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Spike Lee, Jay-Z and Black Culture
Often, the leading figures in black cultural history are those that have played a direct role in the struggles for freedom, Civil Rights and equality. This certainly speaks to the inextricable link between African-American identity and a long history of oppression. However, it would be remiss to overlook the incredible contributions made to black cultural identity by those who have most visibility optimized the freedoms for which their predecessors fought. Indeed, so much remarkable artistic expression has been made possible by these struggles and has itself become a defining aspect of black culture. In virtually every media, black artists have had a defining role not just on their respective crafts but indeed on black culture and identity as a whole. This discussion demonstrates such an assertion in its discussion on two prominent modern figures in black culture, the film director Spike Lee and the music impresario Jay-Z. The discussion demonstrates that in many ways, both are figures that have used their considerable talent and influence to force Americans black and white to examine the conditions of black culture and the historical patterns that created them.
As the discussion here will show, there is a clear distinction between Spike Lee's hyperconscious meditation on modern black culture and Jay-Z's inherent impact by virtue of his status and visibility. However, their respective artistic bodies of work are quite similar in the impact they've levied over black identity today. Certainly, in the case of Spike Lee, this impact would be quite intentional. As a director, producer and documentarian, Spike Lee has utilized the good will generate by a career of acclaim to invoke frank discussion on the issues of racism that remain prevalent in American culture. Beginning his career in the early '80s with several student film successes, Spike Lee would make his first and most indelible mark on black culture with 1989's Do the Right Thing. Contextualizing a cast of black, white, Hispanic and Korean residents of the infamously rough Bedford-Stuyvessant section of Brooklyn on the hottest day of the summer, Lee's film would unflinchingly portray the racial tensions inherent to urban life. Do the Right Thing captures the moment at which these tensions spill over into violence and, in doing so, would give a racially diverse audience a permanent visual impression of an experience familiar to many inner-city inhabitants.
According to Willis (2011), Lee would generate ample acclaim for this film's accomplishment, parlaying his success into a sustained career which has allowed him to explore similar themes from a host of perspectives. Willis asserts that the impact has been to raise an actionable awareness amongst young African-Americans regarding their opportunity to help improve the lot of black America as a whole. As Wills notes of Lee, "his work has politicized generations of Black people and set a high aesthetic bar for both filmmakers and students of all backgrounds. While his movies do rely on Black popular political consciousness, his unconventional approach to storytelling, the emotional intensity of his work, his consistent yet subtle engagement with the history of film and his aesthetic sensibilities often challenge the emotional and artistic range of the viewer." (Willis, p. 1)
And of particular importance is the fact that Lee has typically challenged this range by looking through the lens of racial oppression as a way of explaining certain traits of modern urban black culture. Indeed, Lee's portrayals often contain stark exhibits of drug use, gang-related activity, violence, overt sexuality and a host of other elements which suggest a certain critical scrutiny of black culture itself. However, never absent from such portrayals is the consideration of context, which suggests that these negative attributes are derived from an inherently racist and unequal environment. As the text by Willis indicates, these portrayals find Lee casting a critical eye on all parties involved, using base and frank demonstrations in order to promote the elevation of our shared racial dialogue. In doing so, Lee has also retained a career orientation that is shows a genuine dedication to fully exploring the matter of black cultural identity in its fullest capacity. As Willis observes, Lee has shown a steady willingness "to participate in public discussions and be in dialogue about race, politics, and art confirm openness to critical engagement and a concern about more than simply his financial bottom line. He also pushes against standard cultural beliefs and beyond our comfort zone in order to generate discussion." (Willis, p. 1)
This is particularly important because for many participants in the racial discourse, there is a certain discomfort in acknowledging the inequalities that still remain in our society. From Lee's perspective, even with the elimination of slavery, the demolition of Jim Crow and the creation of affirmative action, the vestiges of a historically persistent inequality remain, even if they are often obscured or unacknowledged. This primary influence the Lee has had on black culture has been to force obscured inequalities out into the light of day and to demand acknowledgement of those inconsistencies that remain in play. Perhaps nowhere would this be done more forcefully than in Lee's insightful documentary work. If a criticism may be levied against his film work, it is that Lee often trades insight and nuance for blunt explication of his message. While that has led to some repetition and staleness in the formula of his later film work, it has proven a perfect vantage from which to launch his documentary career. Here within, the most important of his works is surely the epic four-part masterpiece, When the Levees Broke. The 2006 documentary used a compilation of interviews, artistic performances, photographs and footage in order to tell the complete and often overlooked narrative of Hurricane Katrina's impact on New Orleans.
The documentary would channel the fury of Spike Lee's films into a catalyzing event worthy of our collective outrage. In this instance, with an apparent racism underlying America's failure to act effectively on behalf of the drowning city, Lee's message is given an emotional weight perhaps more compelling than his individual character studies. And the result is an impact of African-American culture that gives cause to the otherwise general sense of anger permeating such works as Do the Right Thing.
Perhaps more important than the critical effectiveness of his film and documentary work though is the very fact that Lee has attained so great a level of visibility while creating work that attempts to honestly display the black experience in America. Such is to say that Lee's most lasting contribution has been to answer to a general shortage of cinematic content offering relatable and realistic demonstrations of the black experience. Stone (1995) would report during Lee's prime era as a film director that "Lee believes that Black audiences are starving for Black films -- films made by Blacks for Blacks. His premise is certainly correct in the sense that African-Americans have rarely had the opportunity to see films in which the larger than life hero and heroine are Black. For almost a century, in the medium that more than any other has constituted the images of modern consciousness, Blacks have watched the members of their race presented in demeaning and humiliating roles that reinforce racist stereotypes." (Stone, p. 1)
In his films, his documentaries and the public persona that he has commanded, Lee has actively worked to create works that elucidating the black experience through film rather than those which obscured it through stereotyping. In doing so, he would help to improve the visibility of the black experience in ways that might help bring awareness to white audiences and empathy to black audiences. In this regard, Lee would work very intentionally to influence black culture in America. By contrast, the man born Shawn Carter would levy his influence over black culture simply by virtue of his accomplishments.
In many ways, the influence of the man better known as Jay-Z is rife with many of the ironies encapsulating African-American fame. Rap music and rap musicians have often been subject to criticism for what is seen as a selfish materialism and artistic content endorsing negative values among young listeners, and particularly for encouraging violent, negative stereotypes of young black men. In Jay-Z's music and career, it is indeed possible to make this same accusation, as much of his interest since his ascendance to undisputed status as reigning godfather of the hip-hop world has far removed him from the concerns and pressures facing the black community. At 42 years old, the president and CEO of Def-American and Roc-a-Fella records is widely considered a hip-hop legend. His entrepreneurial status, in addition to his artistic importance have made him an constant subject of consideration in the scrutiny over the relationship between hip-hop and social values. This consideration determines that in large part, the contention should be made that the handsome, imposing and musically aggressive Jay-Z has not devoted significant energy through his work or accomplishments to meaningful social action on behalf of the African-American community or any other determinably…[continue]
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