Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Diversity on TCM: Spike Lee

Thank you, Turner Classic Movies, for recently presenting Oscar-nominated filmmaker Spike Lee as a guest programmer with host Robert Osborne.  Seeing the renowned African-American director/writer/actor/producer introduce four of his favorite classic films was so significant for young minority viewers, future filmmakers and for the future appreciation of classic films.  It was welcomed and refreshing racial diversity.  We got new information too.  I loved hearing how Spike Lee was influenced by director/writer Billy Wilder and how a shot in Wilder's Ace in the Hole (formerly titled The Big Carnival) was referenced in his major 1992 release.  I also loved hearing how he got the legendary director and its star, Kirk Douglas, to autograph his souvenir poster of that film.
Here's how TCM again scored points in racial diversity:  Rarely do we see black people on TV talking about classic films even though millions of us do love classic films.  Remember when AMC was American Movie Classics and had hosts?  Except for Whoopi Goldberg in a guest host spot, none of the hosts was black.  All the hosts were white.  When AMC, in the last few years of its previous format, was auditioning for new hosts, I could not get an audition to save my life.  And this was after I had a VH1 celebrity talk show to my credit -- a show on which I'd had actors Kirk Douglas, Don Ameche, Debbie Reynolds, Shirley MacLaine, Michael Caine and Fay Wray as guests. They were in some of the movies shown on AMC.  On the network morning shows and film review programs, you did not see a black people as the weekly film critics.  Gene Shalit, Gene Siskel, Joel Siegel, Siskel & Ebert on their syndicated show, Jeffrey Lyons, Richard Roeper, Leonard Maltin, Ben Mankiewicz & Ben Lyons (son of Jeffrey Lyons), Christy Lemire, David Edelstein on CBS' Sunday Morning, even Kathie Lee Gifford's son, Cody, for a summer on NBC's Today show -- that list covers four decades of a non-racially mixed group.  We black folks do not see reflections of ourselves in that group.  Think about this.  What if Olympics coverage had no women doing sports commentary?  What if a pop music talent competition show like American Idol or The Voice never had a black judge?  Would viewers complain "Are you saying that black folks don't know anything about pop music?"  We occasionally see Elvis Mitchell, film critic formerly of The New York Times.  But some TV segment producers must think Elvis, an excellent writer, is the only black person who knows movies.  When they need to book a minority, Elvis has become the Touré of film talk. Trust me, there are many black movie critics in New York City.  I've seen them, chatted with them and sat with them at screenings.  You just don't see them on TV.  In that group of movie critics I listed before Elvis, who got this year's Pulitzer Prize for Film Criticism?  None of them.  The winner was this guy --
Wesley Morris of The Boston Globe.  From my experience, the playing field in the area of movie critics on TV was not a level one.  Just about all of us minorities have hit a "color wall" at some time in the course of our careers.  In my many years of broadcast TV, the thickest color wall I ever had to break through was the one in New York's TV news area so I could review movies like Cody Gifford got the chance to do.  Even though I had critic's TV/radio and print experience before I got to New York, there was always an odd resistance.  I write "odd" because it always disappeared in late January when my news producer bosses would enthusiastically ask me to put together classic film pieces perfect for February's Black History Month segments.  It did make me wonder what message TV news was implying by rarely presenting black people doing upscale film and theatre reviews.  On TCM, Spike Lee presented The Night of the Hunter, the first and only film directed by actor Charles Laughton.  I discovered this film on KTTV local Channel 11 when I was a kid growing up in 1960s South Central L.A.  Before I was in high school, this was a favorite film of mine to see around Christmastime.  It was like a Bible story to me.  It frightened and fascinated me.  In 1989 when I saw the outstanding Do The Right Thing, I thought of Laughton's film when I saw the rings worn by one of Spike's characters.
As Spike told TCM viewers, Radio Raheem's Love Hate bling was inspired by the marked fingers of the preacher man Robert Mitchum brilliantly played in that 1955 classic.
I can assure you that some young black Spike Lee fan who loves Do The Right Thing watched The Night of the Hunter and saw the source of his inspiration.  The door has been opened.  Minority youths watching Spike co-host were also inspired by him to sample the work of Billy Wilder, Elia Kazan, Fellini and Kurosawa.  He mentioned all those directors.  I loved discovering that Laughton's film spoke to Spike the same way it did to me.  It taught me to notice other aspects of a film.  Here, the story and the acting grabbed my attention immediately.  I loved how Laughton realized that childhood is not easy.  It has its horrors.  Horrors that come from grown-ups, the people who order "Do what I tell you to do."  The movie appeals to children the way a storybook fable does.  It's simple, meaningful.  So is the set design.  The preacher is a psychotic killer, a wolf in sheep's clothing.  His weapon/phallic symbol is a switchblade.  I noticed how the lighting and set design made an interior look like the inside of a chapel and the tip of a lethal knife.  Religion and danger, good and evil, in the same image.
This is picked up in the shot on Shelley Winters as the widowed mother who becomes the preacher's new bride.  In one shot of her lying on the bed, a light on her face illuminates her pillow like a halo on a martyred saint, the kind of saint we saw in Catholic school on holy cards.  There's another light, a light that references the tip of the blade.
Those images, that composition were true art to me then and now.  This was the kind of stylized look that earned praise for German silent filmmakers in the 1920s.  Think of Murnau's 1927 classic, Sunrise:  A Song of Two Humans.  I still find of the images in The Night of the Hunter so beautiful that I'd love to have a few of them framed.  Like the stand-off between the evil preacher and the protector of two children, the older lady played superbly by Lillian Gish.  I'd have given her a Best Supporting Actress of 1955 Academy Award nomination for this performance.  The Oscars® ignored this film.
Gish became a Hollywood movie actress in the silent era, several years before films learned how to talk.  She was a top star by 1917 after having appeared in 1915's controversial The Birth of a Nation and 1916's Intolerance.  She was no "Norma Desmond." Gish worked a lot through the years.  Her last starring role was in 1987's The Whales of August with Bette Davis.  When it came to acting without dialogue, she was an artist.  In another scene, the preacher chases after the two children.  When he charges up the cellar stairs, he looks like the monster in James Whale's classics from the 1930s, Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein.  Laughton had a great directorial eye.
The use of light and dark and shadow is so rich in The Night of the Hunter.  Unfortunately, as Lee mentioned with Osborne, most critics were so cold to this tale of good versus evil that their reception broke Laughton's heart and he never directed another film.
Maybe if there had been critics like Spike and me around at that time, Charles Laughton would've had the motivation to make a second movie.  Today, the term "media circus" is used frequently when describing big news story coverage -- like the coverage of the O.J. Simpson murder trial.  Wilder literally gave us a media circus in Ace in the Hole, his film after his classic Sunset Blvd.  Kirk Douglas played the unscrupulous smalltime reporter who exploits a miner trapped in a cave to land a juicy news job in New York City.
Spike said he copied Wilder's final shot of this climatic scene in his 1992 film, Malcolm X. 
Again, a connection was made between popular modern work and a classic film.  Again, the door was opened.  Oscar winner Whoopi Goldberg is the only other black celebrity I can recall who has been a TCM Guest Programmer.  (I'm gonna brag.  I helped TCM book her after I was contacted by one of the channel's producers, Darcy Hettrich, to lend a hand.  I worked with Whoopi on her radio show at the time.  As a movie critic.)  Seeing Spike was also a joy.  A significant joy, I might add.  He showed that the audience of those who studied, were influenced by and can talk about classic films is racially diverse.  That's a vibe we never really got from network news programs.  Thanks, TCM.


  1. Bobby, this is lovely. If I were a producer I'd hire you pronto. You'e knowledgeable, an enthusiast, have a cinegraphic memory and eloquently communicate your enthusiasm.

    A fan.

  2. Thanks Bobby, this was so on point to highlighting that diversity is a GREAT thing & DISCOVERY of and REDISCOVERY of talent,creative energies & ideas by the human race ability that WE all share. I'm very happy that TCM embraced the opportunity to showcase that Spike Lee is indeed a modern day film industry genius. Unfortunately though, "things" get in the way of properly giving everyone EQUAL recognition. I wrote about this a few months back in a lengthy blog entry highlighting that, hypocrisy & duplicity is a sad negative society problem (http://wp.me/s1NQXp-207)when it comes race and equality. Thanks again for nicely writing about DIVERSITY and showing it is a GREAT thing and sharing that fact in a excellent blog entry. Thanks, j o h n

  3. I totally agree and thanks for taking time to comment. Diversity is a great thing. So is the discovery and rediscovery of talent, creative energies and ideas. I was so happy to see Spike Lee present four of his favorite classics on TCM. It was enlightening and educational.


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