Here’s a 1990 New York Times article that’s fairly explicit about what can and cannot be gotten away with:
Critic’s Notebook; Spike Lee’s Jews and the Passage From Benign Cliche Into BigotryMo’ Better Blues from 1990 is probably my favorite Spike Lee movie. Here’s a pleasant musical interlude from the film:
By CARYN JAMES
Published: August 16, 1990
In Spike Lee’s ”Do the Right Thing,” there is a scene he refers to in the published screenplay as ”The Racial Slur Montage.” One by one, a range of ethnic characters stare into the camera and spit out vicious, stereotypical descriptions of some other ethnic group. … The variety of types demonstrates that all bigotry is interchangable, all equally harmful.
There is nothing that reasonable in the stereotypical portrayal of two Jewish characters in Mr. Lee’s new film, ”Mo’ Better Blues,” the story of an obsessed and troubled black jazz musician.
Although, like most of Lee’s pictures, it’s chaotically plotted. (Spike has numerous talents, but plotting isn’t one of them.)
Denzel Washington plays a jazz musician (presumably inspired by Lee’s father), with the movie featuring lots of other star power, such as Wesley Snipes as a rival musician, and in a small but important role toward the end, a young Samuel L. Jackson. The film nominally takes place in the present, but looks like it is set in his father’s younger days. (That kind of ambiguity could be considered sloppy, but I like it.)
Because it’s a movie with an almost all-black cast, it has a conservative family values message.
However, the brothers John and Nicholas Turturro play two white club owners, and that wound up causing no end of trouble for Lee:
In creating the minor characters of Josh and Moe Flatbush, club owners who exploit the black musicians in the film, Mr. Lee has elicited charges of anti-Semitism from many critics, a charge the film maker disputes.
In his review in Newsweek, David Ansen called them ”Shylocks.” In Newsday, Mike McGrady said they are ”craven” caricatures. Garry Giddins in his review in The Village Voice labeled the roles ”undoubtedly anti-Semitic,” but went on to say, ”Don’t let that lapse keep you from seeing” the film. When I reviewed ”Mo’ Better Blues,” in The New York Times, I described the Flatbush brothers as ”money-grubbing, envious, ugly stereotypes with sharks’ smiles.”Poor Spike had to reply in the columns of the NYT with an op-ed with the self-defeating headline:
The Anti-Defamation League said last week that the characterizations ”dredge up an age-old and highly dangerous form of anti-Semitic stereotyping,” and that the organization ”is disappointed that Spike Lee – whose success is largely due to his efforts to break down racial stereotypes and prejudice – has employed the same kind of tactics that he supposedly deplores.”
And so what began as Mr. Lee’s least overtly controversial film may become one of his most controversial nonetheless. The depiction of Jews in ”Mo’ Better Blues,” as well as remarks Mr. Lee has made in recent interviews, distills two questions: When does a fictional character become an offensive stereotype? How do an artist’s public remarks reverberate and shape an audience’s perception of a film? These questions are acute in the case of Mr. Lee, whose work always has a political undercurrent and whose career is rooted at the crossroads of art and publicity.
The difference between the intelligent analysis of bigotry among blacks and Italians in ”Do the Right Thing” and the disturbing Jewish stereotypes in ”Mo’ Better Blues” is more than the difference between an artistic success and a failure. It’s true that ”Mo’ Better Blues” is muddled in its conception of the musician-hero, who must lose his art to gain a family, and its portrayal of women is pathetically shallow. But Josh and Moe, mirror-images whose repetitions of each other’s opinions are meant to be comic, are not merely stylized or failed characterizations.
The Flatbush brothers (played by real-life brothers, John and Nicholas Turturro) are so loaded with despicable traits typically used to disparage Jews that they might have been invented by someone in the Racial Slur Montage. They become rich by gouging others; they are deceitful; when challenged they threaten to sue. In thick New York-Jewish accents they accuse the underpaid black musicians of ”trying to take food from my children’s mouth.” And when the hero is seriously injured in a back-alley fight, Moe demands that the rest of the band go back onstage. Josh objects, in a tone that has little to do with human sympathy and much to do with the businesslike recognition that the star cannot go on. These caricatures are wildly out of synch with the film’s other roles. …
But the Flatbush brothers are the film’s villains, their greed inseparable from their Jewish identity. And because there are no other Jews to offset them, they become tokens of an entire ethnic group. In ”Do the Right Thing,” the Italian characters are fully defined and represent a fair range of qualities, from Danny Aiello’s ambiguous pizza-parlor owner to his two sons, one an unbiased peacemaker and the other a trouble-making bigot played by John Turturro. In that broader context, Mr. Turturro portrays an individual who is Italian and who has offensive ideas – a clearly conceived role far from his simplistic stereotype of Moe. …
Mr. Lee, among others, has cited the black chauffeur played by Morgan Freeman in ”Driving Miss Daisy” as a demeaning throwback. The charge carries a great deal of validity. The chauffeur, Hoke, exudes an older generation’s sense of ”knowing his place” socially: it is far beneath that of his imperious employer, Miss Daisy, who is Jewish but indistinguishable from any Southern, Protestant white lady. Both characters, however, have sympathetic features that rescue them from being insulting stereotypes. Hoke has a strong sense of self-worth; Miss Daisy’s hidden emotions surface when her synagogue is bombed. They are simplistic throwbacks, but they were not conceived in one-dimensional or malicious terms.
… Whether the Flatbush brothers were born of artistic carelessness or intentional malice, they leap off the screen as such strongly offensive types that they have taken on meaning beyond the film itself. They have moved into the realm of public controversy, where Mr. Lee’s personal opinions come into play.
In a great flurry of interviews given before and after the release of the film, in newspapers and on morning, afternoon and prime-time talk shows, Mr. Lee has denied being anti-Semitic yet sent a contrary message about Jewish control of black artists.
Mr. Lee told Daily Variety that his father, the bass player Bill Lee, ”worked for a majority of jazz club owners who were Jewish; this is not an indictment of them.” He went on, ”When I wrote the film, I wanted to put in how black artists had to fight against being exploited.” But because the exploiters in ”Mo’ Better Blues” are stereotypical Jews, Mr. Lee does make an ethnic indictment. (He also ignores the fact that Jewish club-owners like Max Gordon and Barney Josephson were important promoters of black jazz performers).
In the same interview, Mr. Lee said: ”I am not anti-Semitic. Do you think Lew Wasserman, Sidney Sheinberg or Tom Pollock would allow it in my picture?” He was naming the heads of the parent company, MCA, and Universal Studios, which made the film. And when asked on ABC’s ”Prime Time” whether his films can express any message at all as long as they make money – a wide-open question that did not refer to ”Mo’ Better Blues” – Mr. Lee answered, ”I couldn’t make an anti-Semitic film.” Asked why not, he said that Jews run Hollywood, and ”that’s a fact.” In such statements, Mr. Lee is taking on an issue that heated up last month when a panelist at the N.A.A.C.P.’s annual conference charged that ”Jewish racism” is holding back blacks in the film industry.
Watching ”Mo’ Better Blues” with these comments in mind, viewers are likely to find that Mr. Lee’s sense of Jewish control informs the Flatbushes far more than his disclaimers about good intentions. The characters seem even more loaded with the weight of his public opinions, even less forgivable as misguided artistic failures.
Mr. Lee’s use of his public presence has sometimes been greatly effective; on- and offscreen, he has done a great deal to combat the racism that undoubtedly still exists in Hollywood. But in his remarks about Jews he seems on an inflammatory course. And ”Mo’ Better Blues” suggests that attitude has done his art no good.
I Am Not an Anti-SemiteIn 2012, Spike looked back on this turning point in his career in a profile by Ariel Levy for New York:
by Spike Lee
August 22, 1990
“B’nai Brith and the Anti- Defamation League, they were on my ass,” he says. “You don’t know what it is for someone to get on your ass until B’nai Brith and Anti- Defamation League …”My Taki’s column, “The Oscar Grouches,” puts all this in wider perspective.
Eventually Lee placated his persecutors by writing an op-ed piece for the Times, but the whole thing still makes him mad when he thinks about it. And the truth is, he’s not sorry about portraying Mo and Josh Flatbush as Jewish bloodsuckers, feeding off the talents of black musicians. “Here’s the thing, though: It’s more than being a stereotype,” says Lee. “In the history of American music, there have not been Jewish people exploiting black musicians? In the history of music? How is that being stereotypical? For me, that’s like saying, like the NBA is predominantly black. Now, if that makes me anti- Semitic …” For a minute, he actually engages and sort of laughs. “I’m not writing any more op-ed pieces,” he says. “I did it once. I’m not doing it again. Seriously. I’m not doing it again.”