Spike Lee is on rant mode once again and this time his discontent is directed at New York Times film critic A.O. Scott who wrote a column discussing the director’s gentrification remarks from February. Thing is, Lee attacked Scott for critiques that the columnist really didn’t make.
The beginning paragraphs of Scott’s column outlined, in a very non-confrontational and summary-like manner, an overview of the criticism directed at Lee–particularly, a column by Errol Lewis of the New York Daily News where he directs much of the blame for Brooklyn’s gentrification at Lee’s feet:
As is often the case with Mr. Lee’s public utterances, this one was a mixture of hyperbole, provocation and plain truth. He scolded white gentrifiers for succumbing to “Christopher Columbus syndrome,” proclaiming their discovery of already-peopled territory even as they undertook the cultural marginalization and physical expulsion of the original population. “You can’t just come in the neighborhood and start Bogarting,” he said, “and kill off the Native Americans. Or what they did in Brazil, what they did to the indigenous people.”
What’s the saying about people who live in glass brownstones? Nearly everyone who brings up gentrification is implicated in some way, and accusations of hypocrisy on Mr. Lee’s part were not long in coming. In a Daily News op-ed article, Errol Louis noted that Mr. Lee currently lives in the old-money oasis of the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and also that when he lived in Brooklyn, he was both an agent and a beneficiary of the gentrification he now decries. Mr. Lee’s presence in Fort Greene in the 1990s — as an artist, an entrepreneur and a celebrity — contributed in no small measure to that area’s cachet. Fort Greene was colonized by successive waves of interlopers: bohemians and creative class types; recent graduates and fledgling families; bankers and lawyers.
The cartoon accompanying Mr. Louis’s piece portrayed Mr. Lee as the original hipster, surveying a streetscape overrun with his clones. “There goes the neighborhood,” he says, and the implication is that it’s his own fault.
Scott did not personally critique Lee in any of the aforementioned paragraphs or any that followed, but Lee certainly took the column personally when he wrote something of a rebuttal for the site “whosay”:
Your criticism of me as a hypocrite is lame, weak and not really thought out. You stated in your Article that because I live in The Upper East Side and I’m talking about Gentrification that makes me Hypocrite. The fact is where I live has nothing to do with it. Your argument is OKEY DOKE. If you did your research you would see I’m a product of The New York Public School System, from Kindergarten to graduating from John Dewey High School in Coney Island. I was born in Atlanta, Georgia and my Family moved to Crown Heights, Brooklyn when I was Three. The Lees were the 1st Black Family to move into the predominantly Italian-American Brooklyn Neighborhood of Cobble Hill. My Parents bought their first home in 1968, a Brownstone in Fort Greene, where my Father still lives. Did you know his and a Next door Neighbor’s Brownstone were vandalized by Graffiti after my remarks on Gentrification at Pratt Institute? Curious you left that out of your article.
Well, for one, Scott didn’t start out his column by naming Lee’s neighborhood–Errol Scott did that. Lee goes on to say that just because he no longer lives in Brooklyn that doesn’t mean he can’t critique the gentrification of his childhood borough:
Mr. Scott, what you fail to understand is that I can live on The Moon and what I said is still TRUE. No matter where I choose to live that has nothing to do with it. I will always carry Brooklyn in my Blood, Heart and Soul. Did anyone call Jay-Z a Hypocrite when he helped with bringing The Nets from New Jersey to The Barclays Center in Brooklyn at the Corner of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenue? Hey Buddy, Jay-Z had been long, long gone from The Marcy Projects and Brooklyn a long, long, long time ago and more Power to my BK ALL DAY Brother. Should Jay-Z no longer mention Brooklyn in his Songs because he no longer resides there? You already know the answer to that one, Sir.
Yes, I know. Where did that come from? I’m still trying to figure that out myself.
Scott, on the other hand, actually tries to explain Lee’s Black History Month rant in language that his Times readership would understand :
Every city is simultaneously a seedbed of novelty and a hothouse of nostalgia, and modern New York presents a daily dialectic of progress and loss. As Colson Whitehead notes in “The Colossus of New York,” you become a New Yorker — or perhaps a true resident of any place, whether you were born there or not — when you register the disappearance of a familiar spot. “You swallow hard when you discover that the old coffee shop is now a chain pharmacy, that the place where you first kissed so-and-so is now a discount electronics retailer, that where you bought this very jacket is now rubble behind a blue plywood fence and a future office building. Damage has been done to your city.” But this subjective landscape of memory and desire is built on an infrastructure of social and economic reality, on the concrete facts of race and class that Mr. Lee insisted on pointing out.
New Yorkers, like most Americans — white, upper-middle-class Americans in particular — prefer to address such matters through an elaborate lexicon of euphemism and code, speaking of “good schools,” “sketchy” blocks and “improvements” in the retail and culinary amenities. National politics has a tendency to revert, in the age of Obama, to the shadow language of white supremacy, with its rhetoric of laziness, dependency and cultural pathology. The word “class” is uttered sanctimoniously when preceded by “middle” and scoldingly when followed by “war” but is more often swallowed up in numbers and abstractions. We’d much rather talk about the 1 percent or the 47 percent, inequality or envy, diversity or opportunity than about labor, wealth and power.
Based on the paragraphs above, it seems like Scott is actually trying to give a less abrasive perspective of what Lee was saying back in February.
Lee was pretty much on point when he made his remarks and many people emotionally connected with his words–including me, on some level. But his response column makes little sense and was certainly not the right thing to put into print.