When Spike Lee set out to do Mo’ Better Blues he set out to explicitly counter what he saw as White myths about jazz musicians: "We didn't want to focus on the self-destructiveness of jazz musicians, like White filmmakers had done in the past," (Spike Lee and Lisa Jones, Mo’ Better Blues, Simon and Shuster 1990: p. 62). Also, these jazzers came by their skill though untutored natural genius rather than hard work. This is a mythology of the artist that goes back to European Romanticism of the late 18th and early 19th Centuries.
Given Lee’s explicit counter-mythical intention, what’s remarkable is the hefailed in that aim – something I explain at length in Spike Lee’s Blues. Yes, his hero, a trumpet player named Bleek Gilliam (and played by Denzel Washington), was a hard-working disciplined musician. Not only did he tell us so, but we got to see and hear him practicing; and we got to see him admonish his women NOT to interrupt his practice sessions.
But Gilliam had a friend, Giant (played by Spike Lee), who was also his manager, and not a very good one. Giant had a bad gambling problem, and that got him into trouble with his loan shark. When Giant couldn’t pay up, the enforcers went after him and broke bones. So Bleek intervened on one occasion and the bone crushers went after him, destroying his lip and thus destroying him as a trumpeter. He was a musician no more.
Superficially speaking, Bleek didn’t self-destruct. He just got beat-up while coming to the aid of a friend. But, tell me, was it necessary that Spike Lee saddle his hero with a best-friend gambling addict? No, it wasn’t. He could have told a story about a disciplined jazz trumpeter without that. But he didn’t do that. No, Lee afflicted his hero with a gambling addict for a friend and used Gilliam’s loyalty to that friend to destroy him.
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What’s that have to do with Charlie Ahearn, whom you’ve never heard of, right? In 1983 Ahearn released a film called Wild Style. It was made on the cheap with mostly amateur actors and was about the cultural moment when graffiti met hip-hop and was adopted by it.
Our protagonist is a graffiti writer named Raymond, who writes as Zoro, and was played by Lee Quinones, who was in fact a graffiti writer of some distinction, and still is. He had a girlfriend, Rose Lady Bug, played by Lady Pink Fabara, another real-life graffiti writer. But, unlike Lee’s Gilliam, Ahearn’s Raymond doesn’t get trapped in those old romantic myths of the tortured artist.
Ahearn, more or less deliberately, has set us up to expect a certain kind of movie about art. We expect the story of the artist who “makes it big” by getting in with the rich people, or we expect this to be a tragedy in which the artist, on the verge of getting big, is drawn back into the streets, gunning for the man who cheated him and the girl who dumped him or getting gunned down by his own brother.
Raymond had the opportunity to get in with rich folks and he could have messed things up with his girlfriend. But that’s not how Ahearn played it.
As Steel points out, the central conflict in this film is between the artist in service only to his art, and the artist in service to the community. Ahearn sets Raymond up as the former while his girlfriend Rose is the later. And Rose manages to bring Raymond around to her way of operating.
You should read Steel’s excellent review to get the details, but the bottom line is this: “...the myth of the tormented, alienated male artist dies.”
Score one for graffiti culture. And hip-hop.