Mo' Better Reviews
by Karlton E. Hester, Ph.D.
In today's "high-tech" world, I wonder if anyone has the time to carefully review artistic criticism and other journalism. Many of the other articles on the Persian Gulf crisis I have come across seem either to have been written by jingoistic and self-righteous pep squads on the one hand. On the other hand, a surprisingly large number of other writers don't appear to be buying into this deceptive nonsense at all. We anxiously continue to deploy troops of young soldiers over regions in the Middle East to protect "our" oil prices; but we would never be as enthusiastic about protecting and defending South African human beings by imposing sanctions and military pressure on the "madmen" in that region.
Reading more than a half dozen reviews of the new Spike Lee movie Mo' Better Blues (and then seeing the film for myself) proves that similar myopic visions often exist in artistic criticism, and confirms the notion that what the art world needs is not better artists, but more capable reviewers. A remedy to problems of this sort might begin with writers taking the time to become more formally initiated into the subjects and cultures they criticize, and being profession enough to substantiate their opinions with some form of authentic ourstorical (not biased his-storical) evidence.
As one might expect, given the xenophobia that exists in today's society, these American writers were clearly divided among a cultural awareness line "in the sand" on the many issues raised by Lee's movie. It is not surprising that a similar line of division has recently separated opinions on various issues concerning such matters as the bombing of Libya and the invasions of Panama and Grenada, the violence involving Yusef Hawkins, Tawana Brawley, Bernard Goetz, and the "Central Park Jogger," the public image often projected in the media regarding people such as Al Sharpton, Louis Farrakhan, Marion Barry, Jr., as well as the constant media projections of Diasporic Africans as criminals, which has contributed to the racist climate in America. Looks closely and one might form a theory as to why artists are condemned for displaying nude bodies, but few "moral" Americans make equally strong protests against the violence available on television twenty-four hours a day. But again I digress. Nevertheless, an honest moment's reflection on the reasons for such contradictions may serve to clarify the contrasting reactions to the question of racism in contemporary artistic controversies such as those provoked by Shogun, Miss Saigon and Mo' Better Blues.
Spike Lee's film presents a sociocultural artistic statement about contemporary jazz in a situation that centers on the life of the fictitious African-American jazz artist, Bleek Gilliam (Denzel Washington). It is not a "jazz film" in the literal sense, since such a movie would have to involve living "jazz" musicians playing their own music on film (and possibly portraying themselves) to truly qualify as such in my mind. Yet it comes closer than any other film to date in capturing some of the essential elements that form the contemporary jazz experience. Elements of visual and aural stratification, the rich legacy of African-American jazz, and the thoughtful presentation of some of the most poignant dilemmas surrounding the "new breed" of African-American jazz artists, demonstrates Lee's wisdom and keen insight into this musical world, as well as his ability to understand the irreplaceable value of the living primary sources of knowledge in one's own immediate musical environment. Certainly master musicians such as Bill Lee (his father), Branford Marsalis, Terence Blanchard and the scores of other musicians involved in the film contributed more than just their musical offerings to this production. Lee's sensitivity to musicians is reflected in his film credits, where each individual member of the film's huge orchestra is listed.
The negative criticism of the film often centers on the use of stereotypes, caricatures, trite depiction of artists and the restrained performances of the musicians. Supportive commentary mentions Lee's ability to provoke controversy, recognizes the fact that Lee successfully executed the task of merging the worlds of African-American film and classic African-American music, and reminds us that his films exist not only as movies, but also as social phenomena.
In the September 4, 1990 Village Voice, Nat Hentoff attacks what he calls Spike Lee's "bigotry" and "banal clichés" while admitting that "there were Jews who exploited black musicians" like the stereotypes depicted in Mo' Better Blues. Is it just the physical appearance of the Flatbush Brothers that is the major issue? African-American actors with beautiful flat noses and wearing brightly colored dashikis have certainly been portrayed on film often enough. Hentoff and others fail to mention, however, that Ruben Blades plays a role that could similarly be called a Hispanic stereotype, that Spike Lee's own role could be considered an African-American stereotype, and that the "black-on-black" violence and other elements of the movie depicted by African-Americans could be viewed just as easily as stereotypical from a similarly subjective point of view. At the most intense moment in the film, after all, the Flatbush Brothers certainly showed more compassion for Bleek and his "ace" manager Shadow (Spike Lee) after the African-American gangsters almost killed them both than the many African-American patrons at their club (many of whom laughed and obviously enjoyed both listening to the music and watching the pair of friends being beaten unconscious), who did nothing to aid their "brothers." From such a vantage point, writers, who become irate over issues aroused by this film while searching for a plethora of racial stereotypes, might indeed take a look at Hollywood, as Lee has suggested, before becoming so blindly and negatively critical.
If we pursue the matter of bigotry a bit further, Leonard Bernstein's statement implying that George Gershwin made "jazz" respectable, or the fact that many people applauded George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess (with its condescending libretto, characters, and songs such as "Bess, You Is My Woman Now" and "I Got Plenty of Nuttin' and Nuttin's Plenty Fo' Me"), could be viewed as racist phenomena. I can confidently gamble that few reviewers situated on the negatively critical side of the "cultural awareness line" responded by writing in similar fashion to related contemporary film issues in productions such as Francis Girod's Call of the Wild, released earlier this year, or to the African-American male stereotypes in The Color Purple. John Shepherd points out in Tin Pan Alley (London: Routledge, 1982) that in the tightly knit community of Tin Pan Alley, many Jewish song writers were "quick to take over and change different musical styles for its own ends if there was money to be made. The most important of these styles have come from the music of black Americans. The first to be used by Tin Pan Alley (was) ragtime..." Tin Pan Alley took great advantage of the fact that racist America would not publish the music of African-Americans, just as many have argued that Benny Goodman took advantage of Fletcher Henderson's socially exploitation of Henderson's music. Perhaps Henderson, the premier composer/bandleader of his era, was supposed to be eternally grateful for the fact that Goodman hired him as a pianist while the "King of Swing" got rich on his arrangements.
Characters and Caricatures
Of course there are related character types within all cultural groups. Lee rejects the notion that his characters are caricatures or stereotypes. The African-American jazz musicians, who have addressed the issue of economic exploitation in print throughout the evolution of the music they have created throughout this century, have mentioned enough club owners and neighborhood businessmen who have treated them they way the Flatbush Brothers exploited Bleek and his band to substantiate Lee's position. Because there are and should be kind-hearted people within all cultures, I fail to see the significance of Hentoff's statement that Max Gordon "nurtured the careers of unknowns and refused to abandon jazz or more immediately popular and profitable music." After all, patrons of "classical" music rarely abandon their symphonies for more immediately popular and profitable music. Such reciprocities should be natural among civilized people.
In the book Black Anti-Semitism and Jewish Racism (New York: Schoken, 1970, with an introduction by Mr. Hentoff), Alan Vorspan tells us "One of the clichés heard more and more frequently in Jewish gatherings is: "After all we have done for them, they no longer want us. They hate us." Vorspan goes on to say, "Another implication is that black-Jewish relationships used to be good and now they have turned sour. The truth is, of course, that they never were really good...In the fight for equality for blacks, we were the superior people. This was no relationship of peer to peer, equal to equal, powerful group to powerful group." Finally, he argues that "Jewish-black relations were once equivalent to parent-child relations." Is this not closely related to the ideas suggested by Mr. Lee's film, a perception for which he is now being called a bigot?
In Caryn James' opinion, Clarke (Cynda Williams) and Indigo (Joie Lee) are stereotypical woman. It would be interesting to see if most African-American women feel this is true after seeing the film. They certainly contain more depth as characters than James' article contains as related to an understanding of the contemporary African-American jazz music, its creators, and the artistic environment in which they live. According to James, "Whether the adult Bleek was inspired by love of music or maternal nagging, we'll never know." First of all, it seems relatively safe to put forth the assertion at a contemporary jazz musician cannot play the trumpet the way Bleek (Terence Blanchard) played at the climax of the drama without a passionate love for and dedication to that particular type of creative music. Anyone remotely aware of the demands of the music understands this fact. What is (should be) even more obvious is that Bleek had not been very close to his mother for quite some time, although he always remained close to his father. Therefore, if Bleek didn't love jazz, he had every opportunity and reason to abandon the music as an adult, as most adults do, if they do not love the music intensely and have been forced to play an instrument against their will. The scene in Which Bleek meditates to Coltrane's A Love Supreme is more than a cliché. Rather than isolating additional related examples, however, we can look at the script. Bleek tells Clarke categorically that "he loves music" when she quizzes him about his love for her in their opening scene together.
Ms. James and other
journalists will always tread on very thin ice when making comments about jazz
scoring. Can these journalists read, write, analyze or perform scores
to such a degree that they are prepared to make comparisons between music created
by Bill Lee, Branford Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane,
Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Dexter Gordon and the other jazz masters who
contributed music to the three soundtracks James tries to compare in one short
paragraph? Contemporary critics are much more cautious when discussing
dramatic scores by Debussy, Stravinsky or Bernstein. especially when they lack
the appropriate musical background. To talk about one's personal attraction
to or dislike for certain music is within the realm of lay journalistic discussion,
but in America, it appears that almost anyone who can string a few sentences
together feels qualified and arrogant enough to start analyzing the scores of
African American jazz musicians.
Hugh Wyatt's comments regarding the restrained nature of the music and Hentoff's typical, worn out and extremely dated reference to Duke Ellington's comment "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing" are precisely the issues that Lee addresses in his film. Coltrane expressed his frustration with such writers when he asked reviewers to explain what they mean by "anti-jazz." "People," Coltrane said in Melody Maker (September 28, 1963), "have so many different definitions of jazz...And as for swinging, there are so many different ways to swing, too; a heavy four, or the Basie type of feeling, or the kind our group gets. How can you answer someone who says you don't swing?" As Bleek says in Mo' Better Blues, he is creating his "own voice." Bleek also makes it clear that he had the highest regard for the jazz masters of the past. Critics and others frequently try to pull contemporary "jazz" back to shallow waters of their own limited perceptions of a small segment of the vast body of jazz created in the past. Many of the masters they champion had many of the same problems regarding destructive criticism during their lifetimes. Perhaps this is why most of the movies about them usually occur posthumously.
One of the later arguments between trumpeter Bleek and saxophonist Shadow (Wesley Snipes) illustrate some of the points mentioned in the paragraph above. Bleek, the artist, is opposed to compromising his music to win an audience. Shadow, representing an entertainer's point of view, states that he plans on playing the music that "black" people want to hear when he puts his own "thing" together. Shadow claims that the esoteric nature of Bleek's music has alienated "blacks" from his music. Lee subtly shows that this is not true when Bleek tries to make a come back by sitting in with Shadow's band (now with Clarke as its dilettante vocalist) which is playing for almost exactly the same type of "mixed" audience that Bleek's band had performed for earlier, despite the fact that Shadow's music is now apparently much more accessible. The real problem is, of course, not the experimental nature of Bleek's music, but that the music was no longer played in its own African American community. Consequently, and naturally, there would be some distancing between the music that had continued to progress outside of the community and the people of that community who were deprived the opportunity to follow the evolution of that music. It is interesting to note in passing that (fairly recently) trumpeter Wynton Marsalis took a position somewhat similar to Bleek's (and Branford seems to have assumed musical ideals not far-related from Shadow's) when Wynton claimed that his brother "sold out" after the saxophonist back up Sting on some of his popular music ventures.
Because people who have restricted themselves to a Eurocentric outlook of the world isolate themselves from the rich cultures of other people on the planet (while attempting to require those same elder cultures to adopt their cultural codes), they limit their general knowledge of the world at large as a result. Today's African-American contemporary "jazz" musician is often a multicultural virtuouso who can perform convincingly in many styles while retaining his or her own individual "voice." This virtuosity is clearly demonstrated in Mo' Better Blues by the diverse spectrum of music performed by Bleek's band at the Flatbush Brothers' club. From e isolated fringe of both African-American contemporary "jazz" and African American culture at large, one cannot relate to messages such as those transmitted by the way of the "dozens," innovative visuals and music, and other subtle and economical means of Afrocentric communication in Lee's film, any more than a stranger can fully appreciate the intricacies of any other foreign tradition without merging with that tradition to some degree. Thus, the stratification of visual and aural events in Mo' Better Blues may be closely related to the types of rhythmic and tonal stratification that occur in the highly condemned contemporary "jazz" that defies the metronomic expectations of listeners who can only follow music in duple or triple meter with easily "singable" melodies. Usually when non-Western music cannot be understood by writers of limited musical expertise, they stereotypically label such music as chaotic, inferior, and unacceptable.
Vincent Canby points out that "It is possible that some of the criticism leveled at Mr. Lee is because white middle-class liberals feel excluded from his movies" (New York Times, 8/26/90). Perhaps the type of quasi "polyrhythmic" organization and the improvisational nature of Lee's film make writers like Newsweek ‘s David Ansen feel that the film "lurches and starts. a brilliant sequence followed by a clunky one" (8/6/90). Is it also possible that Ansen's ability to follow the continuity of the film is more erratic than its dramatic or musical unfolding.
The subtle points and techniques aren't belabored by Lee in Mo' Better Blues. Racy and humorous ethnic jargon is often used to convey Lee's philosophical and social messages. Even Giant's brief encounter with the club's bouncers (a stereotypically righteous "five percenter" and a thug) contains important cultural information. The thematic use of color, form the use of red in all major transitional points to the extension of Lee's thematic color sin the credits at the end of the film, shows how he seemingly identical or similar circumstances they accompany take on numerous meanings (usually diametrically opposed to each other) in the various dramatic context and transpositions in which they occur. The polar oppositions in the film are a constant source of tension and surprise as well. Bleek's relationship to all the principal characters (Indigo Downes, Giant, Clarke Bentancourt and Shadow Henderson), shifts continually from moments of extreme tension and conflict to various levels of love and camaraderie. The fact that all of the principal characters are happily united at the wedding that takes place near the end of the film affirms that love has been a constant in the film in spite of life's complexities.
As the relationship and action intensifies throughout the film, so does the music, with both the dramatic and musical action culminating at the precise moment when Bleek (Blanchard) unexpectedly plays the hottest solo he has ever played. Most critics reviewing the film failed to recognize that Terence Blanchard's solo, although somewhat brief, is certainly one of the most beautiful, impressive and expressive trumpet solos in the contemporary trumpet repertoire. Ignoring such an important moment in a film about jazz is indeed unfortunate.
In his August 7, 1990 Village Voice article, Gary Giddins tells us that "Lee is the first American filmmaker since Melvin Van Peebles to force a reckoning with black culture that goes beyond the stereotypes of victimhood, and the first since Robert Altman whose work consistently stimulates debate about the proprietorship of America's soul." SO how can writers be so cruel to Spike Lee "after all he's done for you" in exposing a segment of the inner circle of African-American contemporary jazz culture. As Vincent Canby again points out, Mo' Better Blues recalls formula fiction, but with a certain savviness that amounts to vengeance." Lee's understanding of basic problems and concerns facing a "middle-class" African-American jazz musician (and other artists) in today's society adds to the high level of realism that permeates his formula. In creating contemporary art music, "jazz" composers/performers are indeed still working though problems of economic exploitation, ensemble unity , various aspects of group dynamics, in addition to the matters that shape our personal lives. If one doubts the authenticity or validity of cultural factors of the type contained in Spike Lee's new film, wouldn't it seem wise to consult those who are living within the environments that the film bring sin to question? It might be edifying to begin with Bill Lee, Branford Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, Kenny Kirkland (piano), Robert Hurst (bass), or Jeff Watts (drums). You can't get much more real than that.
A photograph in the September 2, 1990 New York Times gives readers an opportunity to decide for themselves if the Flatbush Brothers are "stereotypes" even before seeing the movie. In two articles about Mo' Better Blues and racism in Hollywood, many of the arguments posed by the critics on the blindly defensive side of the cultural awareness line "in the sand" are seriously called into question. Neal Gabler, author of An Empire of One's Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood provides the following point of reference:
The charge of Jewish racism in Hollywood rises from two uncontestable facts: 1) Blacks are virtually unrepresented in the top echelons of production, the so-called glamorous positions of motion picture studios; and 2) Jews are overrepresented there, given the percentage of each group in the general population of the country. What alarms Jewish leaders and executives is the cause and effect drawn between these facts. Or perhaps, more accurately, what terrifies them is that this syllogism might gain enough credence to trigger new anti-Semitism and further damage black-Jewish relations.
It may also cause more
African-American filmmakers, musicians and other artists to create more of their
own community-based, black-staffed, diversified enterprises with Pan African
networks of distribution. There is already a growing number of young African-American
entrepreneurs creating their own independent "40 Acres & a Mule"
type industries like the one Lee is evolving, and they are hoping that their
efforts in this direction won't again be sabotaged by American racism.
Richard Bernstein (in whose article the photograph referred to above occurs)
suggests that "there seems to be a close connection, a kind of synergy,
between artistic matters and the harsh world of the streets, where things seem
to be getting conspicuously worse." Hopefully, however, this will
all have a Spike Lee type of ending, where love and wisdom-through-experience
conquers all, and a truly harmonious society will replace both the bigoted "melting
pot" and American tribalism. As with some of the more enlightened
journalism on the Persian Gulf ruckus, it is encouraging to see that writers
don't appear to be buying into this negatively deceptive nonsense being hurled
at Mo' Better Blues, and that the perceptions of all the people
in our pluralistic society are not still merely divided along lines of ethnicity.
(c) Karlton E. Hester, Ph.D. - 1999
Back to Top
of Global African Music