Spike Lee: She Hate Me (2004) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
23Mar/150

Spike Lee: She Hate Me (2004)

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John Armstrong works at a pharmaceutical company ready to go live with a revolutionary cure.  When a friendly coworker suddenly commits suicide on the eve of this momentous news, John begins to suspect something is wrong with his company.  After some digging he uncovers a plot to cover up the less than stellar results from the drug test.  Now, without a job, John has to resort to impregnating women at $10,000 each to make ends meet.  Spike Lee directs She Hate Me from a screenplay written by Spike and Michael Genet, starring Anthony Mackie Kerry Washington, and Jim Brown.

Hello dreamsOne thing must be established before we get into talking about She Hate Me - I will never forgive you for this. I forgive Spike Lee, though he's on thin ice for the rest of the 2000s, but I may never forgive you for making the both of us talk in-depth about this baffling gruel of a movie. “She Hate Me?” you could have said, when we came to this point in Lee's filmography, “I don't know what you're talking about. Hate is a strong word, Kyle, let's focus on something like suckers—free suckers, Sucker Free City our next film in the Spike Lee project.” And with that, crisis would have been averted.

All joking aside though, let's get into the film itself—this is a shit movie. I thumbed to the last chapter of Spike's That's My Story and I'm Sticking to It as the credits rolled, desperate for him to explain himself. It's as if he had an idea two distinct stories—one about the tolerance of corporate malfeasance and punishment of whistle-blowing, and another about interrogating gender roles within shifting family structures—then decided to add a troubling male sex fantasy at the center and throw it all in the blender.

The connections to Spike's other films and commonly revisited themes are there: you've got echoes of Jungle Fever in the way John Armstrong (Anthony Mackie) is discarded from his own company by other white executives; likewise John Turturro's cameo as a mob boss with reservations about his daughter having a black man's child; you've got a surface-level desire (and failure) to empower female characters by showing them owning their sexuality; there's a drive to reach back into the past to form connections that help illustrate continued systemic racism in the present.

What was most surprising to me watching She Hate Me was not the “what the hell was Spike thinking?” reaction put forth by most critics—it was how many ideas are swirling around here, ideas that would have made better movies given their own distinct story and focus. But Spike  jumps all over the place—from a bizarre opening wherein a comic-book drug-company-executive German scientist (who wears a lab coat in his goddamn office) throws himself out a window to his death following an obscure conversation embedded with key details to a plot we don't yet know exists, to isolated scenes like the one where Armstrong's father, a now-disabled ex-sports star played by Jim Brown, screams from his crutches up at his estranged wife something along the lines of “woman, I didn't ask to get the diabeetus!”

I don't even know where to start here. The most obvious points would seem to be either the almost hilariously Spike-you-can't-possibly-have-thought-this-was-ok homophobia/sexism cocktail, or the surreal and genuinely hilarious appearance of Richard Nixon halfway through the movie. Pick your poison Andrew.‏

Four more yearsConsidering the way modern politics was shaped by Nixon, and through extension a significant amount of cultural force worldwide, it's fitting I return your opening volley by picking him.  The sequence where Nixon pops into the film in non-stock footage is quite possibly the best in She Hate Me and a sign of what the film could have felt like if Spike went completely insane on one idea.  It starts shortly after Armstrong learns about Anthony Mackie and Spike goes into style overdrive, filming the garage in a green filter with a lot of haze and photosensitivity to brightness causing any bit of light to look like pain.  Considering the "flashback" is really just a vague reconstruction in Armstrong's mind, the style is appropriately over-the-top and the dialogue appropriately straightforward.  I also love the detail that everyone announces exactly who they are and what they'd go on to do except for Nixon, who is just a man in a bad rubber mask saying his co-conspirators were a-ok because, "They're all white...I mean, all right," and yelling "Four more years!" while firing a gun into the ceiling.

We haven't jumped back and forward in Spike's filmography much, but watching Da Sweet Blood of Jesus before my second viewing of She Hate Me helped frame those brief moments of inspiration in a much more positive way.  The flip side of this is my second viewing contained much less of the shock value of my first, and I was put off by the clear lack of focus in its near 140 minute run-time.

You only mentioned two of the plot lines, the corporate malfeasance and shifting gender roles, and one of the sub plots with Armstrong's family.  But there are lingering questions raised by even showing Mackie attending the sparsely populated funeral for his German scientist friend, whose circle includes two women and a priest (a clue to Armstrong's reconciliation of faith with a polyamorous relationship, perhaps?).  Then you have the sudden introduction of the mafia into the film, which by way of Spike's memoir offers a semi-explanation in that it gave American investors something to look at on paper when really it gives Turturro an excuse to act out scenes from The Godfather - which is exactly what Turturro does then promptly exits the plot only to return and cheer Armstrong on at the trial.

Other perplexing details demand not answers so much as bring up further questions on Spike's thought process.  Sometimes there's a touch I like even if the surroundings are terrible, like how Fatima Goodrich (Kerry Washington) had the foresight to make entire packets dedicated to a sperm business Armstrong hadn't even agreed to when he's confronted with a group of moneyed lesbians who want to get pregnant.  Then this is balanced by something terrible, such as the image of the "modern professional woman" Fatima in thong lingerie as she presents legal documents to the rightfully bewildered Armstrong.  Even then this spirals to further madness when Fatima's girlfriend, Alex (Dania Ramirez), comes in and takes a bewilderingly long time to make the connection that Fatima plans on having actual sex with Armstrong when Fatima's standing there in her sheer best.

This may be a terrible game of connect the dots we're about to play, but let's do our best to connect all of this together.  For sheer masochistic glee, if nothing else.‏We can't believe this eitherTiny Kyle CommentaryI'd argue the Nixon/Watergate break-in flashback is a moment of ideological salience in a movie without a clear ideology. It works really well as a contained sketch, and begs the question (which you already implied) of why Spike didn't hone in further on this idea of whistle-blowers being scapegoated as a cultural metaphor. At least the courthouse scenes later in the movie carry through with this idea, however clumsily—these scenes are constructed so that in less than 10 minutes, Armstrong can resolve his legal problems and re-allocate proper blame through one convenient bit of evidence and a valiant speech that ends with “now excuse me, I'm about to become a father,” so my praise is not too strong here.

Note how this plot-thread's resolution is based in pure wishful thinking. The wronged citizen turns the tables on his corporate oppressors through sheer force of virtuous argument. The authorities are duly moved by his speech, and he suffers no negative consequences for “standing up for what's right” in such a contemptuous manner. The corporate malfeasors (and Woody Harrelson is a malfeasor in this movie if ever there was one) are ACTUALLY PUNISHED. Spike makes no attempt to root this part of the story in reality—it's wish fulfillment and it's intended to play that way I think.

This is telling when you move to the second major plot thread—Anderson's relationship to his ex-wife and her partner. I don't know that I can connect the thematic dots here, but it's not hard to trace a line from the wish fulfillment of one story to the other. Initially Spike positions the narrative importance of Anderson and Goodrich's relationship—revived, again initially, in new non-romantic circumstances—in terms of Anderson's need to change. His struggle accepting Goodrich's sexuality and dealing with his own homophobia is foregrounded in a handful of scenes that, when Spike focuses in on just the two individuals, indicate an interest in genuinely exploring Anderson's internal conflict and, hopefully, evolution.

But the superficiality of Anderson's implied evolution is undercut first by the way in which the women he impregnates are shown to interact with him, and second by the resolution of the central Anderson-Goodrich(-Guererro) plot thread. Following Anderson's initial agreement to help five lesbian women get pregnant for money, Spike shows us a montage of sex scenes in which all the women move from a state of usually disinterested independence to one of sexual ecstasy dependent upon the man. Even as Spike tries to present some of the women as taking charge of their sexuality (and consequently painting Anderson as an object), he can't let the scenes continue to play that way—eventually they all must be “converted” to the pleasures of heterosexual sex. Some humorous touches don't cover up the fact that the montage plays as a disgusting kind of alpha-male wish fulfillment—that eventually, despite any initial ambivalence, the women just won't be able to resist what Anderson has to offer.

In resolving Anderson and Goodrich's relationship, Spike pulls the same maneuver, using an excuse of support for unconventional family structures as a means to safely write the man back into the equation. The film lends no progressive support for—and has no interest in genuinely exploring—relationships that don't fit neatly into tradition. Spike and screenwriter Michael Genet seem fine with non-traditional relationships, as long as they leave room for a dude. Gross, guys.‏

Newer Andrew cutout commentaryKey word you left out of Armstrong's exit line from the courtroom.  He says, "Now excuse me, I'm about to become a father...again."  This is followed shortly by a scene of a judge (a wasted Ossie Davis) telling the assembled crowd the charges against Armstrong are dropped because, "Any man with 19 kids needs to be at work and not in prison."  So has Armstrong really been "working" through the sperm business this whole time?  We get some shots of an exasperated Mackie, whose performance is mostly terrible here but does some great deadpan, funneling drugs and Red Bull into his body to keep up for all the lesbians.  Ok, maybe not the roughest life, but I get how the man could be sore and tired after a point.

Spike, in a terrible but intriguing way, counteracts this idea by showing the ultimate consequence of Armstrong's "work" as the women actually suffer to have their children.  Kudos to Spike for not shying away from childbirth, but it highlights just how little Armstrong struggles in She Hate Me.  His penis is sore for a few nights, and his one scene of  emotional turmoil which reveals the rift between him and Fatima contains a sex scene filmed in a low-light haze which looks more appealing for the audience than it should for Armstrong or Fatima.  Even when creating something that's supposed to be painful, the lesbian sex turns into another pleasurable moment for men in the long run.

This all makes She Hate Me fail on the dramatic level in a huge way, presenting an unconventional scenario that's gradually funneled into reinforcing male pleasure yet again.  The corporate plot lines involving Woody Harrelson, who is also badly used but at least gets one good moment of menace before being forgotten for thirty minute stretches, are resolved almost entirely off-screen.  Would a film about the investigation into Harrelson's shenanigans be more interesting?  Based on 25th Hour and some of the best moments of Jungle Fever, probably.

She Hate Me feels like an evolution, or devolution (depending on your perspective), of the comedy in Girl 6 which eventually became the full camp in Da Sweet Blood of Jesus.  Keeping that in mind, there are swaths of She Hate Me which work great as farce.  Monica Bellucci's performance is tuned in to this wavelength, and the way she stretches out the vowels in, "Why do men have to be so... om-pli-ca-ti?" is hilarious.  The horrifically animated insemination scenes after the sexathons are deliberately off-putting in a farcical way, and if nothing else Spike created an image implanted in my mind forever with the smiling Armstrong sperm fighting for position on their way to the egg.  But even as farce, Spike cancels out these moments with the Bellucci's boring mafia tie-in and the birth scenes.  Each idea which puts She Hate Me two steps forward ends up roaring back in terror.‏This crowd's dreams won't come trueTiny Kyle CommentaryI don't know how we got this far without mentioning the animated insemination sequences, and I don't know how Spike got to a point where I had to type those words. I was less amused by Bellucci's character, but she did factor prominently into the moment where I swerved over into full-blown disbelief—the scene where, standing in the hallway outside Anderson's apartment following sex, she leans over with her hand to her stomach and declares with conviction that she just felt the moment of conception (illustrated as twins in the corresponding animation sequence, if I remember right).

These are the parts of the movie that makes me wonder what Spike thought he was putting together here, and I realized only as I was typing this that they're probably my “favorite” things about the movie—the scenes that may have fit into some larger plan on paper, but defy explanation on film. Let's take stock:

-The German doctor's unnecessarily brutal plunge to his death.
-Turturro gleefully acting out scenes from an absurdly better movie.
-Jim Brown's angry channeling of Wilfred Brimley (I'm still not sure why Spike chose to have him crushingly disabled by “diabeetus”).
-The baffling Renfield-esque doorman at Anderson's apartment complex.
-Brian Dennehy being in the movie for no reason, and being better in his throwaway asshole-white-politician role than the rest of the movie.
-Bizarro Dream Nixon.

Perhaps Spike should make more comedies.

Newer Andrew cutout commentaryI'm impressed you were able to go that long before disengaging from the idea She Hate Me would coalesce into something palatable.  For me, it was our old friend the soundtrack.  During the corporate opening and Armstrong's first call to the ethics line it's this adult contemporary light jazz punctuated by the odd low horn when something bad is happening onscreen.  True to form, the music becomes more like a soft core grind when Fatima explains her plan before mining the best cartoon soundtracks for the Armstrong-sperm.

As for your list - we can't forget the Bush $3 bill stamped with Enron at the closing, or the commercial where a KKK member in full regalia talks about how disgusting Armstrong is before the announcer says, "Re-elect George Bush in 2004."  Those provide a hint as to Spike's mindset in creating this movie and, trust me, we'll revisit his distaste of the Bush administration in an exponentially better film down the road.  Most of America went insane after 9/11, and since 25th Hour didn't leave room for many lesbian sex scenes, maybe She Hate Me was just Spike's way of getting his conflicts out in one wreck of a film.‏

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Next, Sucker Free City.Spike Film Selection

Posted by Andrew

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