Mo’ Better Blues, the 1990 film by Spike Lee, still crackles with an enduring intensity. Set in a world of black Brooklyn at the beginning of the 1990’s, the film follows Denzel Washington, a working jazz trumpeter, as he approaches maturity. Wesley Snipes plays Washington’s foil as a Saxophone arbiter of New Jack sensibility against Post-bop traditionalism. Spike Lee plays a friend, and his sister Joie Lee plays against Cynda Williams as the women who would love Washington.
Coming after She’s Gotta Have It (1986), School Daze (1988), and the sensational hit Do the Right Thing (1989), Mo’ Better Blues captures the ferment of the Fort Greene Brooklyn creative elite at its fever pitch.
Director: Spike Lee
Producer: Spike Lee
Writer: Spike Lee
Cinematographer: Ernest R Dickerson
Editors: Samuel D Pollard
Music: Bill Lee, Branford Marsalis, Terence Blanchard
Cast: Denzel Washington, Spike Lee, Wesley Snipes, Giancarlo Esposito, Robin Harris, Joie Lee, Bill Nunn, John Turturro, Cynda Williams, Dick Anthony Williams, Samuel L Jackson, Rubén Blades, Flavor Flav
US Theatrical Release: August 3, 1990
US Distributor: Universal Pictures
Branford Marsalis and Terence Blanchard recorded the soundtrack. Washington’s “band” in the film, is the Jeff Tain Watts Quartet. Ruben Blades is in the film. As is Robin Harris. So with all of this hip baggage, the movie has an excuse for sagging in places and a little long at 129 minutes. It trends gimmicky, with sit-com antics: “Two women show up to see Washington wearing the same dress he gave them both as a present!” And at a certain point, Washington’s character mocks the emergence of hip-hop as infantile, recalling in a certain sense, Jay Z’s later premature death announcement for auto-tune. But it’s fascinating to see some of Lee’s cultural traditionalism (conservatism) come across in an argument about aesthetics. Especially because the early 1990s saw the reemergence of a kind of traditionalist post-bop cool become the mainstream of jazz as a reaction against perceived excesses. And to remember that these were actual aesthetic conversations happening around tradition and experiment, important for creative people interested in advancing avant-gardes and visionary futures. Mo’ Meta Blues, the memoir by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson of The Roots, highlights this conversation as the context for the emergence of The Roots out of the same environment that produced Christian McBride, a juggernaut of mainstream jazz. Hip-hop was considered the vanguard by some, and already too commercial by others.
Lee has often been criticized for the way he presents a singular kind of conservative middle class vision of blackness. And for a very long time, he was one of very few mainstream black filmmakers, giving his vision an exaggerated importance. More experimental voices never realized his level of success. And the Mars Blackmon Nike ads didn’t help his image with detractors.
But Lee has returned to certain important acts of visionary radicalism throughout his career. And Mo’ Better Blues lands on an essential aspect of the Spike Lee project, the projection of a history that allows for a more ideal future. Also hit upon by Samuel R. Delany’s statement about his most recent novel, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, is the way that just describing certain kinds of people living well is radical. This is the unspoken rule that certain people aren’t allowed to have normal, mundane, everyday lives in mainstream literature or film and everything has to be dramatic; only some artists can be called “conceptual.” So that the idea of a happy well-actualized black community that Spike Lee describes in Mo’ Better Blues is an act of science fiction. But of course these communities existed and continue to exist. But that doesn’t mean that portraying inspired, beautiful, creative black people is simply documentarian.
Because this idea falls outside of narratives of lack and deficit, to present the clear narrative context for inspired black communities is a radical gesture. Lee does this by looking backwards and forwards towards ideal histories and imagined futures. Sometimes called the “metaleptic imagination,” this is the creative device of setting the context for a better future, through a reframing of antecedents. By actively creating history, we also make the future. This is a movement of metonymy that creates the context for a kind of idealism. He allows us to see what a better society looks like, and he traces the stories across bodies, often families, that might set the kind of terms for us to reach this kind of society.
The last scene of Mo’ Better Blues, a montage set to John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” presents his familiar, and powerful, vision of black utopianism. It includes a marriage, a birth, and generally the passage of time in a thriving community. It’s one of the great scenes in film history. And the scene has, sadly, become more radical feeling as the passage of the last twenty 25 years stymied the black middle class he so familiarly celebrated. Certainly the 40 Acres and a Mule cohort of Fort Greene represented a privileged sect, but Mo’ Better Blues still describes a moment in time when “Young Gifted and Black” felt more like the norm than the exception. By connecting the lines through time, Lee projects this future as an inevitability, which creates the rhetorical space to imagine it as a possibility.