Considering Spike Lee’s Contribution to the World of Movie-Director Booze

Slate's Culture Blog
April 4 2014 6:15 PM

Considering Spike Lee’s Contribution to the World of Movie-Director Booze

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Artist's rendition of Spike Lee with his vodka.

Mike Lawrie

While pondering Steven Soderbergh’s recent experience as a would-be boutique-liquor magnate, our mind reflected on the minor booze interludes of major filmmakers. We drifted into a vision of Buñuel mixing a martini, and we dwelled on Welles' unfine wine, and we realized that it would be timely to consider the contribution of the filmmaker whose Do the Right Thing lost the Palme d’Or to Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape. In 2010, Spike Lee collaborated with Pernod Ricard on the promotion of a limited-edition flavored vodka called Absolut Brooklyn, designing both a bottle and a promotional video themed around the culture of the stoop. (Trigger warning: Ad contains spoken-word poetry.)

Absolut Brooklyn, which sweetly reeks of apples and ginger, would not be worth a moment’s further contemplation if not for recent events in Lee’s public life. In late February, during a post-lecture Q&A, the director delivered some provocative comments about the gentrification of the borough. When considered as a reasoned essay, these remarks do not entirely withstand scrutiny, but if you judge the riff by the standards of loudmouth performance art, you’ll see that it’s divine—and offers a welcome reminder that the director is best appreciated, in his role as a professional New Yorker, as Norman Mailer’s one true heir. In any event, last weekend, the Times ran an A.O. Scott piece inspired by the harangue, and it included this observation: “Nearly everyone who brings up gentrification is implicated in some way, and accusations of hypocrisy on Mr. Lee’s part were not long in coming.” On Monday, Lee elaborated a reply: “Your criticism of me as a hypocrite is lame.” Stay tuned for a BAM panel discussion titled, “I Know You Are But What Am I?”

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I thought it might amuse the people still following the contretemps—all five or six of you—to remember the existence of Absolut Brooklyn. That the vodka is nothing more than a product—its ingredients arbitrary, its substance disconnected from its style—is evidenced by the fact that Absolut sells the exact same formula in Europe branded as a signature Swedish flavor. What on earth could have attracted Spike Lee to this scheme? Why participate in such an especially crass remapping of his home turf as a lifestyle brand? To rewire a Mars Blackmon line: It’s gotta be the money. At a 2010 release event, he forbade the sort of conversation in the air now: “This is to celebrate Absolut, so we’re not going to get into gentrification tonight.” I’m pointing this out with all due affection for Spike, whom I greatly enjoyed the one time I interviewed him, which was in a conference room at his ad agency.

Anyhow, yesterday evening, remembering that there was a bottle of Absolut Brooklyn in stock at my usual Cobble Hill dive bar, I stopped in for a visit. Did I order any? No. A whiff of its candied aroma was all I required. That, and a comment from the bartender. Do people order it often? “Not too much. It doesn’t really move.” But who does ask for it? “Posers.”

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

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