Spike Lee’s She Hate Me is a technically excellent motion picture. It showcases the venerable director’s beautifully organic camera, boasts a razor-sharp screenplay, and features stellar performances by many actors you’ve probably never heard of. Its scenarios are funny and accessible to even casual moviegoers, and its subject matter gleaned from today’s headlines. So why is it so challenging to watch?
The film’s grammatically insufficient tagline tells only half the story: “One Heterosexual Male. 18 Lesbians. His Fee $10,000… Each.” The heterosexual male in particular is Jack Armstrong (Anthony Mackie), the thirty-year-old vice-president of a New York pharmaceutical company on the verge of producing a viable cure for HIV.
The operative phrase is “on the verge” because in reality, the miracle cure isn’t quite ready for mass distribution. Jack’s bosses (the unlikely duo of Woody Harrelson and Ellen Barkin) know this, but insist on releasing the drug anyway in a culmination of their generally corrupt corporate practices.
When Jack blows the whistle, he is summarily terminated, his reputation ruined, and his bank account closed. To make matters worse, he comes under suspicion of being involved in the scandal himself and is subpoenaed by the Securities Exchange Commission. Talk about a bad day at the office.
“Survival,” says a character in the film, “makes a person do things they know in their heart is wrong.” Jack, now penniless, is without question a survivor, but when his ex-fiancé Fatima (Kerry Washington) shows up at his door and offers cold hard cash to impregnate her, why does he think twice? For one thing, Fatima is now a lesbian, and for another, her current lover Alex (the very feminine Dania Ramirez) wants to get pregnant as well. Even the film admits that this scenario seems wrong on multiple levels.
Of course, Jack eventually does the deed, but it doesn’t stop there. As soon as Fatima is pregnant, she begins advertising Jack’s fertility to her lesbian friends, who begin flocking to Jack’s apartment in hopes of getting pregnant as well. There is very little eroticism in the frank sexuality depicted here: Jack is both prostitute and procreator, and Fatima, who takes a cut of the $10,000 fee, is his pimp. The proceedings are mostly conducted like home-based business transactions. That Jack’s “customers” are shown enjoying the sexual act with a man is hardly necessary, other than to possibly demonstrate that besides his Harvard degree, polite manner and all-around good looks, Jack boasts the ability to make any woman climax.
The laws of consistent plot development dictate that Jack’s baby-making business and his eventual day in court to defend his innocence will somehow be connected. In ways that I will not give away, those two disparate threads not only converge but prove to be Jack’s key to redemption. By the end, Jack finds himself in an awkward but not unwanted relationship with a family he never thought could exist.
In the real world, She Hate Me will be greeted with love/hate reactions. Anyone who relates to the characters depicted here could theoretically find plenty to be offended about. But Spike Lee doesn’t lampoon any one particular group (blacks, whites, corporate royalty, homosexuals, even the Italian-American Mafia). He lampoons them all. There is not a single person in this film who has nothing to regret, or nothing in them that some other person would not find objectionable. Yet we laugh, nervous laughter it may be. She Hate Me is funny because no matter what the self-described experts may say, there are some things we do as human beings that just don’t feel right, and it may have nothing to do with conscience, upbringing or social constructs.
At the New York City premiere of the film, Spike was asked what the most important part of the film is, since so many different issues are raised simultaneously. “The film is about the importance of family,” he replied, “and by that I mean any definition of the family, no matter what George Bush says.” You can disagree with his politics — many viewers will — but She Hate Me, as a postmodern fable, is a fully realized, artistically superior vision of near-future America. It just may not be the America that some people want to see.
She Hate Me (2004)
Dir. Spike Lee
Stars: Anthony Mackie, Kerry Washington, Ellen Barkin, Monica Bellucci, Jim Brown, Jamel Debbouze, Brian Dennehy, Woody Harrelson
Genre: Drama, Comedy