“Words Matter”: Spike Lee, Coach, and the Motorcycle Jacket

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by Renee H. Shea


Take 90 seconds—really, it’s just a minute and a half—and treat yourself to “Words Matter,” a video made by outspoken activist and brilliant filmmaker Spike Lee (and not incidentally, recent Academy Award winner for BlackKKKlansman).


The motorcycle roars through the California desert toward the camera; the handsome cool guy skids to a stop, takes off his helmet, and it’s Black Panther star Michael B. Jordan! He looks around at the dystopian landscape, spots some rocks and picks them up: “evil,” “hatred,” “bigotry,” “lies.” He throws them away. Then, he walks (with a map?), sees a children’s swing set, and finds more words: “courage,” “truth,” “dream,” “love.” These are keepers. Helmet back on. And off he goes.


This man has changed the landscape.


Punchline: this is an ad for the pricey leather goods brand Coach, part of their #wordsmatter campaign. Make that marketing campaign? And, BTW, that iconic leather jacket Jordan is wearing can be yours for $1400.


What a great opportunity to have some fun while studying rhetoric! Here are a couple of conversation starters:

  • What’s the exigence?
  • Who’s the audience?
  • What’s the purpose (for Lee? Jordan? Coach?) – i.e., what’s being “sold”?
  • How does this video promote Coach’s "strong poetic narrative that speaks to Coach’s values of inclusion, optimism and courage" (according to their web site)?
  • Does this campaign name trivialize or celebrate #blacklivesmatter?
  • Why would Spike Lee and Michael B. Jordan do this? (Fame and money can’t be the answer for these celebrities.)
  • If the ad is an argument, what is the evidence that supports the claim? Any logical fallacies rearing their heads?
  • What has been the reaction to this video? It’s very current, and commentaries, especially on social media, are coming in at this minute.


This activity alone could lead to some interesting discussion and writing. But those of us who work on The Language of Composition are always looking for ways to connect our carefully curated texts, many of them iconic, to contemporary discourse. So you might go right to the Conversation in this thematic chapter on “The Value of Celebrity Activism.” Adding this video might lead to some fruitful exploration of, first, whether this “advertisement” is indeed “activism.” Does knowing that Lee involved his children, Satchel and Jackson, in the making of the video change students’ sense of the purpose and interpretation? Does knowing that Lee and Jordan, first-time collaborators, chose the words themselves?


Another strategy is pairing this – motorcycle jacket and all – with the essay in our Pop Culture chapter “How the Motorcycle Lost Its Cool and Found It Again” by Troy Patterson, a 2015 article on the history and cachet of the motorcycle jacket through the past decades, actually since it debuted in 1928.


The questions in TLC3e following the essay lead to a provocative analysis of Patterson’s purpose and style, its structure and argument. (My favorite asks how Patterson supports his claim that “the motorcycle jacket is an international uniform impervious to obsolescence.”) So what does that jacket that Jackson is wearing and Coach selling have to say about our current moment? What if he were wearing an L.L. Bean shirt or a hoodie? Is the moto (as it’s called) code for macho? Power? Taking a stand?


If you want to dive a little deeper, add “The New Power Blazer,” a very recent article in Fortune magazine subtitled “How a symbol of rebellion found its way into the boardroom” – via the ladies! Apparently, the new CEOs and captains of industry and Congress, are ditching their blue blazers for swanky black leather motorcycle jackets. Why? Read the article.


And then put those three pieces together to stimulate analysis:


  • Is the moto still cool? (or in AP parlance, “to what extent is the moto still cool?”). Do you want one? Why or why not?
  • What kind of power does that black leather jacket signal in 2019? (Think about the logic here: what’s the premise – unstated? -- of a jacket that can cost upwards of a thousand dollars being a symbol of power… or rebellion?)
  • Is fashion political? Should it be? (“Should Fashion Influence Politics and Culture?”)


Or, if you want to get into the rhetorical weeds, then this activity could be just a warm up to reading the superb Central Essay in Pop Culture – “Hip Hop Planet” by the wonderful James McBride. It’s a sophisticated analysis of the history, artistry, and cultural significance of Hip Hop.


These are the kind of connections we hope that our selections in TLC3e will generate as you tailor readings to your own classroom. All exam prep need not be, well, totally exam prep. Enjoy!

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