In Praise of “Spike Lee’s Huckleberry Finn” by Ralph Wiley
By Shelley Fisher Fishkin
[Click here to view the referenced scenes from Wiley’s manuscript.]
I write these comments on an unpublished (and perhaps never-to-be-published) script for an unproduced (and perhaps never-to-be-produced) film because (1) Wiley’s script strikes me as criticism in a genuinely new and innovative form—an interpretation of Huckleberry Finn which deserves to enter the critical conversation around it, and (2) scenes from this script have transformed what happens in my classroom.
Ralph Wiley has generously given me permission to publish three key scenes from his script in this article. Some of you may choose to test this material in your classes. If you do, both he and I would enjoy hearing about the response. We may be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org and Ralphwile@aol.com.
A bit of background.
the summer of 1997, I received a letter out of the blue from Ralph Wiley, whom
I had read but never met. I knew him as
a mordant, hard-hitting black social critic and satirist based in
In the lobby of the convention hotel Wiley pulled out a screenplay. Its title was “Spike Lee’s Huckleberry Finn.” My heart sank. There had never been a good Huckleberry Finn film, and I suspected that there never could be. I knew I would hate the script. Too bad, I thought. This was a guaranteed way to ruin a friendship. He left it with me to read overnight. Tired from traveling and the hubbub of the convention, and glum about the prospects of being able to find anything positive or encouraging to say the next morning, I stole into a corner and began to read. Soon my trepidation faded to excitement. Wiley’s script managed to translate the complexity of Twain's vision to the screen.
I had long believed that part of Twain's genius in this book is letting the reader see things that Huck doesn't seeCmaking Huck an endearing and engaging but ultimately unreliable narrator. In Wiley's script, the juxtaposition of the visual message the viewer gets, on the one hand, and the comically limited version of that reality that Huck (the narrator) communicates, on the other, captured that dramatic irony.
had worked closely with Spike Lee on several projects, the most recent of which
was the basketball memoir, Best Seat in the House, which he co-authored
(and which served as the basis of the film “He Got Game”), and had written
several screenplays before this one. He
had been trying for close to a year to persuade Lee to consider making this
film. He had given him copies of Huck Finn, and of Lighting Out for the Territory (marked up and annotated). He had
also given the same to Denzel Washington, then shooting “He Got Game,” hoping
to interest him in the project, as well.
Wiley had begun the screenplay, in fact, when Denzel Washington had asked
him “to write a script about slavery because some folks try to act like it
never happened.” Wiley “went through several possible subjects, hoping to
encapsulate the absurdity, the great cosmic joke of slavery, and also have it
be a vehicle for Mr.
At Wiley’s request I sent Spike Lee a letter telling him what I thought of the script. A few weeks later, the three of us had a stimulating two-hour meeting about the project. Wiley and I were disappointed to learn several months later that Lee decided to make “Summer of Sam” next instead of “Spike Lee’s Huckleberry Finn.” But we were pleased that he had still not ruled out the possibility of making the film. The project, then, two years after that meeting, is in that curious no-man’s land called “under consideration.”
For a year after that meeting, neither Wiley nor I referred to the screenplay in public. But this past year, Wiley has spoken about the project in public, and gave me permission to do the same. I write about it here because whether or not the film eventually gets made (by Spike Lee or perhaps by someone else) the script is an intriguing creative intervention into the debates about this novel that can enliven and enrich what goes on in our classrooms. I was pleased when he said I could share a few scenes from the script with my Twain class, and was delighted when he liked the idea of my circulating them to a broader group of teachers and scholars.
In Wiley’s script, Jim shrewdly and consciously dons the minstrel mask as a strategic performance, playing a minstrel role when that is what a white person expects him to do. But it is a role, and that is key: he plays it out of self-interest. Wiley's Jim is smart, sensitive, savvy, self-aware, politically astute, generous, and stunningly altruistic, a compelling and intelligent father, and a slave seeking his freedom in a racist world determined to keep him enslaved. Because he sticks to Twain's text so closely, Wiley maintains that his view of Jim is Twain’s, too. The fact that Huck has a more limited view of Jim should not lead us to mistake that view for the author’s.
This view of Jim resonates with the views of a number of revisionist critics, myself included. The first critic to make a full-blown case for the idea that Jim manifests both agency and intelligence was David Lionel Smith in his groundbreaking essay, “Huck, Jim and American Racial Discourse” (1984). James Cox gestured in this direction in his essay “A Hard Book to Take” (1985) when he referred to “the role Jim plays, or is forced to play.” That view was enriched by Forrest Robinson’s important essay, “The Characterization of Jim in Huckleberry Finn” (1988). I extended those arguments in Part III (“Jim”) of Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African American Voices (1993). Jocelyn Chadwick-Joshua further explored these issues in a book-length study, The Jim Dilemma (1998). And Emory Eliot eloquently developed this perspective in his 1999 introduction to the Oxford World Classics edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The argument is also made by David Bradley and Jim Miller in the WGBH film scheduled to air in January 2000 on PBS, “Born to Trouble: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” In the film, for example, Bradley asserts that, “To me Jim has always been the hero of Huckleberry Finn.” And Jim Miller maintains that “what Twain is doing is peeling away the minstrel mask and showing us the complex humanity behind the posture that Jim has adopted.” All of these comments echo those of Sterling Brown in 1937. Readers interested in the critical underpinnings of Jim’s characterization in “Spike Lee’s Huckleberry Finn” may consult these works (as well as R. Zalisk’s forthcoming article on the WGBH film in Humanities and my forthcoming article on “New Perspectives on ‘Jim‘ in the 1990s” in the Mark Twain Review).
While the earliest film versions of the book (reflecting Hollywood's insensitivity to racial stereotypes) reduced Twain's complex characters to minstrel-show stereotypes, the most recent version (Disney's) eviscerated Twain's story by making it hopelessly "nice"—eliminating racist epithets, not showing white racists as they are, cleaning up Jim's dialect, adding stuff Twain never put in, mangling Twain's plot. Wiley’s script does none of the above.
As Ralph Ellison wrote in “Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke,” “Writing at a time when the blackfaced minstrel was still popular, and shortly after a war which left even the abolitionists weary of those problems associated with the Negro, Twain fitted Jim into the outlines of the minstrel tradition, and it is from behind this stereotype mask that we see Jim’s dignity and human capacity—and Twain’s complexity—emerge.” Critics have often focused on the first half of this statement, while ignoring the second, forgetting that Ellison refers to minstrelsy as a “mask” – and that he recognizes Jim’s dignity and human capacity as emerging “from behind” this mask. As Eric Lott has observed, “Jim’s triumphs and Twain’s ironies have to be as elaborately deciphered as Huck’s future through Jim’s hair ball…” Wiley’s script provides a fascinating new episode in this “deciphering” process.
A number of critics (such as Fredrick Woodard and Donnarae MacCann) charge Twain himself with seeing Jim as a minstrel stereotype, eliding the fact that it is Huck’s version of events, rather than the author’s, that is being depicted. By scrupulous attention to what is on the page, in the text, and hidden in plain view for all to see, however, Ralph Wiley blasts through this argument.
Take the famous scene on the raft after the fog. When I told Wiley that his interpretation of what’s going on is fresh, he was incredulous. He can’t believe that critics generally assume that Jim is confused by Huck’s insistence that the fog was really a dream. For Jim to be taken in by Huck’s lie, Wiley maintains, he would have to be blind: physical signs of what the raft’s been through are all around him. He would also have to be undergoing an out-of-body experience, for his arm is around what would have been an oar had it not been smashed and destroyed in the fog. Jim must be physically exhausted, Wiley maintains, and is completely aware of what has happened. The “full five minutes” that he is silent after Huck tells him that it is all a dream is not due to his stupefaction or bewilderment, Wiley argues. It is due to his genuine doubt about what to do about this white boy he’s been teaching, training, loving, raising, from whom he expected more. It is due to his disappointment at realizing that this white boy is just as bad as the rest—that he’s learned nothing. It is due to his resignation in the face of hardness where he expected sensitivity, selfishness where he expected empathy. Wiley can hardly believe me when I tell him that critics have taken Jim’s response at face value, faulting him (faulting Twain) for the minstrel-like nature of it. Because for Wiley any minstrelsy that is present is clearly “put on” for the occasion. And in his script, Jim accentuates the dialect, deepens it, emphasizes the performed nature of it. It is almost as if he says to himself, “OK, Huck. You want stupid darky? You get stupid darky! You get stupid darky until it bores you out of your mind. And when you’re finally tired of stupid darky you get the truth.” The truth Jim tells Huck—that he’s behaved like trash—is a harsh one. And a bold one for a slave to tell a white person. That much the critics have grasped. But what they have not grasped, and what Wiley forces them to consider, is that Jim may be in charge of his performance at every step of the way.
Was this conscious on Twain’s part? I won’t go there. I can’t go there. Neither can Wiley. That’s beyond our ken. We don’t need to go there. A critic can make a case for an interpretation of a work of art without claiming that the artist had it consciously in mind from the start. But is this interpretation plausible given what’s in the text? Absolutely. In fact, I have grave difficulty reading it any other way now. What it boils down to is: how much agency do we ascribe to Jim?
I often think of the optical illusion that appears to be two profiles if you look at it one way, and a wine glass if you look at it another way. That is one way of entertaining this new view of Jim without totally rejecting the old one. But as I think about this scene, the new interpretation edges the old one out insistently. I simply find Wiley’s reading of it more compelling than all the others I have encountered.
How else can you view Jim?, Wiley asks me. When is he not a mature adult manipulating his environment, within grave constraints, to the best of his abilities to his own ends? I repeat the charge that critics have made: he seems to act like child, or a minstrel stereotype so often. Wiley is mystified by the confusion: “So what?” It’s always put on, it’s always a pose, he maintains. It’s what Jim thinks people expect of him.
A similar logic informs Wiley’s perspective on Huck’s behavior at the Phelps Farm in what may well be the most famous exchange in the novel. Huck, he reminds us, has one thing on his mind: finding Jim, and freeing him. In Wiley’s version of this scene, Huck enters into a conversation with Aunt Sally in part to gauge her feelings, to test her, to see whether she might by any remote possibility be an ally. He is disappointed by what he finds. I leave it to readers to gauge their own reactions. Suffice it to say that his interpretation of this scene is challenging, provocative, and worth our serious consideration.
particularly intrigues me is the extent to which Wiley’s interpretations of
these scenes are rooted in the text. Take scene #7, for example. Wiley offered this explication of it in a
session at the 1999 American Literature Association convention in
In Chapter Two, Twain introduces us to Jim by having Tom Sawyer and Huck tiptoeing around him in the dark. Huck: “When we was passing by the kitchen I fell over a root and made a noise.” Jim “was setting in the kitchen door; we could see him pretty clear…he got up…Then he says, “Who dah?… Say, who is you? Whar is you? I know what I’s gwyne to do. I’s gwyne to set down here and listen tell I hears it agin.” Now who is Jim talking to? Himself? I don’t think so. He’s talking to the boys. Sure he saw them. Of course. How could a grown man not see these boys out here making all this noise? And Twain means for us to know Jim saw them. How? “I fell over a root and made a noise.” So obviously Jim knows. Huck just doesn’t know Jim knows. Then, Jim feigns sleep…..
In conversation, Wiley has observed that Jim would have to be a complete idiot to talk out loud about what he’s hearing if, indeed, he had any uncertainty whatsoever about what—and who—he’d just heard; he would be silent. How refreshing—and how plausible—to read this scene as an adult humoring children intent on fooling him. It makes sense. (It is a performance with which any parent can identify). Wiley’s scene elaborates on David Smith’s brilliant reinterpretation of the ways in which Jim accrues rhetorical power to himself in the aftermath of this trick (turning the trick into cultural capital as well as a cover story to explain how he got that nickel.) The issue—as it was in Smith’s pioneering reinterpretation of what was really going on here—is one of agency. Is Jim a sentient, conscious, strategic actor? Someone aware of how to accrue power to himself? How to manipulate his environment? Wiley’s answer is a resounding “yes.”
As David Smith observes in his essay “Black Critics and Mark Twain,” “Many African-American critics, for whatever reason, have been disinclined, or perhaps unable, to extend their appreciation of irony into their encounters with racist stereotypes. This constitutes a significant disadvantage in addressing the work of an ironist like Mark Twain.” Perhaps Ralph Wiley can appreciate Twain’s irony so deeply because he is such an accomplished ironist in his own right.
On October 26, 1999, I invited students in my Plan II Honors junior seminar on “Mark Twain and American Culture” to enact a dramatic reading of two of these scenes in class (They read [7, 7a, 8, 9] and [61, 61a]). Matt King played Jim, Bill Baird played Tom, Margaret Boren played Huck, Chris Glazner read Huck’s voice-over narration, and Andy Crouch read the stage directions. The students stepped out of the classroom for ten minutes to rehearse. Then they came back into the classroom, pushed tables out of the way to make room for a makeshift performance space, and performed the scenes, after which a discussion ensued. I asked them to record some of their responses to these scenes before our next class meeting. Here’s a sample of their comments:
Margaret, who found the process “eye-opening,” “thought the scenes were really useful to discuss and fun to perform, particularly after first having read and interpreted the novel in my own way.”
Nathan wrote that watching the scenes was “a good exercise for understanding that the book is from a very limited point of view—Huck’s,” while Mark wrote that “it’s easy to lose track of the separations between Huck as the narrator and Twain as the author, but these exercises help readers maintain it.” Kristin observed that “this version of the scenes gives Jim an awareness that puts him on a mental level above Huck. The implications of this switch are far reaching.” How many other occasions are there, she asks, “that Huck is not aware of (and by extension we are not aware of) [when Jim is] seeing more deeply than we realize and merely playing a role for Huck’s sake?”
Paul wrote that at first he “was unimpressed by the new interpretation of Jim. I thought that the screenwriter had selectively ignored contradictory information concerning Jim’s intelligence in order to fulfill the writer’s own PC agenda. In hindsight, however, I have decided that the screenplay works, but requires a truly dramatic reinterpretation of Jim. Not only must we approach his character as one who is not stupid, but as perhaps the sharpest character in the book (i.e., he is smarter than the other characters, and additionally wily enough to play dumb in order to manipulate white people’s prejudices to his own advantage).”
For Chris the screenplay underlined the impact that “different assumptions make on the way you view anything. It made me stop and re-evaluate how I view pretty much everything.” Mark Twain would have liked that, I think. For getting us to “re-evaluate how [we] view pretty much everything” was his lifelong project as a writer.
Education, Twain wrote, “consists mainly in what we have unlearned.” By encouraging our students to “unlearn” some of their assumptions about Huckleberry Finn, these scenes can play a thought-provoking role in our classrooms.
Jocelyn. The Jim Dilemma: Reading Race in “Huckleberry Finn.”
Cox, James M. “A Hard Book to Take.” In One Hundred Years of
‘Huckleberry Finn,” edited by Robert Sattelmeyer
and J. Donald Crowley, 386-403.
Eliott, Emory. Introduction. [
Shelley Fisher. Lighting Out for the Territory: Reflections on Mark Twain and
________. “Jim.” In Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and
African-American Voices, 77-108.
________. “New Perspectives on ‘Jim’
in the 1990s.” The Mark Twain
“Mr. Clemens and Jim Crow: Twain, Race, and Blackface.” In The
Robinson, Forrest, “The Characterization of Jim in Huckleberry Finn.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 43, no.3 (December 1988): 361-91.
Smith, David. “Black Critics and Mark Twain.” In The
_______. “Huck, Jim and American
Racial Discourse” (1984). In Satire or Evasion?
Black Perspectives on ‘Huckleberry Finn,’ edited by James S. Leonard, Thomas A. Tenney, and Thadious M. Davis, 103-20.
[WGBH] “Born to Trouble: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Premiering January 26, 2000, PBS.
Wiley, Ralph. Best Seat in the House: A Basketball Memoir. [Spike Lee with
_______. By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and
Tribulations of the Making of Malcolm X. [Spike Lee with Ralph Wiley]
Unpublished remarks presented at “Mark Twain and Race” session at American
Literature Association Conference,
_______. [Conversations and correspondence with the author, August, 1997-November, 1999]
_______. Dark Witness: When Black People Should Be
_______. “Spike Lee’s Huckleberry Finn.” (unpublished screenplay) © copyright Ralph Wiley, 1997; WGA-E Registered #107314-00.
_______. What Black People Should Do Now: Dispatches
from Near the Vanguard.
_______. Why Black People Tend to Shout: Cold Facts
and Wry Views From a Black Man’s World.
Woodard, Frederick and Donnarae MacCann, “Minstrel Shackles and Nineteenth-Century
‘Liberality,’” in In Satire or Evasion? Black
Perspectives on ‘Huckleberry Finn,’ edited by
James S. Leonard, Thomas A. Tenney, and
Thadious M. Davis, 142-53.
Zalisk, Robert. “Born to Trouble: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Humanities, January/February 2000 (in press).