Can a movie be both of its time and before its time? Girl 6 is not a movie most people mention when they talk about Spike Lee’s filmography. The 1996 film, penned by playwright Suzan-Lori Parks in her screenwriting debut (and the first film Lee directed that he didn’t also write), was a critical and commercial failure. The Washington Post’s Rita Kempley described it as “little more than a profane litany punctuated by Oscar-caliber orgasms,” while the Post’s Desson Howe suggested the film was such an embarrassment from Lee that “it’s enough to reduce expectations over him forever.” Howe’s contempt was uninhibited, but he wasn’t alone. Girl 6 was so dismissed that barely any reviews of Lee’s next narrative feature, 1998’s He Got Game, mention it as part of his filmography, and Lee waited nearly 20 years before again directing a film primarily from the perspective of a female character, 2015’s Chi-Raq.
Perhaps Lee, who will serve this year as the first Black American jury president at the Cannes Film Festival, will break his silence there on Girl 6. (Probably not, but hey, anything is possible!) The film did screen as an Un Certain Regard selection at Cannes back in 1996, although Lee has distanced himself from it in years since. No audio commentary on its 10th anniversary DVD release in 2006. No acknowledgment of singer-songwriter Teyana Taylor’s homage to Girl 6 in her music video for the 2020 single “1-800-One-Night,” which Taylor directed under the moniker “Spike Tey.” And the same goes for Parks, who became the first Black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her 2001 play Topdog/Underdog, wrote the screenplay for this year’s The United States vs. Billie Holiday, and has steadily refused to discuss Girl 6 since its release. Even in April 1996, when Parks sat with New York Times writer Monte Williams for a profile piece, she wouldn’t discuss reactions to her work (“I don’t read reviews … I refuse to have my ego inflated or deflated by someone I don’t know”) or elaborate on how her months-long gig as a phone sex operator in London informed the screenplay. “I don’t want to do this if that’s going to be the focus of your story,” Williams quoted Parks. “It was one little job I had in order to pay the rent.”
All of this is to say: Girl 6 is a movie practically disavowed by its creators and impossible to find on streaming services, and admittedly, it is a mess. Lead character Judy (Theresa Randle), who interrupts her dreams of becoming an actress so she can pay her bills as a phone sex operator, is developed primarily in terms of her relationships with men. Parks’s script sprints toward provocative observations about gender, race, and sex before stopping abruptly and walking away from the very conversations it started. Quentin Tarantino, Ron Silver, Madonna, and Naomi Campbell make cameos that distract from, rather than enhance, the film’s purposeful blurring of fiction and reality. Lee’s character Jimmy reads a letter that Judy receives from a client about his need to masturbate while eating cereal doused in her breast milk, and it all feels very Jerry Springer.
And yet, sex work is work, and Girl 6, to its credit, acknowledges the labor exhibited by these women with every phone call. The mixture of sensuality, therapy, and friendship they need to offer to men who are already using them, and who can in a moment turn to abusing them. The distance and fortitude they develop to remain uninvolved emotionally with these callers, some of whom proclaim love, devotion, and fidelity, and others who are violent, cruel, and contemptuous. Girl 6 too often props up didactic dynamics of good vs. bad when it comes to employers—Jenifer Lewis runs a phone sex company that she insists is like a family, while Madonna runs a sleazier joint where bestiality, coprophilia, “yada yada yada,” and other potentially harmful sexual preferences are condoned—without considering that all of this is manipulation of some kind.
But there are kernels of ideas here about which aspects of ourselves are performative versus which are authentic that serve as direct precursors to films like Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You and Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience. Girl 6 is a fascinatingly clunky misfire unwilling to truly commit to the full ramifications of its flirting-with-filth narrative, but its observation that objectification and sexualization go hand in hand with womanhood still feels timely. Not much has changed in 25 years.
Set contemporaneously in New York City in the mid-’90s, Girl 6 begins with a dehumanizing movie audition: Judy (Randle) wants to deliver her version of Nola Darling’s monologue from Lee’s 1986 film She’s Gotta Have It, but Tarantino (appearing here before his still-ongoing feud with Lee), playing an extra-lecherous, extra-aggro version of himself, cuts her off. He wants to find “the total game, know what I’m saying?”, and his dream girl is a combination of Halle Berry, Jada Pinkett, Whitney Houston, and Angela Bassett. Is that Judy? Maybe. But the director will only know if he sees what she looks like with her top off, and if Judy won’t do it, well, one of the dozens of girls outside will.
Forced into submission by Tarantino’s “don’t move, don’t talk” commands, Judy unbuttons her top, slips it off her shoulders, and bares her breasts—before changing her mind a few seconds later and rushing out of there. No one respects her for this choice. Her agent (John Turturro) and acting coach (Susan Batson) both fire her, the latter screaming “So what?” and “Grow up!” over and over again. With no way to pay her rent, Judy decides to make some quick money working as a phone sex operator at an office where girl power is the prevailing sentiment. Her boss Lil (Lewis) is matter of fact about how all the women should tell callers that they’re white, blonde, and busty, and instead emphasizes the camaraderie they’ll all develop together. And when Judy, who is hired as the office’s Girl 6, rationalizes her new gig as another form of acting, she takes to it quickly and easily, developing three distinct characters: a dominatrix named April, a pre-op transgender woman named Esmerelda, and a girl next door named Lovely. When Lovely has her first successful call and brings a man to climax over the phone, the other women—played by the likes of Gretchen Mol, Debi Mazar, and Mad TV’s Debra Wilson—applaud her and present her with a congratulatory corsage.
Judy has found a sort of home here, and even begins falling for a caller (Peter Berg) who requests her specifically, and who talks to her less about sex and more about caring for his ailing mother. Maybe there’s some sort of bond truly there. But to Judy’s friend and neighbor Jimmy (Lee), all of this is strange. He has a long-term investment strategy of collecting rare baseball cards and waiting 20 years before selling them for what he anticipates will be huge profits, and he doesn’t understand how Judy can, as he sees it, debase herself for cash. How is this different from prostitution, he wonders? And confused in another way is Judy’s ex-husband (Isaiah Washington), who mistakes Judy’s unabashed performances as Lovely (the film is never brave enough to feature sequences where she is April or Esmerelda) as renewed sexual interest in him. She agrees to go on what she thinks is a friendly dinner, and on the walk home he tries to shove her hands down his pants. “You’re safe here. Very safe,” Lil had assured her callers, but what about outside that office building?
No man seems to understand that this is a job for Judy, and Girl 6 at first raises compelling questions about the ways women perform gender, femininity, and sexuality, and how there is an undercurrent of mockery and farce to their phone sex work. Some women read books or magazines while panting and moaning, while others file their nails. The women laugh together when a man wants a threesome scenario, barely hiding their combination of mirth and disdain at how stereotypical these fetishes are—schoolgirls, pleated skirts, and bathroom rendezvous.
But when Girl 6 tries to navigate the darker corners of this industry and its demoralizing ramifications, the film begins to unravel. Judy is too underwritten, and the situations in which she finds herself—stood up by one caller who proposes an in-person meeting, and then threatened by another who discusses his fantasy of murdering her—are too divorced from any real emotional impact. In the latter sequence, Lee portrays Judy as gliding back and forth through her red-hued apartment hallway, its aesthetics and lighting reminiscent of a burlesque or brothel. But is Girl 6 saying that all sex work is soul-crushing, or just that Judy is unfit for it? Is the burden of having to deny her Blackness to her clients, while the boss played by Madonna sardonically describes her as a “home girl,” what ails Judy? And the film’s closing scene, in which Judy has moved from New York City to Los Angeles and walks out of another audition where a patronizing white director (Silver) tells her to take off her clothes, feels strangely cutesy. Did sex work empower Judy to realize the hypocrisy of Hollywood? Or is patriarchy so inescapable that all Judy can do is hope for a kinder person to give her another chance?
Girl 6 doesn’t take a real stance or provide a clear answer to any of these questions, which is why the film’s rapid tonal switch from comedy to cautionary tale doesn’t quite work. “I get paid to talk now. I don’t get paid to be bullshitting with you,” Judy says to Jimmy in one of her lowest moments, when her entire selfhood has become consumed by the need for money, attention, and adoration; only days later, she’ll be crying to a caller who gets off on her saying, “I’m not happy because I’m a fuckslut.” Girl 6 fails at capturing how the same woman can be both of these people at the same time. But what it does clearly convey is an insistence that capitalism forces capitulation: in racial code-switching, in how women shape themselves in response to male desire, and in how identities become brands. Girl 6 might have been a failure, but in those ways at least, it was perhaps more prescient than anyone in 1996 could have guessed.