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hortly after the events of September 11, 2001, Harvard professor Cornell West was asked for his take (as a voice of African-American intellectualism) on the terrorist attack. His response labelled 9/11 the “niggerization” of America.
This controversial though poignant remark was picked up and dropped just as quickly as the media could digest it, but one man, a single director, seemed to hold onto the idea and play it to the bone: Spike Lee.
It is ironic that 25th Hour has been called one of Spike’s least socio-political films. It is, instead, his most subtle. From the very first frame, 25th Hour is a commentary on a post-9/11 United States and how the world truly will never be the same.
The world has been “niggerized.”
Take Monty Brogan, the main character: here we have an intelligent, Irish, ex–private school drug dealer who dates a Puerto Rican in New York. (A white drug dealer dating a Puerto Rican? How very subtle, Mr. Lee.) Monty is no simple character: He is a representation of the New America, and as such he is given traits emphasizing a racial role-reversal that places Monty in the role of “nigger.” So much for the non-racial Spike. . . .
In the past, Spike, along with Professor West and many other African-American pundits, has emphasized the “terroristic” role of the U.S. government in the lives of lower-class African American citizens. Monty, this alternate-universe representation of America, has his home invaded by a DEA replete with African Americans (to highlight the role reversal). His possessions are overturned, his loyalties shaken, and his freedom threatened, all on a day that started in beautiful peace. The invasion terrorizes Monty in much the same way America was terrorized on 9/11.
From this point, Monty’s life will never be the same. It is, indeed, all about what happens tomorrow. The Day After.
Monty immediately suspects his girlfriend, Naturelle, of turning him in. The betrayal strikes him hard, making him suspicious of those he trusted most. Suspicion, in many ways, characterizes the post-9/11 United States. That, and anger.
It is no small thing that Naturelle happens to be Puerto Rican. This little province (colony, if you will) of the United States has been a spot for many protests against the nature of the U.S. military (namely, the weapons testing grounds that were, until recently, based there). There is also their refusal to truly commit to the United States by becoming a state and paying taxes. Naturelle is, then, an ethnic American whose people refuse to assimilate. It is only natural for her to be the first suspected, the first shunned.
In truth, it was not an ethnic American who betrayed Monty, but a foreigner (ironically played as a ex-Russian provincial—immediately calling Afghanistan to mind). But the suspicion lingers heavily before the truth is uncovered, and accepted.
Spike takes a more unusual approach in looking at the domestic criticisms of post-9/11 America. With Monty’s two best friends and his father, we are shown the three faces of America: The radical, minority element (played by Barry Pepper), insistent that it was the U.S.’s own fault; the old liberal-democratic establishment (played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman), mush-mouthed and shy, enamored with lost youth; and the hard-working backbone of America, played by Brian Cox.
These characters highlight a moment in time for America, a time when all sides clashed and our leadership began to decide how this nation would face the challenges of tomorrow. Barry Pepper, as Frank, reacts at first with anger, saying it was Monty’s own fault for making bad decisions and—as he put it—living on the “suffering” of others. He blames himself for not protesting what Monty/America was doing to his “clients” earlier on. In the end, Frank tearfully assists his friend the only way he can: Beating him like a physical criticism, making him ugly in order for him to survive. With this scene, Spike shows that the constant critique of those radicals, that minority “2 percent,” will only make the nation a stronger place.
Hoffman’s character is, sadly, far less useful. He is so involved with his obsession over a young student (a symbol of 60’s civil upheaval and Vietnam), so lacking in backbone, that he has little to do but hold Monty’s dog while Monty’s away in prison. This powerful invective serves to highlight how this pathetic, self-absorbed element of society (the “62 percent”) can be of little use to post 9/11 America. If it can not speak up, if it will only drool after the past (the young student), it will have only regrets.
In the end, with that final ride to “tomorrow,” it is Monty’s father, the hard working, blue-collar backbone of America, that he comes to rely on. In a final, beautiful scene his father lends him support for whatever he wishes to do. If Monty wants to run from the consequences of his actions, to run away and start anew, his father is with him.
Throughout that final ride, we see America as it is. Outside the cities we know, are the farmlands, plains, and deserts where middle-America thrives. This is where Monty gets his support, and this is where America will find its own: in the average citizens, willing to do whatever it takes for the thing they love.
In the end, that decision is with Monty: Will he run or will he face the consequences of his past misdoings? If you’ve lived a day in post-9/11 America, you already know the answer to that question.