Girl 6

It's Hard to say Exactly at what point during Girl 6 it will hit you that this peek into the world of phone boning is the worst movie Spike Lee has ever made. I'd clock it somewhere between the time Girl 75 (Naomi Campbell) insults a guy whose dick drips -- you heard me -- and Girl 6 (Theresa Randle) intuits how a child's crippling fall down an elevator shaft mirrors her career descent from actress to phone-sex operator. Prurience and pretentiousness make an unholy pair, no matter who plays matchmaker.

Randle's Girl 6 is an unemployed actress who ups her income and self-esteem by bringing callers to a climax using only dirty talk and a vivid imagination. That's power, baby. At least it is until Girl 6 stops faking breathy orgasms into a headset like the other women in the cubiclefilled office run by Lil (Jenifer Lewis) and starts coming right along with the customers. Turning yourself on is the ultimate mind fuck, and that's dangerous.

It's also a ripe subject for satire, a chance for Lee to twist She's Gotta Have It into She's Gotta Fake It. The trailer primes you for renegade laughs as a voice intones: "Director Spike Lee got in your face. Now he's gonna get in your ear." Forget it. Professor Lee uses Girl 6 to warn us that fantasy is habit-forming and to throw those phones away. In one surreal interlude, push-buttons and cellulars drop from the sky like toxic rainfall. Lee has done the impossible: He's sucked the fun out of call-in sex and replaced it with sanctimonious prattle. Girl 6 doesn't even cut it as a sermon, which would acknowledge the allure of the disreputable. The film is packed with showoff ambitions that Lee doesn't know how to shape.

Girl 6 marks a disturbing departure in Lee's nine-film career: He didn't write or collaborate on the script. Solo discredit goes to playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, a prof at the Yale School of Drama and an Obie winner for Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom. Surely the tawdry topic of hot-talk lines has never been approached with such academic rigor. For a comedy, Girl 6 seems to weigh a ton. Even the lighter moments are freighted with allusions to racist stereotypes, sexist traps and addictive erotic fancies. Just so you know what you're in for: Randle is tagged as Girl 6 to indicate how the job dehumanizes her. Get it?

Lee has been heavy-handed before, especially amid the bogus jazz histrionics of Mo' Better Blues. Even his strongest films, Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X, float more provocative ideas than he is willing or able to think through. But never before has he resorted to all-star cameos -- Madonna shows up as a rival talk boss to ask Girl 6 if her clitoris is pierced -- to disguise structural shortcomings. Lee lays on old and new songs by Prince to goose the tired plot. The music is a teasing distraction, which is more than you can say for the fussy camera work by Malik Sayeed (Clockers), which features the irritating Lee signature trick of characters who appear to glide above the ground.

Still, it's the hectoring tone of Girl 6 that makes you want to bolt for the exit. It's galling to recall that Lee tackled the same topic -- female empowerment -- with economy and wit in She's Gotta Have It, the 1986 debut feature in which Lee took us into a sexually liberated black woman's bed. It's her head he's trying to get into with Girl 6. Like Nola Darling, the graphic designer being pursued by three possessive males in She's Gotta Hare It, Girl 6 fights being closed in. She has dumped her shoplifter husband (Isaiah Washington) and tried to concentrate on her career as an actress. But the lucrative sideline of phone sex becomes an insidious vise.

Despite warnings from Girl 39 (a dead-on Debi Mazar), who can pretend to be exploding with carnal fire while filing her nails or sipping bottled water, Girl 6 gets involved. She works out elaborate servant fantasies for Caller No. 4 (Richard Belzer), a nut job who gets turned on big time when she tells him she's down on all fours scrubbing toilets. Caller No. 1 (Peter Berg) is even more complicated: He just wants to talk. Girl 6 breaks the rules and arranges a meeting. This is a man she feels she might love, although she neglects to tell him she is black.

Lee can't stop lecturing about race. Boss lady Lil runs a multiethnic shop, but she advises all her girls to tell callers they are white. "Don't I look pretty with my long blond hair and big blue eyes," says Girl 29 (Shari Freels), who is black and wears her hair in cornrows. It is Girl 6 who dons a blond wig to look more like the white ideal.

Lee also uses several of the actors doing cameo performances to settle old scores. Quentin Tarantino, whom Lee has publicly criticized for employing racial slurs, such as the "Dead Nigger Storage" segment of Pulp Fiction, shows up as an egomaniacal boy wonder who is referred to as QT. He auditions Girl 6 for a part in a film he calls "the greatest romantic African-American film ever made. Directed by me, of course." Lee has frequently slammed white directors for directing blackthemed films. Girl 6 exits her interview weeping when QT prods her to unbutton her blouse ("The person we're lookin' for needs to ooze sexuality," he says). Later, she is ripped into by her agent, Murray (a manic John Turturro): "Sharon Stone spread her legs. And you walk out on QT -- the hottest director in Hollywood!"

It's ironic that Lee and Tarantino both have roles in Girl 6. Right now they may be the most despised pseudoactors in movies. Funny how overexposure, hubris and few flops can turn a genius into an arrogant ass in the eyes of the public Lee wisely assigns himself the sympathetic role of Jimmy, the platonic baseball-card-collecting friend who freeloads off Girl 6 but helpfully pulls her back to reality when she pushes her fantasies too far.

In dream sequences, Girl 6 imagines herself as Dorothy Dandridge, the first black woman to be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, for her 1954 performance in Carmen Jones. Randle's Carmen catches the Dandridge heat when she instructs her soldier lover to blow on her toenails to dry the polish. Later she dons an Afro to butt-kick drug dealers as Pam Grier in the 1974 blaxploitation epic Foxy Brown. There's even a parody of The Jeffersons, with Lee helping to send up a New York black family trying to assimilate.

Lee has repeatedly bemoaned the paucity of pop-culture role models for blacks, most recently in the autobiographical Crooklyn, in which Soul Train finally gave his family a '70s TV alternative to the white bread of the Partridges. In Girl 6, despite the dignity and sly humor Randle brings to the role, there is no mistaking that Lee is covering old ground to reopen old wounds.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the audition monologue Girl 6 uses at the beginning of the film with QT and near the end with another white director, played by Ron Silver. The monologue, starting with "I want you to know the only reason I'm consenting to this is because I wish to clear my name," comes from She's Gotta Have It. Nola Darling talked directly at the camera to defend her right to have as much sex as she wants with as many people as she wants without being considered a freak. Girl 6 doesn't want to be considered a freak, either, for refusing to strip for directors who want to demean her or refusing to return to a husband who imposes his own limits.

"It's about control," says Nola at the end of She's Gotta Have It. "My body. Who's gonna own it -- them or me?"

Girl 6 comes to the same conclusion but with a sham gravity that the no-bull Nola would never stoop to. In reimagining She's Gotta Have It for the '90s, Lee has gutted its spirit with facile melodrama represented by news reports about the little girl who fell down the elevator shaft. The photo of the child that Girl 6 keeps in her cubicle sparks fears of her own falling, just as the little girl's recovery is meant as a metaphor for Girl 6's rise out of the phone-sex ooze. Give me a break. Girl 6 is shameless stuff -- pompous, sentimental and attitudinizing. To swat the Spikeman with his own symbol, the film feels like he phoned it in.

From The Archives Issue 732: April 18, 1996