Author Topic: Why August Wilson Was No Tyler Perry  (Read 29237 times)

Offline Reginald Hudlin

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Why August Wilson Was No Tyler Perry
« on: April 27, 2010, 06:45:41 pm »
 
Published on The Root (http://www.theroot.com)

Why August Wilson Was No Tyler Perry
By: Todd Boyd
Posted: April 26, 2010 at 12:28 AM

There's a reason why there's never been an adaptation of an August Wilson play at the multiplex. When it comes to the lives of black folks, Hollywood--and the movie-going audience--doesn't do complicated, nuanced or subtle.

The name of the late playwright August Wilson rings like a bell in literary and dramatic circles. Wilson, however, remains an unknown quantity in the world of Hollywood. This giant of the stage and master of dramatic prose has been a non-entity on the silver screen. Why, one might ask, has the work of the Pulitzer Prize and multiple Tony Award winner never been accorded the celebrated Hollywood green light?

The answer to such a question is both simple and complex. The 10 plays that comprise what has been called Wilson's ''Pittsburgh Cycle''--featuring a different drama relative to African-American existence set in each decade of the 20th century--is not your average run-of-the-mill cycle of black representation. The complex, nuanced, dialogue-driven, historical portrait of blackness across the previous century is not easily reducible to the type of rote clichés that often define racial representation in Hollywood these days. Since Wilson was not known for creating gun-toting grandmothers in drag or chicken-stealing incest victims, his work would probably seem alien to those who embrace such examples of postmodern minstrelsy as authentic black life. In the contemporary culture of Hollywood--where tired remakes, unnecessary sequels, big budget sci-fi schlock, and the tedious adaptation of old television shows rules the day--an appreciation of Wilson's more deliberate, methodical approach is about as incongruous as the thought of Alice Waters owning a McDonald's franchise. Wilson's work is too intelligent to survive the dreaded industry development process, where all the creative life is often sucked from potentially brilliant works.

The substance of, say, Fences or The Piano Lesson, is over the heads of people who regard any film with more than three African Americans in it as a ''black film.'' To suggest that Hollywood just doesn't get it is an understatement. For years, going back to the days of the blaxploitation era, Hollywood has routinely tended to categorize most films featuring multiple African Americans as ''black'' regardless of the actual genre of the film itself. The differences between comedies and dramas, biographies and crime sagas all get lumped into one gigantic category known as ''black'' or ''urban.'' The exception to this rule would be those films that feature a movie star like Will Smith. Such star power tends to mean bigger production and marketing budgets along with a predominantly white supporting cast. Yet considering that there's only one Will Smith, unless he decides that he wants to do an August Wilson adaptation, it's probably not going to happen.

Beyond this, the usage of the phrase ''black film'' is generally pejorative in Hollywood, which in turn means a much smaller budget and fewer screens. In other words, the reductive process of Hollywood number crunching tends to elide any distinctions of say gender, class, age, location or genre when it comes to so-called ''black film.'' Blackness in such an environment is regarded as monolithic. August Wilson's sophisticated dramaturgy doesn't easily lend itself to such unfortunate circumstances. With this being the case, attempting to pitch the cinematic value of August Wilson to some superficial doofus in a Hollywood executive suite would be akin to trying to explain astrophysics to a wino.

Yet the thought that Hollywood doesn't get it or doesn't want to get it, is itself nothing novel necessarily. When one considers that Hollywood is on that constant paper chase, what they do get is green, and I'm not talking about the environmental green here either. If in Hollywood's mind August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom or Two Trains Running were thought to be potentially profitable, then such film titles would already be in your Netflix queue. I am not saying that such films would or wouldn't be popular at the box office. That would depend on quite a few other business and creative factors, of course. What I am saying is that the process by which Hollywood makes decisions and their rather limited knowledge of African- American culture not classified as pop culture, does not favor something as complex as the work of August Wilson getting made when the industry's view of black life has tended to be much more simplistic.

That being said, this prompts another question. If by chance Hollywood got smarter overnight and decided to green light some August Wilson plays, would people go to see these movies? Sure, some people most certainly would. (And with the exception of Fences, Wilson's plays, while critically acclaimed, garnered no real box office gold.) The legacy of Wilson's work as a playwright and the current, briskly selling revival of Fences starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis on Broadway attest to continued interest in the celebrated scribe.

But beyond a dedicated following of people knowledgeable of Wilson's career or other theater-minded patrons, how many people would actually find such intelligent work appealing, when for years now all they have seen is one kitschy Tyler Perry ''coonfest'' after another on screen? Would audiences, particularly contemporary African-American audiences, embrace a view of themselves that is not consistent with the type of cinematic cultural pornography that foregrounds rather grotesque stereotypes defined by pathology and dysfunction as genuine black life? Would those same people who have helped to make Tyler Perry so rich easily embrace depictions that were not so broad, melodramatic, and especially, over the top? Could it be that August Wilson's work is too intelligent for both studio heads and certain segments of the movie-going audience?

The PC answer to such a question would chide the industry for not putting such films into the pipeline, but would in turn suggest that if movies of Wilson's plays were made that African-American audiences would indeed be thrilled to see such offerings. I'm not so sure anymore. Many people, in spite of protests that call for more diverse representation, want to keep it simple. They are only interested in the familiar. Because August Wilson's work existed on the Broadway stage, such people might consider it to be too far removed from the church house to be considered authentically black.

August Wilson's plays pose as many questions as they provide answers. Such a posture would be potentially too challenging for movie audiences who have become accustomed to reductive, ham-fisted expressions of religious and moral certitude in recent popular works. In other words, how can audiences of people who have little to no knowledge of the cultural work of historical figures like Lorraine Hansberry, Gordon Parks and Paul Robeson come to appreciate the type of black life writ large that Wilson provided us with? How can you ever appreciate August Wilson if you've never come to appreciate people like Billy Strayhorn, Carmen McRae and Romare Bearden?

Though many today loathe the sort of high culture/pop culture distinctions that I am suggesting here, I find these distinctions to be quite valid. In my mind, the best examples of the culture move freely between high and pop modes, as opposed to being stuck in one gear or the other. Too much high culture alone makes you a square, while too much pop culture alone potentially makes you an idiot. A steady diet of foie gras is no better for you than a steady diet of Popeye's.

When pop culture has come to eclipse high culture, then we have a problem. The same problem would exist if it were the other way around also. August Wilson's work represents some of the best of its kind. But, believe it or not, people are not always interested in the best. Many people want something fast and disposable, not something slow and meditative. So as much as some would want to bemoan the lack of an August Wilson movie, the truth is we are probably better off without it. When one considers the potential desecration of Wilson's work, between the studio's ineptitude and the audience's indifference, we are, at the end of the day, probably better off just leaving well enough alone.

Dr. Todd Boyd is the Katherine and Frank Price Endowed Chair for the Study of Race and Popular Culture and Professor of Critical Studies in the USC School of Cinematic Arts. His blog is Notorious Ph.D.


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Offline Mastrmynd

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Re: Why August Wilson Was No Tyler Perry
« Reply #1 on: April 27, 2010, 08:13:04 pm »
Dr. Todd Boyd is that dude!
i really want him to do a movie review show!


Listen to my entertaining radio show, "The Takeover: Top 20 Countdown" at www.top20takeover.VVCRadio.com.

Right on to the real and death to the fakers!  Peace out!

Offline The Griot

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Re: Why August Wilson Was No Tyler Perry
« Reply #2 on: May 23, 2010, 12:45:35 pm »
A couple of points. I don't know if you can blame Tyler Perry's movie success on Hollywood. Tyler did it on his own. He began as an outsider and worked his way in. Even his 'minstrely' movies were not seen as being possibly successful.

One point made by the author does raise an interesting question. Would African Americans go see a film based on an August Wilson play. I went to see Fences in Atlanta and was amused by those in the audience that responded to the production as if it was a Tyler Perry play. They laughed at scenes that were supposed to be poignant and yell out to the actors during tense situations. It's like we've been conditioned to expect less about ourselves.

It's a complicated issue indeed.
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Offline Mastrmynd

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Re: Why August Wilson Was No Tyler Perry
« Reply #3 on: June 16, 2010, 02:49:11 pm »
A couple of points. I don't know if you can blame Tyler Perry's movie success on Hollywood. Tyler did it on his own. He began as an outsider and worked his way in. Even his 'minstrely' movies were not seen as being possibly successful.

One point made by the author does raise an interesting question. Would African Americans go see a film based on an August Wilson play. I went to see Fences in Atlanta and was amused by those in the audience that responded to the production as if it was a Tyler Perry play. They laughed at scenes that were supposed to be poignant and yell out to the actors during tense situations. It's like we've been conditioned to expect less about ourselves.

It's a complicated issue indeed.

it's interesting what you bring up.
those theater-goers have obviously only known "plays" and/or "gospel plays."
for them call and response is supposed to be a part of the viewing enjoyment.


Listen to my entertaining radio show, "The Takeover: Top 20 Countdown" at www.top20takeover.VVCRadio.com.

Right on to the real and death to the fakers!  Peace out!

Offline Emperorjones

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Re: Why August Wilson Was No Tyler Perry
« Reply #4 on: August 01, 2010, 04:14:28 pm »
Why is there an need to use the late August Wilson to attack Tyler Perry? Does there only have to one major black playwright? One way of viewing the African American experience?

Yes, Mr. Wilson was no Tyler Perry. Perry found a way to connect and cultivate on a mass level in a way that Mr. Wilson never did. Not saying he wanted to. To be honest, I know little about Mr. Wilson. I'm sure that Mr. Wilson's work-which I haven't read-is pretty good and more than likely better than Mr. Perry's-but Perry has found a way to make his work connect, he is writing to and about black people right now.

This is a question bigger than this made up conflict. One could argue this point about black dramas v. black comedies, conscious hip hop v. gangsta, etc.

I think we've got to find a way to embrace all aspects of our experience, the good and the bad. There's no one right way to do things or see things. True, there are things I would rather we focus on entertainment wise, but I don't think its fair to bash Perry for that necessarily, especially using Wilson's legacy and work to do it. Nor do I think its cool to look down on Perry's fans because that's a big cross section of black folks.

Offline moor

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Re: Why August Wilson Was No Tyler Perry
« Reply #5 on: August 01, 2010, 04:54:18 pm »
Why is there an need to use the late August Wilson to attack Tyler Perry? Does there only have to one major black playwright? One way of viewing the African American experience?

Yes, Mr. Wilson was no Tyler Perry. Perry found a way to connect and cultivate on a mass level in a way that Mr. Wilson never did. Not saying he wanted to. To be honest, I know little about Mr. Wilson. I'm sure that Mr. Wilson's work-which I haven't read-is pretty good and more than likely better than Mr. Perry's-but Perry has found a way to make his work connect, he is writing to and about black people right now.

This is a question bigger than this made up conflict. One could argue this point about black dramas v. black comedies, conscious hip hop v. gangsta, etc.

I think we've got to find a way to embrace all aspects of our experience, the good and the bad. There's no one right way to do things or see things. True, there are things I would rather we focus on entertainment wise, but I don't think its fair to bash Perry for that necessarily, especially using Wilson's legacy and work to do it. Nor do I think its cool to look down on Perry's fans because that's a big cross section of black folks.

I wonder if Bill Shakespeare ever got put through the ringer like this when he was alive? 

A lot of call and response at his shows too, from what I've read...

Offline Emperorjones

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Re: Why August Wilson Was No Tyler Perry
« Reply #6 on: August 02, 2010, 03:04:39 am »

^
I agree. From what I remember of English class, Shakespeare's stuff wasn't just for the nobility, it was for the masses.

If this Dr. Boyd wanted to critique Perry, just do that, without bringing August Wilson into it and creating a false comparison. I think this Dr. Boyd just wants to take black folks to task about something-whether it be BET or Tyler Perry-and right now I have no desire to be taken to task. If you like low brow, broad comedy, or even straight up coonery, then you like it. Wrapping someone's knuckles about it isn't going to deter them from liking it and more than likely will make them hold on to it even harder. I would prefer there be more balance, a mix of high and low entertainment, but people got to make up their own minds. Perry's work speaks to people in a way that Wilson's doesn't. Perhaps that's marketing and exposure, perhaps Wilson's requires a bit more intellectual investment, I don't know.

Or maybe people don't care for all the solemn stuff. Or the appearance that Wilson's work is solemn, stuffy, cloaked in the 'theater', whereas Perry's is far more accessible and let me repeat, talking about stuff now. Complete with pop cultural references that people understand and can relate to. In a way this reminds me of a Terry McMillan interview, I think it was on Oprah, in which she was talking about Waiting to Exhale and why it took off. Before that, most books about the black experience were centered around the Civil Rights Movement, at that time 20 years past, whereas Exhale was about black people's contemporary lives, and she was right in gauging that people were interested in reading about themselves and how they were living right now. I see Perry's work in a similar vein, in comparison to Wilson. Even though I still don't think its a legit comparison. Why not compare Perry to Lorraine Hansberry or Amiri Baraka for that matter?

Offline Curtis Metcalf

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Re: Why August Wilson Was No Tyler Perry
« Reply #7 on: August 02, 2010, 05:07:26 pm »
I didn't take Dr. Boyd's piece as clowning Tyler Perry. Why not compare and contrast two of our most prolific black playwrights? The high culture / pop culture contrast seems dead on to me. Pointing out that we often don't choose the profound stuff is hardly a revelation. He does advocate a balanced diet.
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Offline Afro Samurai

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Re: Why August Wilson Was No Tyler Perry
« Reply #8 on: August 02, 2010, 07:06:03 pm »
"when for years now all they have seen is one kitschy Tyler Perry ''coonfest'' after another on screen?"

I never understood why ppl like Todd & Spike Lee think Tyler Perry stuff is "coonfest." Alot of his movies are deep & talk about domestic violence, rape, racism & god. Alot of his movies show good black fathers and strong independent black smart women.........sh*t THAT NON EXIST EVERYWHERE ELSE.

Now Lee Daniels (Monster's balls, Precious, etc.) is a house negro, that should be attack.
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Offline Emperorjones

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Re: Why August Wilson Was No Tyler Perry
« Reply #9 on: August 02, 2010, 09:12:45 pm »
I am in agreement that Lee Daniels is far more egregrious. At least Perry's movies generally end on a hopeful note and have characters that are resourceful and have faith or find it by the end of the film, or if not faith, family and/or love of some sort. I think Perry has used stereotyping, but so has Spike Lee.

Though Do the Right Thing gets praised to the high heavens, almost every black person in the movie was portrayed in a negative light. Mookie was lazy and trying to get over, Buggin' Out was doing just that, the old black men sitting on their asses complaining about the industrious Korean guy, Radio Raheem walking through the hood like a black brute, etc. Spike has blown up stereotypes or turned them inside out with movies like Bamboozled, but he has also employed them from time to time.

I don't think Perry is perfect however, he has a colorism issue IMO. Too many of his villains are dark skinned and the heroes are light, pertaining to the male characters. Don't know what's up with that.

Offline voodoochild

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Re: Why August Wilson Was No Tyler Perry
« Reply #10 on: August 09, 2010, 04:40:47 pm »
I am in agreement that Lee Daniels is far more egregrious. At least Perry's movies generally end on a hopeful note and have characters that are resourceful and have faith or find it by the end of the film, or if not faith, family and/or love of some sort. I think Perry has used stereotyping, but so has Spike Lee.

Though Do the Right Thing gets praised to the high heavens, almost every black person in the movie was portrayed in a negative light. Mookie was lazy and trying to get over, Buggin' Out was doing just that, the old black men sitting on their asses complaining about the industrious Korean guy, Radio Raheem walking through the hood like a black brute, etc. Spike has blown up stereotypes or turned them inside out with movies like Bamboozled, but he has also employed them from time to time.

I don't think Perry is perfect however, he has a colorism issue IMO. Too many of his villains are dark skinned and the heroes are light, pertaining to the male characters. Don't know what's up with that.


Woah, woah, woah!   :D

Lee Daniels' pieces may be dark and dreary, but that's reality for a lot people.  Most situations don't end up with a light skinned blue collar worker swooping in to save our poor, but STRONG BLACK WOMAN heroine off her feet and taking her to an obligatory church service!  :D :D :D

And let's not get it twisted; Perry is currently the biggest mainstream offender of showcasing Black stereotypes.  Spike Lee may have less than positive characters in his films, but that's kinda the point.  No one in Do The Right Thing was supposed to be "the good guy or the bad guy".  The film works on a much more complex level than that.  People are complicated animals.  No one is all good or or all bad.  No character in any Spike Lee movie even comes close to these clowns:




Offline voodoochild

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Re: Why August Wilson Was No Tyler Perry
« Reply #11 on: August 09, 2010, 04:53:18 pm »
OK, so wait...
Boyd wrote, like, a twelve paragraph article calling attention to a great playwright like Wilson, and all most of you got out of it was an attack on Perry?
Really?
Wow.

Offline Afro Samurai

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Re: Why August Wilson Was No Tyler Perry
« Reply #12 on: August 11, 2010, 07:32:49 am »
I am in agreement that Lee Daniels is far more egregrious. At least Perry's movies generally end on a hopeful note and have characters that are resourceful and have faith or find it by the end of the film, or if not faith, family and/or love of some sort. I think Perry has used stereotyping, but so has Spike Lee.

Though Do the Right Thing gets praised to the high heavens, almost every black person in the movie was portrayed in a negative light. Mookie was lazy and trying to get over, Buggin' Out was doing just that, the old black men sitting on their asses complaining about the industrious Korean guy, Radio Raheem walking through the hood like a black brute, etc. Spike has blown up stereotypes or turned them inside out with movies like Bamboozled, but he has also employed them from time to time.

I don't think Perry is perfect however, he has a colorism issue IMO. Too many of his villains are dark skinned and the heroes are light, pertaining to the male characters. Don't know what's up with that.


Woah, woah, woah!   :D

Lee Daniels' pieces may be dark and dreary, but that's reality for a lot people.  Most situations don't end up with a light skinned blue collar worker swooping in to save our poor, but STRONG BLACK WOMAN heroine off her feet and taking her to an obligatory church service!  :D :D :D

And let's not get it twisted; Perry is currently the biggest mainstream offender of showcasing Black stereotypes.  Spike Lee may have less than positive characters in his films, but that's kinda the point.  No one in Do The Right Thing was supposed to be "the good guy or the bad guy".  The film works on a much more complex level than that.  People are complicated animals.  No one is all good or or all bad.  No character in any Spike Lee movie even comes close to these clowns:






Alot of Lee's work r just praising white supremacy.

Monster's Ball:

The black chick was so horny & lonely that she had to had sex with a white racist that killed her hubby on the first nite.

Tennessee:

2 white boys go on a journey, along the way they "saved" a black woman from her controlling black husband. So the black woman go on a road trip with 2 white guys she don't know.

Precious:

pppfttttttttttt, i am not even gonna get into that bullsh*t.

Madea is not that bad. She is just over the top with everything. Including helping people.

Mr. Brown is stupid & with a big kind heart............FOR BLACK PPL... not just white ppl.

You also got to give extra prop for Tyler Perry having more black ppl star in his films then Spike Lee & other. Granted, Tyler Perry is annoying with the "dark skin man is evil" but the man aint a sell out.

To your 2nd post:

What is the point of bringing another black man down, to raise another up?? That type of sh*t annoyed me, how come the writer didn't diss white, azn & latin directors?   
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Offline Vic Vega

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Re: Why August Wilson Was No Tyler Perry
« Reply #13 on: August 11, 2010, 08:54:13 am »
Folks saw the last production of "Fences" for Denzel.

If he hadn't been part of the production I know I would not have even heard about it.

Charles Dutton (of Roc fame )originally starred in The Piano Lession. But star power can't help if the audience doesn't know about it.

Wilson's stuff isn't exactly marketed to Black audiences (none of the Broadway theater is, really) plus Broadway isn't cheap. Perry's stuff, on the other hand, is marketed towards the black community.

I think Black folks would have come out to see Denzel in Fences if A) they'd known about it and B) it wouldn't break the bank to go see him.


Offline voodoochild

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Re: Why August Wilson Was No Tyler Perry
« Reply #14 on: August 11, 2010, 05:01:50 pm »

Alot of Lee's work r just praising white supremacy.

Monster's Ball:

The black chick was so horny & lonely that she had to had sex with a white racist that killed her hubby on the first nite.

That's an extremely simplistic and limited view of what was going on in that film, but...OK. ???  Besides, Lee didn't direct or write this film.  He only produced it.

Tennessee:

2 white boys go on a journey, along the way they "saved" a black woman from her controlling black husband. So the black woman go on a road trip with 2 white guys she don't know.

Didn't see Tennessee, but like Monster's Ball, Lee didn't write or direct this film either.

Precious:

pppfttttttttttt, i am not even gonna get into that bullsh*t.

OK, Lee did direct this one, but I don't see how this film praised white supremacy. Sure, it dealt with black on black abuse, but white supremacy???  ???

Madea is not that bad. She is just over the top with everything. Including helping people.

Mr. Brown is stupid & with a big kind heart............FOR BLACK PPL... not just white ppl.

OK, you want to talk about white supremacy and black filmmakers?  Cool.  Then look no further than your boy Tyler Perry.  Let's take Madea.  A big black man like Perry decides to play the main role, his most famous character, in drag.   In effect, emasculating himself, to play this part.  You're telling me that he couldn't find an actual actress to be Madea?  He had to put on the wig, boobs and dress himself?  Seriously?  And I'm supposed to treat this sh*t like it has some credibility or validity as serious art?  C'mon, man.

Then we've got Mr. Brown.  An old school coon.  You could put this fool in a movie with Bojangles and Stepin Fetchit and no one would bat an eye!  Brown almost single handedly sets Black cinematic images back sixty years.

You also got to give extra prop for Tyler Perry having more black ppl star in his films then Spike Lee & other. Granted, Tyler Perry is annoying with the "dark skin man is evil" but the man aint a sell out.

I'll grant you that Perry employs a lot of black talent that you don't normally see in more mainstream films, and I do give him props for that, but Spike and his peers have been employing black actors since the 80's.  I know Perry is the flavor of the month, but let's put some things in perspective. :D   Besides, his mostly black casts don't absolve him from criticism.  Black actors worked consistently in TV and film during the early 70's and that entire era gets heavily criticized.
Perry's skin color issues absolutely make him a sellout.  By casting predominately light skinned actors in hero roles and dark skin actors in villain roles, he's reinforcing the idea that BLACK is BAD and WHITE(or LIGHT in his films) is GOOD.

To your 2nd post:

What is the point of bringing another black man down, to raise another up?? That type of sh*t annoyed me, how come the writer didn't diss white, azn & latin directors?   

Well, first of all, white, asian, and latin directors aren't the point.  Boyd's talking about BLACK entertainment.  He's talking about the difficulty of adapting for the cinema work as nuanced and complex as Wilson's plays to audiences accustomed to the simplistic--   
Wait.
Aren't you doing the same thing you accuse Boyd of doing by bringing Spike Lee into this?