Lee takes Perry to task by following his formula of healing and redemption through religious faith. Throughout the film Enoch insists that his grandson “needs Jesus.” In one of many lengthy church scenes, Enoch tries to get Flik to give his life to Jesus by stating, “There’s somebody in this holy sanctuary who needs Jesus.” After repeating the phrase in various forms, we see one of Enoch’s eye’s open and look directly at Flik. By this point it is clear just who that someone is. This religious tug of war between Enoch and his grandson continues throughout.
Then about a third of the way through, when its formulaic structure and less than stellar acting have bred boredom, Lee not only disrupts but mocks this message. When Enoch’s proverbial demons come out the closet the viewer is forced to rethink the preceding sixty or so minutes of flatness. If we think of Red Hook as a parody of any one of Tyler Perry’s or T.D. Jake’s films then, suddenly, the sensationalism, heavy-handed messages, simplistic character portrayals, low-budget look of the film, and mediocre acting begin to work in an interesting way.
Layered upon Lee’s seemingly satirical rendering of Perry’s filmic themes and aesthetic is a strong engagement with the post-soul culture which we see throughout the body of his work. By post-soul, I mean Lee’s creation of a distinct tradition within the tradition that addresses the intersections of class, religious, generational, and racial identification in post-Civil Rights black America, an aesthetic he tackles explicitly in films like Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever.
In Red Hook, Lee maintains his post-soul agenda while taking a dig at some of the most popular aesthetic values of the moment. While Perry and Lee are concerned with similar topics (religion, class, generational rifts), Lee’s main point of contention seems to be with Perry’s reaching back into the shaming and muddied waters of minstrelsy, reviving the black mammy, jezebel, and preacher types in various ways.
The film’s insistence on complicating the tradition and how it is used in the black community could be interpreted as direct commentary on what Lee and others have found offensive about Perry’s films. As a symbol of post-soul culture, Flik is openly atheist and disconnected from the tradition of the black church. He sees the world not through religion but through the lens of technology; his iPad serves as his means to record and interact with his environment. Enoch, however, uses the tradition of the black church as a veil to hide behind.
What Flik and Enoch do have in common is a desired sense of freedom. In order to achieve this, both characters must learn to navigate the circumstances of their past and present. By the end of the film, Lee makes it abundantly clear that, for those seeking redemption, the church is not the answer.
BCP: Your poetry is very personal. Was it, or is it, hard to go to those personal places in your mind and heart? For example, your poem “Do The Right Thing” is powerful and sad. Being told, “you ain’t even Black” by Spike Lee, one of the most influential Black directors of our time, must have been horrible. When reading it I felt its last line deeply: “the missed free throw feeling in my chest.”
AM: Thanks for your words about the poem. You’re absolutely right; some of the poems in Mixology are very personal. “Do The Right Thing,” in particular is open about its intention in a way that some of the other poems (“Language Mixology” or “This Be The Verse,” for example) are not.
Because the poem is so personal, I almost took it out of the book. I’m not comfortable sharing information in that way because I’m not really big on the “this really happened” aspect of poetry. It works for other poets, but it feels like a limitation to me.
The thing is, I don’t think the truth (in the “this really happened” sense) should get in the way of a good poem. The poems should be emotionally honest and true to the poet’s intent, but there are different kinds of truth, if you see what I mean. I’m not adverse to embellishing a moment to write a better poem. But in the case of Do The Right Thing—meeting Spike Lee and having my authenticity questioned all at the same moment—no embellishment was needed.
BCP: As a mixed-race person I really appreciated references to skin politics throughout the collection. Can you explain what you mean when writing in Colloquialism “Bad to be black, worse to be a mixed indetermination”?
AM: I’m sure you have probably experienced a version of what inspired that line. Some mixed-race people have the rare ability to be whatever “other” is out of racial fashion at the time. When I was kid in Southern California, there was (and still is) tension between the Latinos and whites. Through the lens of that tension, everyone thought I was Mexican. When I moved to Indianapolis, issues of race revolved around black and white, so I was seen as being black. After 9/11 I was magically mistaken for Middle Eastern wherever I went. For a couple years after 9/11, I could count on being taken out of the security line at the airport for an enhanced search.
The thing is, I have identified as black my entire life. I don’t recall ever having conflict or confusion about it. In the last 10 years or so, I’ve given a different kind of consideration to what it means to be mixed race. It’s much more complicated than my original “I’m black” manifesto might have suggested.
In the part of Texas where Colloquialism is set, there is a whole different template for race. Latino Texans and white Texans live together uneasily but are acutely aware of each other. So the white Texans and the Latino Texans both knew I wasn’t Latino, but neither could tell what I am. There was something very dangerous in that ambiguity. Especially since everyone in Texas seems to have a gun.
You could just like Lin from a merely human point of view: sports fan or not, his replays are things of beauty. But for Asian America, Lin is a stratospheric star because he is Taiwanese-American: one of their own. Sports in general are deeply racially coded. Both Tiger Woods’s rise and fall were recorded with racialised commentary that was often cringe-worthy. When he was still playing college basketball for Harvard, Lin himself said in 2008: “I hear everything: ‘Go back to China. Orchestra is on the other side of campus. Open up your eyes’ … I’m an easy target because I’m Asian. Sometimes it makes me uncomfortable, but it’s part of the game.” From Jack Johnson, Jackie Robinson and Yao Ming, athletes who stand out because of their ethnicity become inadvertent racial litmus tests: cultural reactions to them reveal a cross-section of attitudes around race and racism, at any given point in time. At the turn of the last century, white boxing champions refused to fight black boxer Jack Johnson until 1910. When [Johnson] finally fought and beat the white champion, a spate of lynchings broke out.
The good news is that things have improved vastly since [Johnson]’s time – though we haven’t hit that shadowy post-racial era yet, as evidenced by Twitter, that other cross-section of racial progress. On Monday, undefeated boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr tweeted: “Jeremy Lin is a good player but all the hype is because he’s Asian. Black players do what he does every night and don’t get the same praise.” On Friday, sportswriter Jason Whitlock took to Twitter to speculate on the size of Lin’s penis – invoking a long and ugly history of jokes that take Asian men’s sexuality as their punchline. Spike Lee, who might be Lin’s biggest celebrity fan, has been using Twitter to find nicknames for Lin. In response to possible contenders like “CHING-A-LIN CHING-A-LIN,” the ever-eloquent Lee said: “NO. NO. NO.”
Racialicious alum Thea Lim rocks the Guardian’s Comment Is Free post with this appreciation of Jeremy Lin.
(May I take this moment to say I think Lin’s a cutie?
What? Y’all know my former job title at the R, so this comment shouldn’t even shock you.)