Spike Lee Might Not Be Homophobic, but His Queer Characters Are Problematic

As a queer woman of color, I have had to put up with a lot of disappointing and lackluster representations of women who love women. I understand that within the community there are lots of different kinds of lesbians, but I believe it's important to call out problems when we see them.
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In the middle of the week, a writer and black gay rights activist known as Anti-Intellect tweeted his opinion about Spike Lee's 1988 film School Daze, which just celebrated its 25th anniversary. Speaking out about his feeling that School Daze is unbalanced and inaccurate, Anti-Intellect tweeted, "Some defend @SpikeLee's homophobia in School Daze saying Blacks were homophobic back then. Maybe so, BUT many Blacks were fighting back." Spike Lee tweeted back, "Not At Morehouse."

Anti-Intellect immediately questioned Lee's justification, tweeting skeptically, "@SpikeLee isn't homophobic (so he says), but homophobia is in School Daze because everyone at Morehouse was homophobic when he attended?" The critically acclaimed and controversial filmmaker then asked the writer whether he had ever seen Lee's 1996 film Get On the Bus and whether he thought it was homophobic. The Twitter spat went on, dissecting the Morehouse College that School Daze was based on and whether or not the film offered a fair portrayal of the homophobia that existed at the Atlanta-based historically black college at the time. The writer ended the conversation by noting that he's a fan of Lee's work and asking rhetorically whether he's allowed to criticize what he loves. Lee ended the conversation by replying that yes, he is, but that this particular criticism wasn't warranted.

I've never attended Morehouse College, so aside from referencing a few news stories that I've read, I can't address how welcoming an environment it offers its gay students, but here I'm not really concerned with the homophobia-at-Morehouse debate. What I'm more concerned with is the fact that Lee tried to bolster his claim that he's not homophobic by pointing to one gay-friendly film that he made. It struck me as similar to non-blacks saying that they're not racist because they have a black friend.

Honestly, I don't think Lee or his films are homophobic. Given that he played a huge role in helping Dee Rees move forward with her breakout film Pariah and has featured queer characters in several of his films, including She's Gotta Have It, She Hate Me and Get On the Bus, I think he's possibly an ally and has definitely played a role in giving visibility to lesbian, bisexual and gay people. But as a fan of Lee's work, I must point out that a lot of his queer characters are very problematic. (I also think that Lee's notions about women are misconstrued and problematic, but that's a whole other blog post.)

For instance, in She's Gotta Have It, which tells the story of Nola Darling, a young, free, non-monogamous serial dater, the lesbian character, Opal, is portrayed as aggressive, predatory, thirsty, persuasive and dismissive. When I initially watched the film, I was just excited to see a black lesbian character in a film that was released in 1986. After giving it more thought, though, I couldn't help but think about how stereotypical and problematic her portrayal is. A lot of people tend to believe that lesbians are just man-hating, girlfriend-stealing, desperate women who can't wait to perform cunnilingus on every woman walking by them. Opal seems to fit that bill.

Eighteen years later Lee released She Hate Me, starring Anthony Mackie, Kerry Washington and Dania Ramirez. The film features Washington's and Ramirez's characters in a very complex lesbian relationship that ends up including Mackie's character. I don't even want to touch on the farfetched storyline of Mackie's character becoming a lesbian-pumping, baby-making machine (the entire film is nothing short of bizarre); what kills me the most is that Lee couldn't depict a healthy and happy lesbian relationship without a man's penis in the picture.

As a queer woman of color, I have had to put up with a lot of disappointing and lackluster representations of women who love women. I understand that within the community there are lots of different kinds of lesbians, but I believe it's important to call out problems when we see them, even if we're calling out our heroes or those who have done well in offering other kinds of authentic representations. That's how we learn from each other and hopefully grow as a society. The more we educate one another about what it means to live our specific and complex lives, the more we begin to break down barriers and understand one another. I believe that it is important for us to tell our own stories. It's wonderful to have allies and people who support our community and causes, but if they're only walking beside us and not with us, they can never accurately tell our stories.

Like Anti-Intellect, I'm a huge fan of Spike Lee's work. I don't think any filmmaker has been as unapologetic about documenting racism and race relations and the plight of African Americans or executed it so well across so many different genres. I also believe that Lee doesn't get the credit that he deserves. He's done a fine job of documenting a huge part of an important period in American history. But no matter how great you are, there's always room for criticism.

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