Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. For March, we celebrate the birthday (and the decades-long filmography) of one of America’s most pioneering Black filmmakers, Spike Lee. Read the rest of our coverage here.
In any prolific filmmaker’s oeuvre, there are bound to be peaks and valleys. That’s just the law of diminishing returns: the more films a director makes, the more likely there are to be a few turkeys in the flock. Every auteur has at least one total embarrassment to their name: Otto Preminger made the unholy flop Skidoo, Michelangelo Antonioni subjected audiences to Zabriskie Point, while Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York may be the best unwitting anti-cocaine PSA of all time.
However, for all of these films’ head-scratching, intelligence-insulting, audience-enraging decisions, at least they can all say that they didn’t feature a bunch of animated sperm sporting their lead character’s face floating down an animated birth canal. That distinction belongs to one of the most baffling, frustrating, and downright unfortunate films ever made by a great director — Spike Lee’s 2004 joint, She Hate Me. And here’s the thing: those animated sperm are among the least of the film’s problems.
She Hate Me is the type of unmitigated cinematic disaster one struggles to even begin to explain. Lee throws everything at the screen here, including the kitchen sink, the oven, the air conditioner, the neighbor’s kitchen sink. Yet throughout the whole barrage you find yourself continually shocked by the new things he keeps finding to throw at you.
To be fair, Lee has never been known for subtlety; we’re talking about a guy who named his production company 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks after all, he’d much rather play provocateur. However, prior to this film, Lee had always been good at staying on point with his provocations. They had a clear-cut message. Lee seems to have no idea what he’s trying to get across, instead opting for a frustrated, omnidirectional scream into the void that was the end of George W. Bush’s first term.
Speaking of our 43rd president, She Hate Me begins with the image of his face on a new $3 bill. Why? Why not?! We are then introduced to our protagonist, John Henry “Jack” Armstrong (Anthony Mackie). Jack is having a rough go of things: his climb up the corporate ladder at a biotechnology firm has been interrupted. Upon learning that he plans to become a whistleblower about the company’s shady dealings in developing a cure for AIDS, his superiors (Woody Harrelson and Ellen Barkin) frame him for securities fraud. Jack loses his job, and his assets are frozen. What’s a young black man with a bad case of the American dream to do?
In what will be the first of many instances of narrative whiplash Lee subjects us to, Jack’s ex-fianceé, Fatima (Kerry Washington) enters the picture, with her girlfriend Alex (Dania Ramirez) in tow. Turns out, they want to have a baby, and for reasons too stupid to get into, instead of going the in vitro route, they’ve decided they want to pay Jack $10,000 to impregnate both of them via some good ol’ fashioned boot-knocking.
Lee seems to have no idea what he’s trying to get across.
Wait, you’re probably saying to yourself, I thought that this was a corporate espionage drama? Well, now it is also a broad sex farce. Why? Again, why not?! Jack resists this offer at first, but eventually relents, under the burden of financial strain. This is where we get those aforementioned cartoon sperm, each of which features Jack’s goofy, smiling face. Before long, Fatima essentially becomes Jack’s pimp, turning him loose on all of her lesbian friends who coincidentally also want to get pregnant, but also don’t want to turn to modern medical science for different but always equally stupid reasons. At $10,000 a pop, Jack eventually knocks up nearly twenty (!!!) different lesbians, sometimes as many as six or seven in one night, and always on the first try.
This is where we must pause to ask a very important question: does Spike Lee understand what a lesbian is? Does he not realize that, for women who identify as lesbians, sex with a man is, shall we say, kind of a dealbreaker? Perhaps he is trying to turn the objectification of women on its head: Jack often strips for his clients, who woo and scream and goad him on, even commenting on the size of his member. Or perhaps Lee is commenting on the hoary old stereotype of the black male’s alleged potent sexual virility.
Problem is, this all falls apart when you bring in the lesbian factor. If these were straight women ogling Jack and using him as a mere sperm bank, then that would be one thing, but making these women lesbians feels nonsensical at best, and reductive at worst. Lee gives us two different sex scenes between Fatima and Alex, each shot with plenty of the male gaze to spare, and the complicated dynamic that develops between the three of them seems to give in to the hoary old cliché that gay women just haven’t found the right man to really fuck them the way they want to be fucked. That was already an offensive stereotype in 2004; hell, it was an offensive stereotype in any year.
For any movie, either of these narratives – the corporate espionage drama and the broad sex farce — would take a delicate balancing act to pull off on their own. In She Hate Me, these are just the first two acts of the film. In the third act, Lee goes completely off the rails.
First, there’s the lesbian daughter of a mob boss (Monica Bellucci) whom Jack impregnates for nebulous reasons about family and honor and shit, only to have to deal with the wrath of said mob boss (John Turturro) in an excruciatingly long extended scene that also serves as a deeply unfunny parody of/homage to The Godfather. Then, there’s the subplot about Jack’s relationship with his morally imposing father (Jim Brown).
After that, it’s off to Washington D.C. for a Senate hearing, in which Jack is questioned by a United States Senator (Brian Dennehy) about not just his securities fraud, but his boutique lesbian impregnation business, and his dealings with “the Bonasera crime family,” as if Lee thought that this was how he could convince us that all of these things are somehow connected in any meaningful, sensical way.
Then there’s also the ongoing plot strand comparing Jack to Frank Wills (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the real-life security guard at the Watergate hotel who reported the break-in, only to have his reputation tarnished and die in abject poverty. That’s a thing too. Why? Why no…well, you get it by now.
This all falls apart when you bring in the lesbian factor.
Oh, and did I mention that She Hate Me clocks in with a run time of nearly two and a half hours? It is the cinematic equivalent of ordering the “special omelet” at a greasy spoon, only to find that it’s stuffed to the brim with cheese and mushrooms and ham and chorizo and peppers and olives and chicken nuggets and foie gras and fettuccine alfredo and Count Chocula and a bunch of cartoon Anthony Mackie sperms. No one asked for any of this.
The fact of the matter is, Lee has said all he has to say here in previous films, and in more artful, concise ways. Wanna hear his thoughts on how corporate America will steal a black folk’s soul? Check out the criminally underrated Bamboozled, which was recently granted the Criterion treatment.
Curious to see his take on evolving sexual mores? She’s Gotta Have It and Jungle Fever each have their own issues, but neither leave you feeling as baffled or as icky as this film does. That was certainly the reaction to She Hate Me upon its release back in 2004: it flopped at the box office, and critics mostly savaged it. Even Roger Ebert’s positive review reads as if he’s trying to convince himself to like the film in real time and failing to do so.
Perhaps the most notable aspect of She Hate Me is its status as an aberration in Lee’s filmography up until that point. He had made films that were praised and films that were quietly shrugged off, but never had he made one in which the world responded with a resounding “HELL NO.”
In fact, this film is sandwiched, like some rotten lunch meat, in between what are arguably two of his most well-received films of the 21st century, at least until BlackKklansman: the wounded, kaleidoscopic look at post-9/11 New York that is 25th Hour, and the bank heist thriller turned financial inequality broadside of Inside Man. This only makes the shocking misfire that is She Hate Me as inexplicable as the film itself. Why don’t we take a cue from Lee and just blame it all on George W. Bush?