On Joie Lee in Do the Right Thing (and More)
Do the Right Thing
Joie Lee has these large, owlish eyes, and, in a film, they’re the first thing you notice about her. Then there’s her dense, tightly coiled hair that sprouts from her head like fresh flora so that her long face seems to flow upwards in follicles. It’s a shame that both that face and her voice—which has a fluid rhythm that’s musical, calming, and measured even when it’s expressing displeasure—haven’t been used more in films. Most people will remember her from Do the Right Thing (89), which was the third of her brother’s features she appeared in, but the first one in which we begin to see her playing characters who are asked to take on more than they can handle and who are battling with gendered expectations.
What’s so interesting about these characters is that they exist in films primarily about black male life, but Joie still manages to accentuate the complexity of being a woman, and in a way that specifically acknowledges black womanhood. In Do the Right Thing, she plays Jade, sister to Mookie (Spike Lee), the responsible older sibling who takes care of him. Jade is also a young person in the community who’s still in touch with her elders. In one memorable scene, she combs Mother Sister’s hair while acting as both her witness and confidante. In another, when Jade stops by Sal’s pizzeria, it becomes clear that Sal is infatuated with her, and surprisingly, she allows for it. Jade lives her life within these complex zones of womanhood and older siblinghood and blackness and also within the particularity of her—someone who’s self-sufficient and doesn’t take shit, but also wants to enjoy herself and positively uplift her community.
Mo’ Better Blues
In Mo’ Better Blues (90), Joie takes a more sexualized turn, but is still managing these complexities. She plays one of Denzel Washington’s girlfriends, Indigo, a teacher. Indigo’s not glamorized in the film, whereas Clark, the other girlfriend, is a gorgeous, tall singer who struts and flutters into the life of Bleek (Washington). But Indigo exists on a plane of her own. She’s independent from Bleek in a way that Clark isn’t, and maintains this steadfastness while still operating as the stable love interest.
What resonates with me in these characters isn’t what Spike Lee wrote of them, but what Joie brought to them. Isolated from her performances, they would come off as utility roles, characters there to aid the narrative. But Joie’s performances have always stayed in my mind, not only because she’s an actress who looks like me, but because she’s also one within whom there rests a lot of charge or force—especially in her face—that isn’t exhausted within a given scene. She keeps reserves. In her scenes with Denzel in Mo’ and with Spike in Do the Right Thing, she’s playing as much as she’s combatting. At all of the moments where you’d expect her to be frustrated and yelling, she shifts between aggression and demurring, laughing and snarling, her massive eyes both teasing and questioning, and when she’s listening, she not only appears to be listening but also to be thinking—she’s playing rhythm.
Coffee and Cigarettes
In a vignette in Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes (03), Joie and her brother, Cinque Lee, play twins. In the scene, Joie jockeys with Cinque’s character, the Evil Twin, aloof, provoking, and especially rude when Steve Buscemi, who plays their waiter, ambles over, spills their coffee, and then starts explaining his drawn-out conspiracy theory about Elvis’s evil twin. Joie, the Good Twin, explains to him why Elvis is a fraud. But she does it in this way that’s so natural, as if the fact that Elvis stole black musicians’ work could be as expected as it is devastating. In the way she accuses her brother, “Are you wearing my shirt? Why do you always dress like me?” there’s a playfulness in her tone beneath its seriousness. In her face, there are multiple layers of discerning, with so much intelligence but also ease and lightness.
And in all these films, there’s that gendered tension, the idea of being the girl among boys. Not in the cliché way where you’re tougher or you’re cooler because you’re the tomboy or the “guys’ girl,” but rather where there’s this sense of duality that you’re always operating on—asserting yourself and your presence, but at the same time being willing to joke. Joie brings that tension to roles in ways that elevate them out of the pockets that they’re supposed to occupy. She’s an unlikely force—she pops up in these films in these smaller roles, but she doesn’t insist on having her quick moment of shine. She’s enduring.