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A Culture In Retrograde

Amiri Baraka's "Black Art" and the Black Arts Movement.

Spike Lee and The New Black Aesthetic. P.Diddy and the Hip Hop Generation.

Black artists have always dictated the visual, literal, and musical arts of our time. The post-Ferguson era saw a Black Arts Renaissance, with filmmakers like Ava DuVernay, who make urgent films about black life but are overlooked and understudied.

Bill Nunn as Radio Raheem in Spike Lee's 1989 film, Do the Right Thing

In 1991, Spike Lee announced he was to begin production on Malcolm X, a film about the influential civil rights leader. Lee faced backlash from the United Front to Preserve the Legacy of Malcolm X and one person, in particular, at the helm of the organization: the father of the 1960’s Black Arts Movement, Amiri Baraka. A Newsweek article from that same year covered the back and forth between the two artists. Baraka called Lee a “buppie” (a black yuppie) who feared his portrayal of Malcolm would be exploited and “trashed to make middle-class Negroes sleep better”. Lee responded to Baraka by asking, “Where’s his book on Malcolm?” Many wondered why Baraka was so harsh towards Lee. Was it because he simply didn’t like his work? He had previously written a scathing critique of Lee’s film Mo’ Better Blues for an essay collection on Lee’s work by black art critics. Baraka’s answer? “Spike Lee is part of a retrograde movement in this country.” It’s hard to know what Baraka meant with that statement without more context. Was it his opinion that Lee’s involvement in the New Black Aesthetic Movement was replicating the work of his own twenty years earlier with the Black Arts Movements? Or did he believe Lee was undoing the progress he’d made with Ishmael Reed, Larry Neal, and Gwendolyn Brooks, among others?