Spike Lee's Italian Obsession

January 24, 2011

African-American filmmaker Spike Lee seems to really have it in for Italians. The question is why? For starters, he grew up in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn in the 1960s and 70s, a predominantly Italian neighborhood where his was the only black family in town. Then in the 1980s, there was a string of racially motivated attacks in other New York Italian neighborhoods (though not all of the assailants were Italian) in which three black people were killed: Willie Turks, Michael Griffith and Yusef Hawkins.

Lee dealt directly with these incidents in his 1989 movie Do the Right Thing, but he took it a step farther by injecting Afrocentric pseudohistory and pseudoscience directed at Italian heritage and ancestry. Since then, he seems to have been trying to "get back" at Italians in many of his films, stereotyping them as dumb bigoted degenerates, and even showing hostility with his latest effort, Miracle at St. Anna, whose story is far removed from the racism of NYC Italian neighborhoods.

Italian-American groups are finally getting fed up and have begun calling him out on it. I don't agree with their protest against his public appearance. He has the right to deal with racism in his movies and portray whatever kinds of characters he wants, even to the point of distortion and obsession. What I take issue with is the argument he uses to defend himself and justify his actions:

During his speech, Lee read racist quotations from movies made by Italian-American directors such as The Godfather, Goodfellas, Casino and Saturday Night Fever — many which used the N-word. These films, Lee said, portrayed stereotypes or used racial slurs against African Americans. [...] Lee asked why it was acceptable for these Italian-American directors to have their characters portray race and racism in America while he is criticized for doing so.

That's a false analogy. Blacks barely figure in those movies at all, and the filmmakers don't stereotype them or have any anti-black, pro-Italian agenda. They merely include a few racist Italian characters, which means their criticism, like Lee's, is directed at Italians. They're acknowledging Italian racism, beating him to the punch by almost twenty years. The only difference is that those movies are actually good because the characterizations are much more subtle, whereas he hits you over the head with it.

Lee complains about "a double-standard being used against him", but he has that backwards. The simple fact is, Italian filmmakers would never be able to get away with doing to blacks what he does to Italians, and that's the only double standard here:

Italian American advocates are also justified in pointing out a double standard when it comes to the stereotyping of Italian Americans and other groups, particularly racial minorities, who have far greater purchase on the sympathies of good liberal people than do Italians. As The New York Times' Clyde Haberman observed, had a white director portrayed black residents of Harlem as drug- and sex-crazed louts and gangsters — which is exactly how Spike Lee depicted a working-class Italian American community in his egregious Summer of Sam — the outrage would have been immediate and unequivocal.

George De Stefano. An Offer We Can't Refuse: The Mafia in the Mind of America. New York: Faber & Faber, Inc., 2007.


Anonymous said...

Great article. Well-thought-out, well-reasoned. Again, you show that reason and logic can prevail, in a world of pseudo-science and false popular-culture theories.

Crimson Guard said...

Clint Eastwood back in 2008 told Spike Lee off for his afroncentric bs and revisionism:


Greg @ ItalianAware said...

So, let me get this straight- when I write about Italian stereotypes in the media (including this exact one), its (quoting you) "whining about stupid things." But when you do it, its legitimate? You're a hypocrite, Italianthro.

Italianthro said...

No Greg, your article is your usual whining about "evil stereotypes of Italians in the media", accompanied by your usual thinly veiled appeal for censorship. My article is an explanation of why Spike Lee stereotypes Italians (which you didn't know) and a refutation of his ludicrous defense (which you completely missed the boat on). There's really no comparison between the two, and thus no hypocrisy on my part.

Anonymous said...

Firstly, his comment that Saturday Night Fever was directed by an Italian-American is wrong. John Badham is a British-American director who was raised in Alabama and schooled at Yale. Saturday Night Fever was written by Norman Wexler based on a magazine article written by Nik Cohn.

Secondly, Good article! Thanks for putting it together, it gave me a different perspective on S.Lee's movies. I can only think of two movies that were good, the rest are badly shot, edited and storylines do not work as well as they should.

Anti-Choco Conspiracy!

louise said...

If Europeans were different, why should an Italian actor work as a son of a German couple, obviously in a German soap opera: Furstenhof Sturm? He's not even blond.
And what is the difference among the German actors of Furstenhof Sturm, the English actors of Emmerdale and the Italian actors of Centovetrine?
Spike Lee is just another idiot with a huge sense of inferiority.

sfthomas said...

Iam black, think Spike Lee has has a big mouth but in this case he is right. I lived in New York City for many years and Italian's are by far the most racist. In skilled trades, they work hard to keep blacks out.
Irish and Jews are cool, if they dont like you its usally personal.

carl netus said...

if the "paisanos" had been more respectful and compassionate towards their black brothers,none of this would've happened.they murdered yusef hawkins and blatantly shown no remorse(they even spitting at his father).you guys have given spike ammunition for his movies by being so damn racists.how would you feel if italian dude got beaten to death and get shot by blacks in the streets of harlem!?

AD Powell said...

Spike Lee's obvious racial inferiority complex means that the worse thing he can call an alleged "enemy" is "black" or part-black. That is why, in "Do the Right Thing." he takes great pains (through his character Mookie)to claim Italians as a race of mulattoes. It is no accident that, in "Jungle Fever," the mistress of the Wesley Snipes character is Italian and the white-mulatto wife of the same character could easily pass for Italian. Lee's film "School Daze" is one constant whine about mulatto elites looking down (understandably) on blacks.

Spike Lee wants to be white. He will never be white himself, so he tries to drag other people down into blackness to share his misery.

amgor863 said...

Good post. I've had to deal with a lot of "friends" who have given me the Italian racist lecture (I'm half italian-american). None of them are intelligent enough to understand one simple truth-- Bigotry and racism is not limited to one "ethnic group". I've met racists of all colors, creeds and nationalities. Any one who thinks Italian Americans are the worst racists have obviously never experienced life outside of their little worlds. Believe me it is definitely not limited or any worse among Italians. In fact, I've met far worst racists whose backgrounds were Irish, Jewish, hispanic, asian, southern, midwestern, european (yes, the so called opened minded euros can indeed be very close minded. I know because I lived in europe.)You get the picture. Anyone who thinks it is limited is very naive. PS-- My brother who was raised by a single, Italian American parent in a predominately african american housing project, grew up to become a social worker in the south. He went down there in the early 70s. PSS-- Someone mentioned that Italians wouldn't like it if african americans beat and murdered one of them. Actually my father (who wasn't Italian) was beaten very badly in Harlem. He had his entire paycheck in cash in his pocket. It was untouched. It was several of his co workers (also African Americans) who saved his life. Explain that one...