Stream of the Day: Spike Lee’s ‘Girl 6’ Deserves More Credit for Criticizing Hollywood

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Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled” is one of those forgotten “Joints” that confounded critics and audiences at the time of its initial release. Twenty years later, it’s enjoying a renaissance — thanks to a recently-released Criterion Collection DVD/Blu-ray edition of this long out-of-print title — and a much-deserved reassessment of this scathing and insightful satire. But it’s not the only one that deserves a second look. Four years before “Bamboozled,” Lee made another idiosyncratic movie filled with big ideas. Like “Bamboozled,” Lee’s 1996 dramedy “Girl 6” also baffled viewers at the time, but its insights into race and gender in Hollywood still resonate today.

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Increasingly, black filmmakers like Steve McQueen and Ryan Coogler are able to create unapologetically unconventional work that’s embraced on a wide scale, and have gone on to greater success. But that hasn’t always been the case. Wendell B. Harris’ free-wheeling “Chameleon Street” has been all but buried, despite winning the 1990 Sundance Grand Jury Prize. And it took decades for films by Bill Gunn (“Ganja & Hess”) and Kathleen Collins (“Losing Ground”), to be recognized for their groundbreaking work. “Girl 6” helps explain how that happened for so long, with a playful and unexpected approach to revealing the unreasonable expectations placed on black filmmakers at the time.

Sandwiched between “serious” message movies in “Clockers” and “Get on the Bus,” Lee’s “Girl 6” looked like nothing in his filmography since “She’s Gotta Have It,” though it has its own unique rhythms. (Pulitzer-prize winning screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks wrote the script, marking the first time in his career that he directed off someone else’s screenplay.) Trying to make it in the acting world, a young black woman (Theresa Randle) resorts to working as a phone sex operator to pay the bills. Labeled “Girl 6” by her new employer, she finds her work oddly fulfilling and starts getting attached to one caller, Bob (Peter Berg). While dealing with various personal problems, such as her inept ex-husband (Isaiah Washington) wanting her back, Girl 6 allows her fantasy world as a phone sex operator, to eclipse her real life, with potentially dangerous ramifications.

Underneath all the varnish, it’s a tale of the proverbial starving actress, which should resonate with young performers — especially of color — trying to make it in Hollywood. The story comes with the usual trimmings: Girl 6 works multiple jobs to support herself; auditions are hit-and-miss; she wrestles with her agent. Over the years, women of all stripes, facing economic difficulties, have been attracted by the promise of flexible schedules and fast cash that come with working in the adult entertainment industry.

The film was a showcase for Randle, as she acts out her character’s fantasies, including fully costumed impersonations of Dorothy Dandridge as Carmen Jones, and Pam Grier as Foxy Brown. Sadly, “Girl 6” proved its own point: Randle’s performance that ought to have led to other prominent roles. However, like other talented African American actresses who came before and after her, Hollywood apparently wasn’t much interested, and continues to ignore her (her appearance in “Boy Bad Boys For Life” was her first role in a decade).

“Girl 6” may have struggled to find as many fans as “Bamboozled” in part because it opens on such a troubling note — when Randle, in an audition for Quentin Tarantino (here dubbed “QT”), is asked to bares her breasts. Clearly very uncomfortable, Girl 6 slides down her top. Like in “She’s Gotta Have It,” Lee simultaneously celebrates young, independent, self-aware black women, while also wrestling with his own heterosexual male filmmaker biases.

But the scene (which ultimately caused a rift between the two filmmakers) coalesces into a shrewd statement on who gets to tell black stories. The overbearing QT brags to the anxious actress that the film she’s auditioning for will be “bigger than big; the greatest romantic African American film ever made; directed by me of course!”

It’s a profound deconstructive moment in miniature: Lee is telling exactly what blackness has come to mean for Hollywood; its verdict that blackness and black cinema are ideas that can be navigated by anyone and any filmmaker. In other words, black filmmakers were not needed to produce black cinematic culture because white filmmakers could produce that culture. The moment was informed in part by Tarantino’s depictions of black characters, as well as Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of “The Color Purple.” More than a decade after its release, Lee was still complaining about the Spielberg project, telling one interviewer:

He did not get it. When he did “Schindler’s List,” I read that he said, “I don’t care if this film just makes a nickel. I want to be truthful. I’m going to shoot in black and white,” which is death at the box office. No stars. Boom. Great movie. Now we get to “Amistad,” which is also about a holocaust. Now, all of a sudden, Spielberg’s commercial hat is on. That’s why we got Matthew McConaughey in the movie. That’s why all the footage of slaves got junked. That’s why the Africans are extras in that movie. All of a sudden he has to make money. He’s making commercial decisions, whereas when he did ‘Schindler’s List’ all that stuff was thrown out of the window. He just wanted to do a great film. It was very disturbing to me.

That discussion continues into the present. The past decade has seen multiple studio films about the black experience made with scant input from black filmmakers: “The Help,” “Django Unchained,” “42,” “Get on Up,” “Detroit,” “Hidden Figures,” and “Green Book.” All of them were made against the backdrop of a system that has historically shut out black filmmakers. Lee himself has seen two films that he fought for years to produce end up in the hands of white directors: biopics on Jackie Robinson and James Brown.

Ultimately, for the first poignant two-thirds of “Girl 6,” there’s something refreshing about its stylishly inventive cinematography, courtesy of Malik Sayeed, near-anarchic construction, punctuated by a wall-to-wall Prince soundtrack. But Lee spoils all the fun when the film gets a bit too serious in the third act, trying to squeeze in a few too many heavy-handed lesson or two.

But “Girl 6” is filled with many alluring scenes that work on their own terms. Chief among them is the climactic kiss between two main characters, as multicolored telephones drop from the sky in slow motion.

Lee’s films often exhibit less interest in story than theme, and they can have an unfinished quality about them, especially when he’s working without restrictions. “Girl 6” epitomizes this tendency and ought to be met on those terms. As the industry continues to wrestle with its limitations, the movie’s insights suggest it was both ahead of its time and readymade for this one.

“Girl 6” is streaming on Hulu, Amazon, and Starz.

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