Girl 6

Year: 1996
Studio: Fox Searchlight
Director: Spike Lee
Producer: Spike Lee
Writer: Malik Hassan Sayeed
Cast: Theresa Randle, Isiah Washington, Spike lee, Peter Berg, Quentin Tarantino, Michael Imperioli, Debi Mazar, Gretchen Mol, Madonna

Bamboozled was the last time you could identify Spike Lee with the creative outlook that made his name – of being an authentic African American voice in independent film. I've got nothing against straight entertainment, but with The 25th Hour he moved from having a primarily black voice to being one of the authentic voices of New York, and ever since Inside Man he's been a much more down-the-line thriller director.

I don't think he's ever recaptured the angry urgency of his earlier work, and they're still the films of his that I like the most. As such I had Girl 6 on my list for a long time and finally watched it 17 years after it's release – having watched everything up to and including his Oldboy remake at the time of writing this review.

It's done not just with a black voice but a black female voice as we meet Judy (Randle) having a hard time making ends meet as an actress. In a funny early scene, she's interviewing for a motor-mouthed director (played by Quentin Tarantino – proving he and Lee were once on better terms before their long-running feud over the 'N' word erupted) who demands that she take her top off.

Judy sticks to her principles, but they see her dumped by her agent and acting teacher, cast back to work handing out fliers to passersby, waiting tables, etc. When she finds an ad in the paper for phone assistants, she goes to the audition to discover it's for a phone sex line.

Judy takes the job, excels at it and becomes Girl 6, her life starting to turn around. But as she juggles relationships with her ex husband (Washington) and the neighbour (Lee) she's constantly bailing out of financial trouble, the phone sex work starts to take a toll on her without her realising.

Judy starts to take it all a bit too seriously, letting herself get too involved with her regular clients and even agreeing to meet one against everyone's advice. The crunch comes when a guy who's been calling her more and more and seems to have rape fantasies tells her he's coming to her apartment – and scarier still, he knows her address.

It's not always tightly plotted or scripted, but as well as having a socio-political point of view, Lee has an indie filmmakers eyes too – the sequence of her call with the nasty client is a strobe-lit, sublime fever dream of her wrapped up in her own fantasy as a movie idol-object until reality comes crashing through her fugue.

Randle is beautiful and neither she nor the script have her fall into lazy 'no you di'n't' black stereotypes for her to have a sense of sass and bravado. She's as uncertain and vulnerable as any other woman, but it doesn't detract from her sense of self as an African American or a woman.

Less successful are some of the other elements. Lee himself is a terrible actor in his own film, so sleepily disinterested it's like he's just there to help Randle through her lines. The creep (Imperioli) who gives Girl 6 a scare is also kind of a mystery, seeming to appear all of a sudden and feeling like you should know more about where their relationship came from.

But it's a good example of the first and still best iteration of Lee's career.

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