father Cecil B. Jacobson to Coleen Rowley, Cynthia Cooper and Sherron Watkins, named Time's 2002 Persons of the Year for blowing the whistle on Enron and WorldCom. John Henry "Jack" Armstrong may refer not only to the legendary steel-driving man who expired from proving his working ability, but to Jack Armstrong, the "All-American boy" hero of the thirties and forties. Lee's Armstrong also wears a "1918" T-shirt, which alludes to the "Curse of the Bambino." Besides showing New York pride, the shirt coincidentally reminds of another John Henry: the owner of the Boston Red Sox. Like Henry's Sox, She Hate Me's Armstrong endures a historical brunt of suffering from a hostile New York.
Armstrong's apartment includes a punching bag (appropriate, given his last name) and wall art of John Henry, boxing avenger Joe Louis, and Jackie Robinson, each of whom powerfully faced racist obstacles. The muscular images further reflect his father Geronimo, played by sports hero/movie star/activist Jim Brown. The once-proud Geronimo has been brought low by diabetes; though the native American guerilla who may be his namesake died a prisoner, the film's wheelchair-bound Geronimo portrays indomitable strength which finds its hope in family. In the film's most elaborate historical analogy, Lee dreamily then realistically recreates the forgotten tale of African-American security guard Frank Wills (Chiwetel Ejiofor of Dirty Pretty Things), whose earnest professionalism one night at the Watergate hotel is rewarded with destitution and obscurity.
Armstrong's suffering of lies and betrayal from his corporate "family," his country, and his one-time lover are reflected in Blanchard's musical quotation of "Will O' The Wisp," the Manuel de Falla piece made famous by the Miles Davis-Gil Evans album Sketches of Spain. The forlorn song's original lyrics consider, as Lee does, love's fickle nature: "Love is like a will-o'-the-wisp: you flee, and it follows you; you call it, and it flees you". Anger, frustration, and impotence (represented by Jack's Red Bull and Viagara cocktails on his new job) form the early stage of Jack's picaresque journey of self-discovery, which arrives at a calm acceptance of reality.
As usual, Lee hesitates to give easy answers, though he does take a moralistic view of surrogate parenting. To Lee, every sperm is sacred, and a father's responsibility cannot be bought off. Money is the weed-like root of all evil, which reduces the cast-out Jack to a "cash cow" dispensing "man milk" (in Matthew Libatique's photography, the pale green of currency often suffuses the action). Jack's friend Vada (Q-Tip) explains, "A price can be put on anything." In the new millenium, even genes have been commodified, leading Vada to ponder the worth of celebrity sperm. Margo characterizes the public as "morons [who will] buy whatever we sell." Partly to accomodate John Turturro, Lee shoehorns in a morally relativistic subplot involving an unflappable mafia don and his lesbian daughter (Monica Bellucci), but even these weakest of scenes add color to the complicated tapestry (conveniently discounting greed, Turturro's character voices the comforting dictum "Survival makes people do things they know in their heart is wrong").
Lee will undoubtedly face charges of homophobia yet again, but they will be unfounded. Lee plays far fairer than Kevin Smith did with his unaccountably well-liked Chasing Amy, in which Joey Lauren Adams's lesbian just couldn't resist Ben Affleck. In response to Jack's insistent question "Bi, lesbian, or straight," Fatima replies, "More than that." Seemingly a non-sequitur obfuscation of her bisexuality, the comment suggests a fluid movement that transcends easy branding. Fatima is the point of intersection for the decidedly straight Jack and the emphatically lesbian Alex. When Fatima is with Alex, she is wholeheartedly lesbian, and when she chooses to give love to Jack, it, too, is wholehearted. The resolution of such multiple impulses leaves more questions than answers, but Lee (who consulted with sexual politician Tristan Taormino) is not alone in exploring postmodern sexuality (Lee's plotline could fairly be regarded as a more complex variation on cinematic neighbor A Home At the End of the World).
Lee will likewise take heat for his precocious sex scenes between the straight Jack and the lesbians, who are prone to warm up and enjoy the sex act despite their orientation. But the scenes are comic and masturbatory, a purposefully reductive metaphor for finance-based screwing and getting screwed that is as sleazy and lacking in genuine passion as Progeia's operations (when Jack asks, "You're lesbians, right?", they reply in unison, "We're businesswomen"). The stud might as well be a dildo, and the lesbian glee is temporary, an acknowledgment of exotic "strange" before returning to the lives of domesticity the transaction has bought them.
That Lee depicts this domesticity and allows the couples an explanation of the practical problems of the "gayby boom" are the saving graces which mitigates the couples' ruthlessness. Lee isn't very interested in an elaboration on gay lifestyles, so he doesn't stray too far from his own, straight-male persective, but as in the likewise complex Jungle Fever and other seminal Lee films, the director earnestly gives voice to perspectives not his own. The honest, tender squabbling and love-making of a scene set in Fatima and Alex's kitchen respectfully implies their undying commitment to each other, even as their family faces unpredictable growing pains.
Though Lee overreaches with some plot elements, his brilliance as a filmmaker is located in that very ambition. A bold and uncompromising fable of scruples in an unscrupulous world, the pains of honesty in a land of hypocrisy, She Hate Me is unavoidably moving and thought-provoking. It also serves as a reminder that Spike Lee is one of our great American filmmakers, unafraid to address, directly and artfully, contemporary issues in a context of national history.
[For Groucho's interview with Spike Lee, click here.]