Leslie Byron Pitt examines the current controversy between director Spike Lee and a freelance graphic designer 

I’m starting to hate open letters. I actually think there should be an open letter to everyone about open letters clearly stating that we don’t need any more open letters. Much like constant barrage of baby/engagement/wedding photos that litter my Facebook feed, it seems that now, an open letter must be posted on the internet to try and put a stop to a particular beef or irritation. I often have no problem with the intent of most of them. In fact; I’d probably back the topic that the writer is speaking out for. My issue is that the more you see these things, like an internet petition, they slowly become more trivial. Open letters have almost become memes. You can sense the groans as yet another ask for the school board/Tory MP/Miley Cyrus is retweeted through the internet’s many tubes to your eyeballs asking for the madness to stop.

 

This said, I found myself alerted to an open letter that made its way on my twitter feed earlier this week. The letter is from Juan Luis Garcia, a freelance designer who writes (to influential African  American filmmaker Spike Lee) that his initial poster work for the film remake Old Boy may have been stolen by an ad agency working on the project. Legal action has reared its head and it appears that Garcia has reached out to Spike as a fellow artist to see if he can intervene in any way. The letter talks about the money that the agency has allegedly not paid Garcia, but it seems quite clear that Garcia is asking Lee to use his influence as the director of the film to see if this can be settled in a civil and respectful way.

 

Lee (who  appears to be Brazil working on his latest project) had this to say:
 

I Never Heard Of This Guy Juan Luis Garcia,If He Has A Beef It’s Not With Me.I Did Not Hire Him,Do Not Know Him.Cheap Trick Writing To Me.YO
— Spike Lee (@SpikeLee) November 28, 2013

 

It’s interesting to see that Spike has written the tweet in-between two celebratory communications for Thanksgiving. It’s almost as if he wished to call himself out on the irony. Then again Spike as a filmmaker and a personality, has never been one for tact.

 

Lee has never shied away from the controversial, yet his boldness both in-front and behind the camera has been important to so many film goers. It’s difficult to find Black filmmakers or critics who have not been influenced by him. I remember gaining the only words of praise from a fellow student for a talk about him during my time at university and he became an inspiration since. Further insight in his work clearly shows just how many future stars benefited from working with him in the early days. Names like Wesley Snipes, Halle Berry, Samuel L Jackson and Laurence Fishburne may never have been known if not for Lee, who cast them in his early features. If Hollywood didn’t take a chance on you, then you got the feeling that Spike would. This includes the crew, who may not have been able to get a foot in the door in “white” Hollywood.

 

For a director whose politics and confrontational style have often made him tough to embrace, one would have thought that Spike would have been less abrasive to something like this. The incident feels much like the problems that aroused with Lee when making Malcolm X. When the studios and bond company didn’t give him the money he asked for to complete the film, Spike had to inject his own cash and was able to get financial help from prominent members of the African-American community.

 

Old boy

 

We should also consider Spike’s position before Old Boy, where work on the likes of Inside Man 2 were halted and Spike himself stated that he couldn’t get projects off the ground. Now with a film hitting theatres with talk of it being one of the least “Spike” movies in a long time and a Kickstarter project which brought many mixed feelings to proceedings, the fact that Spike’s own fierce independence has again been placed under the microscope makes the situation even more uncomfortable. This designer isn’t asking Spike himself for a handout, he’s chiefly asking for empathy.

 

I know young graphic designers and I’m currently in a position in which I work with one. It’s not pretty. In an age in which the audience will cheerfully download your film for nothing, studios are only chiefly interested in the next comic book cash cow and the idea of working for nothing/scraps in the media is becoming way too much of the norm, freelancers are doing what they can to stay afloat. Artistic and creative careers are still being seen as flights of fancy or “phases” despite the fact that our way of life has us engaging with them even more. If Garcia is merely a chancer, leaping on to a coat tails of a hotly debated film, then shame on him. However the question I would ask is why Old Boy? The film doesn’t look to be the runaway hit some are hoping it to be. It’s a violent and bloody remake of a superb yet cult Korean film. It’s hardly a film with deep pockets.
 
For me, the saddest thing comes from a brief exchange from a friend (and freelance writer) who reminded me of the one other thing that none of us really wanted to bring up: race.
 

If there’s one thing that ignorance thrives on, it’s moments like this; a chance to sink their teeth into a perceived flaw and show the world that we’re nowhere near evolving yet. The problem is Spike seems to be more than happy to throw a bone to his enemies. Spike once again viewed the moment as a confrontation as opposed to seeing this as a chance to help a fellow creative (or even consider this to be a great PR opportunity for Old Boy) Spike’s bluntness as done little to help anyone, even himself. Yet this is the same guy who sought an injunction for Spike T.V as it sounded too much like his moniker. This is the same Spike Lee who wrongly tweeted the address of an elderly couple, thinking it was the home of George “Trigger Happy” Zimmerman. It’s almost like he enjoys casting the first stone within his just patched up glass house. It seems clear to me that Spike can easily let these things roll of his back, yet it becomes a minefield for those who love his work. Spike is still the best known African-American director and at a time where Black characters in film are getting shat on by ignorance, it would be nice to have Spike tone down his “sharper” elements and remind us of the statesman he often can be. After the Django debacle (another Spike moment), the one thing I would love to see is sodality, because we damn well need it.
 
This of course is in an ideal world; where freelancers don’t get screwed for their work, and if they do, the at least they can reach out to a director who will hear them out first as opposed to a 140 character cold shoulder. We can only dream. Unfortunately in reality I find myself yelling at yet another open letter and likening Spike Lee to how Chris Rock feels about Hip Hop. I love him but I’m tired of defending him.
 
Leslie Byron Pitt is a freelance film critic. You can read more of his writing on his blog site www.afrofilmviewer.com/