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Photograph by David Lee

At Your Service: Anthony Mackie strips for donor action in 'She Hate Me.'

Gender Is The Night

Spike Lee, channeling Norman Mailer, flaunts his sexual politics in 'She Hate Me'

By Richard von Busack

SPIKE LEE's latest film, She Hate Me, is a cinematic essay that says men are under siege by women and only pregnancy brings a truce in the war of the sexes. In short, Lee has morphed into Norman Mailer. It's all there: the Brooklyn chauvinism and aggressiveness, the worship of sports figures, the sense that penis envy and the corporate world go hand in hand.

The title is a way-inside sports joke: "He Hate Me" was the nickname of Rod Smart of the Carolina Panthers. Rod Smart would have been a fine pseudonym for Lee on this one: Women Smart, but Rod Smarter. As Lee hits middle age, his sour resentment of the supposed privilege of women is festering. She Hate Me is the kind of movie that begs you to hate it; it's farfetched, often unfunny, and it's never ever sexy enough.

Considering what we're supposed to overlook in She Hate Me, in the name of politics, I think Lee really owed us all some better bedroom action. Previously erotic actresses like Monica Bellucci, Ellen Barkin and Sarita Choudhury (a regular in Mira Nair's spicier films) are used perfunctorily. What happened? She's Gotta Have It was plenty sexy, and the success of Lee's key films in the independent-cinema movement is partially due to Tracy Camilla Johns' nude scenes.

In She Hate Me, the couplings are almost all grudge screws. The hero, Jack Armstrong (Anthony Mackie), is an unemployed executive turned stud for a small hoard of Manhattan lipstick lesbians. He's connected through them through his ex-fiancee Fatima (Kerry Washington in a brutally underwritten part). Jack caught Fatima in bed with another woman, even after the wedding invitations had been sent out.

Fatima and her lover, Alex (Dania Ramirez), lead the parade of women desiring pregnancy. They pay him $10,000 a pop, and all refuse to use the traditional turkey baster. The ladies usually arrive in groups of six. Jack drinks Red Bull and pops Viagra to keep up; in animated sequences, we see his sperm puffing and blowing like marathon runners as they head for their rendezvous with the egg.

Most of the lesbians are man haters. They greet Jack with endearments like "Strip, bitch" and "Drop your drawers." Two separate women grab his balls and twist as a way of saying hello. ("Now you know what it's like to be a sex object!" one crows.) But Jack is revenged when the lesbians are seen in montage, screaming their heads off during childbirth. That'll show 'em.

The film is bracketed with a story of Jack's previous occupation. The biotech firm he was working for did an Enron; on insider tips, executives cashed out and left the employees with empty 401k's. Jack blows the whistle on his boss (Woody Harrelson, who teleprompters his part), but our hero is punished: he's fired and blacklisted and has his bank account frozen. As a martyr to the system, Jack likens himself to Frank Wills, the Watergate security guard who discovered the CREEP break-in and who was supposedly kept out of a job for the rest of his life. Actually, Wills was temporarily lionized, played himself in All the President's Men, quit his job and later served a year in jail for shoplifting.

The politics that She Hate Me almost gets at are maybe more interesting than the film itself. Jack's sperm-selling operation is a philosophical fork with which to pin down conservative Republicans: if you believe in absolute freedom of the market place, how could you object to someone selling his sperm to lesbians? (Especially at a more-than-fair market price of $10,000; in New York, you could buy someone's liver for that, let alone a tablespoon of sperm.)

Satirizing corporate greed, Lee pushes a lot of hot buttons. During the title sequence—silk-printed banners of dollar bills, rippling nobly like flags, a kind of pornography for Ayn Rand fanciers—we see the wit that has saved Lee in the past. And Jim Brown is very good as Jack's diabetes-ridden ex-boxer father: henpecked, just like his son.

Lee is coming off two of his best films, 25th Hour and the maddening but sporadically brilliant polemic Bamboozled, but She Hate Me represents a step backward into Lee's crabbiest paranoia, with a weird uplifting ending: Mr. Sperm Donor Goes to Washington. To the film's official lesbian adviser, Tristan Taormino, the fadeout looks like an endorsement of the alternative family. It'll look more like "harem" to people off Lee's payroll.

She Hate Me—more aptly titled She'll Hate It—is redeemed in one thing. Lee is one of the last men left deliberately trying to piss off the corporate world in his feature films. Like Mailer, you can't write him off even when he's doing something so retrograde you can't believe your eyes.

She Hate Me (R; 123 min.), directed by Spike Lee, written by Lee and Michael Genet, photographed by Matthew Libatique and starring Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington, opens Friday.

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From the August 18-24, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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