She Hate Me (2004)

This is based on an actual speech by Ken Lay… to his employees when word got out that things are not what they seem. And someone, in the middle of that meeting, did ask Ken Lay was he on crack?
— Spike Lee, commentary, She Hate Me

[Tristan Taormino] said, ‘Spike, there’s no way that you’re going to make a film that’s going to appease all the lesbians in the world.’ And so that was, for me, a very liberating thing for her to say. Because right away I understood that… lesbians, like African Americans or any other group, are not one monolithic group.
— Spike Lee, commentary, She Hate Me

“You take a lot of time and care with the opening credits,” says Spike Lee in his excellent commentary track for the She Hate Me DVD. “You feel like it’s like the prologue to give the audience a clue to what the film is about. And right here, you know it’s about money.” Right here, you’re looking at extreme close-ups of U.S. bills, waving like banners under Terrence Blanchard’s sweet theme. As the last bill appears — a three dollar “bogus” bill featuring George W. Bush’s face — Lee laughs. “Hopefully, by the time you’re seeing this DVD, he’ll be out!”

While She Hate Me is surely all about money, it is also about pain, anxiety, and betrayal. The plot concerns the career of Harvard MBA John Henry (Jack) Armstrong (Anthony Mackie), initially a well paid executive at a pharmaceutical company called Progeia. In the first scene, Jack visits his friend, scientist Herman Schiller (David Bennent, whom Lee notes he first saw in The Tin Drum and whom he hopes to cast as Joseph Goebbels in his still-upcoming movie about Joe Louis), who has been overseeing the company’s much-anticipated AIDS cure. Despairing that the drug doesn’t work, even though it is scheduled to hit markets (stock and otherwise) within days, Herman jumps out his office window.

In an effort to do the right thing, Jack turns whistleblower, then finds himself fired by boss Leland Powell (Woody Harrelson). His abuse by the company is linked in Lee’s mind to the excesses of Enron and similar companies, including “documentation retention,” that is, paper-shredding, nicely renamed by Jack’s associate at Progeia, bitch-diva Margo Chadwick (Ellen Barkin). After noting that whistleblowing is really the hard road to choose, Lee adds, “To me, this film is really about the ramifications of the choices that people make.” (In addition to the sharp commentary track, the DVD includes the 10-minute “She Hate Me: Behind the Scenes” features cast members praising the experience, and seven deleted scenes, mostly detailing characters.)

With his assets frozen, Jack is desperate for rent money (when he goes to check with his banker, Lee laughs along at the comedy: “People: always stash some away, don’t put it all in the bank”). Dead broke (“I’m about to go Mike Tyson and postal up in this joint!” he yells at the banker), Jack walks the street during a sequence of shots that, Lee points out, pays homage to Midnight Cowboy. This sets up his next step, namely, that he will agree 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. As Lee adds here, the two stories — Jack’s career concerns and his deals with the lesbians — are intertwined, both being, again, “about money.”

Here, the film’s title (inspired by the ingenious jersey title of Rod Smart, ex-XFL player, currently of the Carolina Panthers) turns painfully pertinent. It’s not so much that Fatima “hates” Jack, or even that the lesbians she solicits for insemination “hate” him either. It’s more that the film assumes and then endeavors to interrogate an especially tedious cliché: lesbians hate men. As Lee describes Jack’s impregnation of Fatima — she’s in black stockings and red spike heels — it’s a question of Jack’s principles. “He feels he’s lowered his own moral compass to impregnate these women for $10,000.” The sex happens so quickly, Lee suggests, that Jack “doesn’t even take off his Uptowns,” a reference to Mars Blackmon’s Air Jordans.

Jack soon takes up his business with a vengeance, with ladies lined up at his door and Fatima handing out file folders and contracts before each bedding. As Lee recalls, we “ran what we called a ‘lesbian boot camp,’ with the help of “technical consultant” Tristan Taormino, Voice columnist and sex expert. Lee reports, “By law, I can’t ask anyone their sexual preference, so therefore I had to assume that all the women auditioning were heterosexual” — a line of reasoning that might explain the film’s tone-deafness about Jack’s clients. Lee says the women were “immersed into the world of lesbianism, and they had field trips and stuff like that, and I wasn’t even a part of that.”

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 are won over, first by the appearance of his penis (he’s shot from behind as he drops his pants, the women’s approval visible between his legs), and then by his apparent capacity to make them come. (During one such session, Lee observes that Caucasian lesbians disliked the movie more frequently than lesbians of color, a phenomenon he attributes to “the penis,” that is, “There’s that school of people who feel that any lesbian that’s caught within a thousand feet of an erect penis is not a lesbian.”) When asked to drop his drawers, Jack is suitably embarrassed; Lee sees this as a reference to slavery, when men and women were inspected to ensure they would be “good breeders.” (Lesbians as slavers?) Lee laughs when he recalls that Lil Kim turned down a role as one of the lesbians because she thought “It wouldn’t be good for her image.”

Soon Jack is popping Viagras before each gig, with the impregnations pictured as cartoons: spermatozoa sporting Jack’s smiling visage, coursing towards a beaming, pulsing egg. At first, he’s flattered and self-impressed (notably, the film shows his nakedness more readily than the women’s); at the same time, his partners’ pleasures appear to corroborate his prowess. But it’s not long before the sex becomes work, the repetition and the fatigue clear in his animated sperm-face. He eventually realizes, 18 babies late, that ethics apply to his “juice” as much as any other aspect of the “ownership society.”

She Hate Me is most effective when it considers Jack’s many self-doubts and occasional epiphanies, aided in part by friends and family, including his parents, Lottie (Lonette McKee, who has, Lee points out, played mothers in several of his films) and Geronimo (Jim Brown), and his brother Jamal (co-writer Michael Genet). Geronimo — who appears in a wheelchair, a diabetic “whose body is breaking down,” says Lee — provides Jack with the film’s central historical reference point, the story of Frank Wills (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the security guard who reported the Watergate break-in and subsequently died impoverished while the criminals grew wealthy, in part because of their notoriety (they introduce themselves: “I, G. Gordon Liddy, will have my own nationally syndicated radio show”; “I, H.R. Haldeman, will just stay beautiful and live in Santa Barbara”). For Geronimo, Willis represents the unfairness of an ongoing and ever-larger system that resolutely maintains the status quo: “First they break you, then they kill you,” he warns his son.

One alternative is embodied by Jack’s best friend and coworker at Progeia, Vada (Q-Tip). Ostensibly serving 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 then reaffirms his self-image, encouraging Jack’s own reevaluation. (Lee pauses during a clinic scene, when Vada, waiting to enter the “ejactorium,” lists brilliant artists whose sperm and eggs would be worth more money than those from “average” donors — “Someone’s gonna do this,” asserts Lee.)

When Progeia finally breaks Jack’s story to media (trying to damage his “reputation” as he proceeds with his case against the company), She Hate Me swings into a critique of tabloidish media similar to that in Girl 6 (1996) and Summer of Sam (1999). Here 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). But the sides are increasingly muddled rather than defined, appropriate in its way.

Shot on Super 16 by the inventive Matthew Libatique, for $9 million, in only 28 days, She Hate Me is a protest movie in multiple senses. If it’s frantic and scattered, it also takes on an array of targets, all having to do with property and avarice, leaving viewers to sort out the significance.