Every once in a while, a film comes along that so blatantly disregards emotional authenticity that one fears for the sanity of its director. Can he actually believe that people talk this way? Act this way? Do these things? Worse, can he think he has made a coherent and feeling piece of art?
She Hate Me is just such a film, and Spike Lee is its director and co-writer. Artless, sensationalized, didactic, and often downright silly, it tries to be about corporate corruption and lesbian parenting but succeeds only in creating a puppet show of absurdities. The film strings one stereotype after another, contriving a series of tabloid conflicts in the service of blatant, bullying condemnations of easy targets. In a word: Yuck.
John Henry "Jack" Armstrong is a VP at Progeia, a pharmaceutical company developing an AIDS vaccine. When the vaccine is denied FDA approval, the stock plummets. Meanwhile, Jack learns of corrupt accounting practices, blows the whistle, and is targeted with a smear campaign. For some reason, his bosses are able to freeze his personal bank account and he loses access to his money. That's precisely when his ex-girlfriend Fatima (Kerry Washington) and her new girlfriend Alex (Dania Ramirez) show up, offering $5,000 apiece for his sperm. They both want to get pregnant immediately; in fact, they're ovulating at this very moment.
Thus begins Jack's new career: impregnating lesbians at $10,000 a pop. Because donating sperm would make too much sense, and because Spike Lee is only too happy to play out lascivious scenes of straight-male wish fulfillment, Jack has sex with all of them -- lesbians, many of whom claim never to have had sex with a man before. Shockingly (because no man has ever had this fantasy before), by the end of the film, the previously man-averse Alex has decided that Jack is all that, and she's willing not only to allow Fatima to kiss (and who knows what else) him in her presence but to kiss (and who knows what else) him herself. Thus Jack ends up with two women and nineteen children, but not before spending the better part of two and a half hours delivering tone-deaf speeches about male-female relations while fending off the attacks of his former employer.
The best thing -- really, the only good thing -- about this film is the opening credits, featuring artful, sweeping close-ups of undulating cash, backed by a jazzy score courtesy of Terrence Blanchard. This may be the most loving portrayal of money in movie history, a truly luscious tribute to its graphic intricacies. Of course, it's all in the service of ironizing our worship of cash; we laugh as the camera seduces the money, undresses it, and takes it to bed. Unfortunately, Lee can't leave well enough alone: he has to end on a shot of a $3 bill, featuring George W. and the Enron logo, in case we couldn't grasp that the movie has something to say about corruption. Three minutes in, and Lee is already telling us exactly what to think. Surely he could have waited a little longer?
Lee also tells his critics how to read the film. At one point, Jack expresses concern over how his rampant daddying will affect public perceptions of black people. His friend assures him that nobody would be stupid enough to hold a single person responsible for representing his entire race. Presumably, this assertion is designed to prevent the reviewer from crying racism, or at least stereotype; each character is supposed to represent only herself, not her race. This is a fair argument -- for films that have real characters, people whose thoughts and feelings are explored and revealed over time. But She Hate Me doesn't have characters. It has stereotypes or, to be slightly more generous, facades -- characters drawn by nothing other than a couple of hackneyed details, or by the labels affixed to them by other characters. Its lesbians are calculating, manipulative, sperm-hungry bitches who show no sensitivity to anyone, not even each other. The portrayal of the Asian lesbian -- a thickly accented, blunt-haired beauty who eats chicken feet and constantly refers to chi -- is racist, but oops! Apparently, one would be stupid to assume that she was meant to stand in for an entire culture.
But perhaps She Hate Me is most egregious in its failure to examine its protagonist, John Henry Armstrong. Again, Lee overplays his hand, using not one but two references to strength (and one to musicality) in his character's name; clearly, he wants to say that Jack is robust. But saying that Jack is strong and portraying his strength are two different things, and Lee fails at the latter. Save for his single effort toward whistle-blowing, Jack does nothing remotely respectable until the end of the film, when he starts waking up to his responsibilities in life. By then, it's far too late to rescue him.
Drama says what it has to say -- about people, about the world -- through characters and action. The audience is meant to draw conclusions and form opinions from the scenes played out in front of them. But here, Spike Lee has no patience for drama; he can't leave the audience alone for even a moment. Instead, he exposes his agenda with bullying attempts at persuasion, sensationalized portrayals of tabloid issues, and outright grandstanding. It's as though film is his bully pulpit, rather than an artistic medium.
Worse, Lee attempts to lasso too many issues into a single film -- corporate greed and malfeasance, whistle-blowing, AIDS, sexuality, racism, lesbian parenting, pharmacology, filial piety, etc. When the Mafia enters the picture, the scales tip into farce. Sanity has left the building.
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