Life's Great Mysteries
Spike Lee’s She Hate Me begins with money. The opening credits roll over an array of close shots: bills waving like flags, faces of dead presidents undulating. As the film begins, comes the final portrait: George W. Bush on a three-dollar bill. Can’t spend it, can’t save it, can’t trust it.
This question of trust is crucial to Lee’s movie, but not always in ways that you might think. The plot concerns the career of Harvard MBA John Henry (Jack) Armstrong (charismatic Anthony Mackie, Papa Doc in 8 Mile, who also has a small role in The Manchurian Candidate), initially a well paid executive at a pharmaceutical company called Progeia. In the first scene, Jack learns that the scientist (David Bennent) overseeing the company’s much-anticipated AIDS cure is in despair over the fact that the drug doesn’t work, even though it is scheduled to hit markets (stock and otherwise) within days. In an effort to do the right thing, Jack blows the whistle, then finds himself fired and all his assets frozen. How can he live, he wonders, gazing at his swank apartment with walls full of Joe Louis portraits (reportedly, Lee wants to make his next film about him).
Desperate, he agrees to a proposal made by his ex-fiancée, Fatima (Kerry Washington) and her current girlfriend Alex (Dania Ramirez): he’ll impregnate them for cash (though he protests that they are “lesbians,” they assure him, speaking in unison, “We’re businesswomen”—and so there). Jack’s “man milk” is apparently so potent that Fatima is with child immediately; this inspires her to devise a plan: Jack will sell his sperm to lesbians for $10,000 a pop, and she’ll take a percentage.
At this point, the film’s lively title (inspired by the ingenious jersey title of Rod Smart, ex-XFL player, now of the Carolina Panthers) seems painfully pertinent. It’s not so much that Fatima “hates” her boy Jack, or even that the lesbians she solicits for insemination “hate” him either. It’s more that the film assumes a clichéd perception of lesbians as “man-haters,” and then, well, it never quite challenges that perception. Instead, it lines up the ladies at Jack’s door, Fatima handing out file folders and contracts before each bedding.
For the most part, the women—including Oni (Bai Ling), Nadiyah (Michole Briana White), and Song (Sarita Choudhury), mafia princess Simona (Monica Bellucci), ex-WNBA player Kym Hampton, as well as a selection of “mannish lesbians”—enter Jack’s apartment looking skeptical or diffident. All, the film suggests, are won over, first by the appearance of his penis (he’s shot from behind as he drops his pants, as the women’s approving faces are visible), and then by his apparent capacity to make them come; he’s soon popping Viagras before each stint, and the impregnations are pictured as cartoons: spermatozoa sporting Jack’s smiling visage, coursing towards a beaming, pulsing egg.
These encounters—broadly drawn and comically montaged—serve less as tests of Jack’s manhood than jokes at his expense. At first, he’s flattered by the attention and plainly taken with his own manly worth (and the film shows his nakedness more readily than the women’s); at the same time, his partners’ visible pleasures appear to corroborate his prowess. But it’s not long before the sex becomes work, his labors increasingly pronounced, the repetition and the fatigue showing in his cartoony sperm face all underlining the blurring of the lines among satisfaction, property, and payment.
As Jack begins to question his moneymaking venture, the film lines up a series of assaults on commercial culture (of which Jack’s business is only a most egregious instance). Its strangest turn in this regard takes the form of Don Angelo Bonasera (John Turturro), Simona’s father. At first, he seems inserted into the action to alarm Jack, who worries the godfather is upset at the mixed-race twins he has fathered with Simona. But Jack is soon put at ease, as Angelo holds forth on the weakness of commercial rap (one of Lee’s favorite targets, lined up again here): “How they were raised on Sinatra,” he says of his progeny, “and ended up with Snoopy Dogg is one of life’s great mysteries.”
For all its efforts at social critique, the film is most convincing when it considers Jack’s many self-doubts and occasional epiphanies. As his apparent success and reputation as a baby-maker expand, he worries that what he’s doing is unethical, that selling what he’s got for extraordinary money isn’t so different from what Progeia (and its greedy CEO, Leland Powell [Woody Harrelson]) is doing. By the time Powell’s second, the bitch-diva Margo Chadwick (Ellen Barkin) comes round asking for sperm, Jack’s self-image is in some disarray. Personifying the lack of familial responsibility of which so many men (in particular, of late, black men) have been accused, Jack, no matter the contracts he’s signed, starts to see himself less as an entrepreneur, than a fulfillment of stereotype.
Among his mirrors are his parents, Lottie (Lonette McKee) and Geronimo (Jim Brown), his good-father brother Jimmy (Reynaldo Reyes), and his best friend and co-worker at Progeia, Vada (Q-Tip). Geronimo provides Jack with the film’s central historical reference point, the story of Frank Wills (Chiwetel Ejiofor in a couple of fantasy-flashbacks), the security guard who reported the Watergate break-in and subsequently died impoverished while the criminals (Liddy, Dean, Nixon, Erlichman, Haldeman, et. al.) grew wealthy, in part because of their notoriety. For Geronimo, in a wheelchair and diabetic, Willis represents the unfairness of an ongoing and ever-larger system—financial, political, social—that resolutely maintains the status quo. In turn, Jack’s confusion has to do with his several efforts to play that system, first as the good businessman, then as the good man, and finally, as the astonishingly good self-promoter.
Ostensibly serving a standard purpose, as emotional support and comic sidekick to Jack’s increasingly woeful demeanor, Vada decides he too might try to make a buck off his sperm, by selling it to a donor clinic. Discovering that his own count is too low, Vada questions and eventually reaffirms his self-image, which leads to Jack’s own reevaluation. Gee, maybe masculinity isn’t just a function of numbers.
While this gendered revelation might seem coy and even baffling, the film’s attention to lipstick lesbian sex is even less clearly contextualized: Fatima and Alex argue and make up several times, occasionally for Jack’s admittedly confused viewership, and once, in the kitchen, for the film’s viewers only. Presumably, She Hate Me marks a step forward from the lesbian Opal’s representation of definitive sex-freakishness in She’s Gotta Have It (1986), but the precise sense of the movie’s “lesbians,” aside from producing children (in a montage of birth scenes) and inspiring Jack’s moral lessons, remains confusing.
By the time he’s done, Jack has fathered 18 children. When Progeia breaks the story (in an effort to besmirch his “reputation”), She Hate Me swings into a critique of tabloidish media similar to that in Girl 6 (1996) and Summer of Sam (1999). Again, the film taps into a rich vein of righteous outrage and cultural chaos, especially as the case pitches from the headlines into the courtroom (where Jack is represented by the practical-minded, progressively inclined Gloria Reid [Joie Lee]). Here the sides are increasingly muddled rather than defined, which, however appropriate, is also anti-climactic.
Shot on Super 16, for $9 million, in only 28 days, She Hate Me is designed to be a protest movie in multiple senses. (A case might be made that its fierceness borrows from the XFL: anything goes, something might stick.) As Lee describes it to the New York Times, “This film is not haphazard, it’s not a mess. There was a blueprint that it should be hectic, that there should be a lot of things going on… That was the thought process, to reflect the velocity at which stuff comes to us.” But if the film feels frantic, it doesn’t necessarily pick up speed or hit hard. Rather, it takes on an array of targets, all organized around money and avarice, and leaves viewers to comprehend its ambition, despite or because of its crankiness.