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Spike Lee's Gentrification Problem

Lee's role in gentrification is complicated, despite his vociferous criticism of the phenomenon, because in some ways he's responsible for the Brooklyn of today.
A woman and child walk down a street in the Fort Greene neighborhood where the director and artist Spike Lee once lived on February 27th, 2014, in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.

 A woman and child walk down a street in the Fort Greene neighborhood where the director and artist Spike Lee once lived on February 27th, 2014, in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.

Spike Lee's new Netflix series She's Gotta Have It is an update of his eponymous 1986 movie, a portrayal of a black "sex-positive, polyamorous pansexual" woman named Nola Darling who's trying to find a safe space for her sexual and artistic freedoms in Brooklyn. In the movie original, her efforts are hampered by the three men she's dating, and a woman she's curious about dating. They each treat Darling like their own personal merchandise and insist on trying to fix what they see as sexually wayward ways.

In the Netflix special, Darling's freedoms are further depressed by a new antagonist: gentrification. Darling's white neighbors call the police and hold neighborhood meetings to report noise, loitering, funky smells, graffiti, and other perceived nuisances in their neighborhood. Every episode opens with a shot of a real estate sign that displays the obscenely high housing rental costs in Brooklyn. Gentrification was not an issue in the original SGHI, but it's a major concern for Lee, and it's worth exploring why—and the role Lee plays in making Brooklyn what it is today.

Brooklyn neighborhoods like Fort Greene and Bedford-Stuyvesant were Lee's primary canvases back in the 1980s and '90s. His art was heavily concerned with black life on black terms in Black Brooklyn. Way before television shows like Atlanta and Insecure and the movie Moonlight were able to get away with it, Lee was creating urban landscapes that were completely devoid of non-black characters, as seen in his early movies Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop, School Daze, and the original SGHI. Lee's New York City was as black as Woody Allen's was white. It wasn't until Lee's seminal 1989 film Do the Right Thing that he began teasing the menace of the invasion of white people into Black Brooklyn. When the white character Clifton bumps into Buggin' Out (a young Giancarlo Esposito) scuffing his Jordans in the process, Buggin' Out berates Clifton and questions his right to live in the neighborhood. Buggin' Out is as much offended by the fact that Clifton doesn't excuse himself for bumping into him as he is hurt about his now besmirched white Nikes. Clifton's assertion that he was "born in Brooklyn" and hence deserved to throw his weight around is what leads Buggin' Out's crew to throw up their hands in that classic "Awwww!!!" cry that is now a scene of legend.

Lee clones this scene in the new She's Gotta Have It, using a similar setting, at the base of the steps of a Brooklyn brownstone that's owned by Bianca, a white character who over-polices her neighborhood problems. Papo Da Mayor, a Latino character who claims the streets as his home, is aggravating Bianca by sitting on her steps. She's further perturbed when she sees a painted green "G" with the "anti-" line through it on her staircase, and she accuses Papo of doing it. The police appear on the scene as Nola Darling and Papo's fellow community members gather to defend him. Bianca recognizes the tag as an anti-gentrification sign, which she says is tantamount to reverse racism—cue everyone throwing up their hands crying "Awww!!!"

The gentrification problem has escalated in the time between Do the Right Thing and the new She's Gotta Have It. In Do the Right Thing, the harm the white gentrifier caused was negligible—a mark on Buggin' Out's sneakers that he was later able to brush off. The harm caused by the white gentrifier in the new SGHI is much more consequential: Bianca is not only able to summon the police, but she has Papo and Nola Darling arrested. The episode was titled without subtlety: "#ChangeGonCome (GENTRIFICATION)." For Lee, this is the logical climb of gentrification—first it's just a mere slight of black folks in the neighborhood; eventually it's the removal of black folks from the neighborhood.

It's an escalation that Lee has documented in various forms in some of his movies through the years, from his 1991 film Jungle Fever, which confronted the real physical dangers of racial integration in New York, to his 2012 film Red Hook Summer, where his feelings on gentrification turned from angst to pure rancor. In the new SGHI, Lee's Brooklyn is still mostly black, and he still has black characters operating on black terms, but whiteness has become part of the stew. A new girlfriend has been added to Darling's squadron, Rachel, who is white, and who was not in the original movie. Also, Darling and her squad are constantly under the surveillance of white Brooklynites as they go shopping, brunching, and drinking. It's the first Spike Lee joint where black people look out of place in Brooklyn in some scenes. In 2017, white people are less escapable for black Brooklynites. (The Living Single reboot will likely have to deal with this as well.)

It's a tad complicated, however, indulging Lee's case against gentrification. He has been publicly challenged on the fact that his own living and business arrangements in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, have drawn upscale developers, renters, and homeowners to the neighborhood, helping make it unaffordable. When the scholar Marc Lamont Hill questioned him about this after Lee's infamous 2014 diatribe against gentrification at Pratt Institute, Lee was more defensive than clarifying. The 2017 book Gentrifier, written by Hill, John Joe Schlichtman, and Jason Patch takes a swing:

Spike Lee is a "native" who—like many residents—is encouraging the gentrification that he dislikes. Furthermore, he is a person of great wealth whose residential decisions serve to displace people—just as the residential decisions of gentrifiers with much less income than Lee also serve to displace people. Our purpose here is not to call out insincerity. Lee's contradictions are not the result of a personal hypocrisy—and if they are, they are no worse than our own. We highlight such fragile contradictions to question our current understanding.

I asked Lee about these charges, and how they play into his approach of the topic in SGHI. His response was not illuminating:

Spike Lee Is The Reason Why Fort Greene Is Gentrified? Get Da Fuck Outta Here With Da Bullshit. There Had To Be White Flight First For Gentrification To Happen. FACT. I Wrote A Scene (Way Back In 1988) About Gentrification In DO THE RIGHT THING Which Featured The Actor JOHN SAVAGE. FACT. So Your Questions/Narrative Are WACK!!!!

Lee was indeed prophetic, as he boasted in his reply, about gentrification by writing about it in 1988. However, the fact that Do the Right Thing and his 40 Acres and a Mule company made Fort Greene a popular destination for wealthier residents may have inadvertently made that a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Lee is also correct that white flight is a more suitable pretext for the gentrification problem. Lee is part of a vanguard of black artists and professionals who helped buy and fix up properties throughout Fort Greene after white residents abandoned it. He helped fortify Fort Greene so he's earned the right to speak out for it. But it was that exact urban-renewable energy that made it attractive to the children of white flight, who began moving back to neighborhoods like Fort Greene, interrupting the beautiful Black Brooklyn canvas that Lee was so in love with. He needn't be ashamed or disown that. He only needs to keep working on that canvas, reminding people why Black Brooklyn is so special, as he continues to do with She's Gotta Have It, and keep doing his neighborhood justice.

This story originally appeared on CityLab, an editorial partner site. Subscribe to CityLab's newsletters and follow CityLab on Facebook and Twitter.