American truths: Looking back to move forward with Spike Lee

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Viewing the collected works of Spike Lee reveals three decades of a fiercely talented technician using all means available to speak the truth in its purest form to anyone who will listen, and shout it at those who won’t.  (Credit Image: © Buckner/Rex Shutterstock via ZUMA Press) Viewing the collected works of Spike Lee reveals three decades of a fiercely talented technician using all means available to speak the truth in its purest form to anyone who will listen, and shout it at those who won’t. (Credit Image: © Buckner/Rex Shutterstock via ZUMA Press)

As events that transpired in Charlottesville inform the national conversation on the politics of race and resistance, the Virginia Film Festival has placed the subject at the center of this year’s programming. And the Race in America series features some of the best filmmaking on the subject. Attending this year’s festival will be veteran filmmaker Spike Lee, who will present his documentary 4 Little Girls and video short I Can’t Breathe. A Q&A with Lee and University of Virginia professor Maurice Wallace will precede the films.

Viewing the collected works of Spike Lee reveals three decades of a fiercely talented technician using all means available to speak the truth in its purest form to anyone who will listen, and shout it at those who won’t. Though the notion that he is intentionally provocative has taken root in the public’s collective opinion of Lee, a deeper reading of his work suggests that he places equal value on the content, style and craftsmanship of his films, but uses them as platforms to elevate the underlying message or fundamental truth of the story on a higher level. Often, those messages are uncomfortable ones that require direct confrontation, whether in the form of Samuel L. Jackson demanding we “cool that shit out” following a montage of internal racism made external in Do the Right Thing, or the ripped-from-the-headlines commentary of last year’s audacious Chi-Raq. It’s not just that Lee demands to be heard, it’s that he demands you listen to and recognize the truth.

In 1997, Lee released his first documentary, 4 Little Girls. The film tells the story of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing on September 15, 1963, in which four young African-American girls—Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair—were killed by white supremacists at their church in Birmingham, Alabama. Though known Klansmen were held and questioned, there were no charges filed and the FBI closed the case, until it was reopened in 1977 and subsequently in 2000. The brutality and senseless loss of life is considered a turning point in the Civil Rights movement, and the next year saw the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Though an explicitly political message can be drawn from it, Lee dedicates much of the film to the personalities and families of the girls who lost their lives.

Lee garnered praise and an Academy Award nomination for the documentary, and contemporary critics sometimes commented that it was perceived as a departure for the director in both style and tone. Interviewers from the time of its release asked about the film’s political message, to which Lee would politely offer that it was to learn more about these four girls, that there was no specific call to action. Indeed, the film sees Lee in the role of observer rather than auteur. The politics are inherent in the story and the event had large societal and legal repercussions, all of which are thoroughly examined, but in his commitment to truth, Lee has no agenda in exploring this topic beyond making the audience come to know who these girls were, whose future the world never witnessed.

Lee had initially wanted to make the film as a student, but would not do so without the participation of Chris McNair, father of Carol. Both understood that the time was not yet right—Lee was still a budding filmmaker, and McNair was not yet ready to open that chapter of his life to the world.

Lee will also be presenting I Can’t Breathe, a video short that interweaves footage of Radio Raheem’s fate in Do the Right Thing and Eric Garner being pinned to the ground by police, despite his pleas for medical attention, which would lead directly to his death. The video is a stark reminder that though cell phone camera technology is new, the tragedies that they record are not. Do the Right Thing itself is partially based on real events, what’s known as the 1986 Howard Beach incident. Though the film is fictional, its depiction of racism and police violence is as truthful as on-the-ground footage.

Safer films may take home the trophies instead of Lee’s, only to be forgotten, but a Spike Lee Joint endures because it isn’t what we want to see, it’s what we need to hear.


Other Race in America screenings

Hidden Figures

One of the best crowd-pleasers of 2016 recounts the contributions of black women to the early space program, boasting a top-notch cast, terrific music and an inspirational true story.

Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities

This documentary looks at America’s historically black colleges and universities, which have been an invaluable resource to many, but their establishment and continued legacy did not come easily.

The Confession Tapes

From Netflix’s “8th and H” series comes this episode about a group of Washington, D.C., teens wrongfully convicted of murder in 1984, some of whom are still serving time based on false accusations of gang affiliation.

An Outrage

This documentary on lynching in the American South was filmed on the locations of many actual such events, bringing attention to the harrowing fact that racist mobs murdering innocent people in this fashion is not ancient history, and the emotional societal scars are still felt today.

The Birth Of A Movement

Too often, bigotry and racist caricatures in old films are dismissed as “that’s the way it was.” Birth of a Movement proves just the opposite, recounting journalist and activist William M. Trotter’s opposition to D.W. Griffith’s 1915 celebration of the Ku Klux Klan in The Birth of a Nation.

O.J.: Made In America

Though the world may not have recognized it at the time, the trial of O.J. Simpson for the murder of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman was perhaps the most significant intersections of race, class, the justice system and the media industrial complex. This in-depth documentary explores the story from every conceivable angle, and vividly recounts a chapter in American history many considered closed.

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