Can the dancing body ‘fight the power’?: Spike Lee and dance

As many people noted late last month, Spike Lee’s seminal Do The Right Thing celebrated its 20th anniversary. The Root did an exceptional job weaving together the various discourses surrounding the movie, its release, its historical relevance, its cultural significance, its politics, its views and influence on race-relations in contemporary America, the identificatory practices of aligning the Obamas with this movie (during election season, much was made of the now First Couple seeing it on their first date) as well as the assimilationist practices at work in distancing President and First Lady Obama from it once he was elected President, and its limitations in terms of representational politics (particularly gender). I do wish there was more discussion of its controversial Oscar nomination shut-out for Best Picture, but perhaps this is something my Hollywood industrial analysis smartie friends can re-coup.  

One thing that was particularly heartening for me in The Root’s coverage of the movie’s 20th anniversary was Mark Anthony Neal’s piece on how important music is to Lee’s movies and the cultivation of racial discourse, particularly in his early work. He even went into an analysis of the cultural significance of Rosie Perez’s dance in the opening credits of the movie and how she is “alternately adorned in boxing garb and Lycra bodysuits, performing a visual archive of black dance. Moving against the backdrop of Brooklyn brownstones, Perez’s performance—jagged, angular, forceful, masculine and sexy—mapped contradictions of a new generation.”

I’ll tip my hand. As a scholar, I’ve been thinking about Lee’s use of music and dance for some time. I put together a similar analysis to Neal’s in graduate school and am still working through with what to do with it. For me, in his first three movies especially (She’s Gotta Have It, School Daze, Do The Right Thing) dance serves as a site of multiple discourses. It is at once as a marker of authorship, a means of challenging traditional storytelling, an iteration of African American identity, a challenge to the notion of a singular racial identity for African Americans (and other racial and ethnic minorities, most notably Puerto Rican Americans), a critique against the supposed “naturalness” of dance for the African American body, and an indictment of race relations in contemporary society and film history. 

These discursive practices are further enforced through Lee’s conscious lack of adherence to one particular dance genre, opting instead for heterogeneity, in effect breaking up the ways in which a black director can use dance and the ways in which primarily black dancers can use their bodies, as well as circulating the idea that black culture aligns with various kinds of music (many of which were self-created, thus becoming a process of reclamation). Thus, through dance, Lee creates a definitively black presence in contemporary film, but at the same time avers that there’s no such thing as a definitively black presence.

Tricky stuff. Problematic for sure (perhaps especially being theorized by a white lady like me), and I don’t think I’ve pieced it altogether, but I feel that the use of dance in Lee’s movies is not to be overlooked. If we are to celebrate Lee’s Do The Right Thing, we should do so with an acknowledgement of its larger context. I feel like dance is key to mapping that context.

And, with that, some clips. Now, seeing the movies they exist in is crucial. For brevity, I’ll simply list the movie, the dance genre, and the dance’s narrative function.

She’s Gotta Have It
Dance genre: Concert jazz
Narrative function: Fantasy and narrative rupture. This is the only scene shot in color in this movie and cuts jarringly from a scene where  protagonist Nola Darling is given a present by Jamie Overstreet, one of her three boyfriends.

School Daze (Note: The clip has since been taken off YouTube)
Dance genre: Musical dance
Narrative function: Integrated musical. Uses traditional modes of musical spectacle — a film genre plagued with white exnomination and racism during — to critique race relations between light- and dark-skinned African Americans. 

Note: Last year, the music video came out for Alicia Keys’s “Teenage Love Affair” which recreates much of the narrative of School Daze. However, in the process, the music video amalgates many of the female characters into one being, and recasts the movie’s then-timely preoccupation with Apartheid with a small bit encouraing AIDS outreach and prevention in Africa — one of Keys’s primary humanitarian efforts. Conveniently, and significantly, it removes the movie’s troubling gender relations, particularly a key scene in which the female lead is raped by a college fraternity pledge, played by Lee in the movie.

Do The Right Thing
Dance genre: Hip hop dance
Narrative function: Non-narrative introduction of the film. The dance serves at once as an advocation of female presence in hip hop and public life, reclaims the role women and girls had in the formation of hip hop dance, aligns Perez’s physical participation with Public Enemy’s sonic participation via their song “Fight the Power” — which I think challenge the notion of Lee’s monolithic authorial presence, and acknowledges the allied relationship African Americans and Puerto Rican Americans have developed.


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