Spike Lee’s characters are often times complex and ambiguous. Think of Sal from Do The Right Thing, or Delacroix from Bamboozled. Lee’s characters have warped or misguided views based on their history and upbringing. Despite these views, audience members can connect with them on a certain level because Lee redeems their misgivings by shining light on their humaneness in certain aspects of each film. Two characters that really stood out to me in Mo’ Better Blues are Moe and Josh Flatbush. These characters stood out not in their mistakes or their humanity, but rather their mechanical and almost cartoonish nature.
We first meet these two brothers in front of a computer as they discuss their love of numbers – because “numbers never lie” (28: 04) – and their distrust of people, Josh saying that he “only trusts his Mother… sometimes” (28:52). Their hair is curly and their voices ring with a thick New York-Jewish accents. Lee goes on to paint these two men as the villains of the story because they will not renegotiate Bleek’s contract, despite the vast amount of money he is generating for their club.
The Flatbush brothers are portrayed as nothing but greedy; they threaten to sue Bleek and accuse Giant of trying to “take food out of their kid’s mouth” (36:35) when the topic of contract negotiation is brought up. It is made apparent from the get-go that these brothers have no disregard for their employees, even demanding that the rest of the quintet go back on stage when Bleek is assaulted outside the club between sets.
Following the films release, Lee received a number of criticisms from Jewish organizations citing that these characters reinforced Jewish stereotypes (Flatbush is a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, after all). Abraham Foxman the national director of the ADL, said that “there are many ways to portray greedy people… [yet Lee chose to characterize the Flatbush Brothers] as greedy and unscrupulous club owners dredg[ing] up an age-old and highly dangerous form of anti-Semitic stereotyping.”
I contend that Lee received this reaction not because he intended to create a controversy or because he is anti-semetic, but rather because he did not develop these characters in the story like he has done with others. Had he shown the financial struggles the brothers endured to make ends meet, the audience could have empathized with them. Without this, we can’t help but feel that they are cold and greedy, stereotypes that the Jewish people continue to struggle with.