Welcome to Cason’s Casting Couch, a column devoted to an examination of who booked what role and why. Casting, an opaque process beholden to budgets, scheduling conflicts, and abuses of power, can impact a movie’s final cut as fundamentally as editing. To illustrate my point, let’s take a look at Girl 6 (1996).

Cason’s Casting Couch: Girl 6

By Cason Sharpe

Directed by Spike Lee, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, and soundtracked start-to-finish by Prince, Girl 6 is a raunchy half-baked romp starring Theresa Randle as an unnamed actress in New York City.

Desperate for cash and disheartened by Hollywood’s perpetual rejection, our heroine takes a gig as a phone sex operator under the moniker Girl 6. She slips into this role with impressive aplomb, dissolving any distinction between herself and the many seductresses she’s paid to voice. Just as the boundary between actress and character is poised to erode altogether, a string of increasingly disturbing over-the-phone encounters forces Girl 6 to reconsider her diminishing sense of self.

The first film Lee ever directed for which he didn’t write the screenplay, Girl 6 exhibits the director’s singular style without his occasionally self-serious auteurism. This refreshing alignment comes at the expense of narrative cohesion, of which the film has none.

Pete Travers at Rolling Stone called Girl 6 “the worst movie Spike Lee has ever made,” one that “[resorts] to all-star cameos to disguise structural shortcomings,” and while I understand where Travers is coming from, I’d argue that the film’s all-star cameos are in fact its structuring principle, if not its saving grace.

Everybody in Girl 6 is famous. Everybody, that is, except for the film’s star.

Everybody in Girl 6 is famous. Everybody, that is, except for the film’s star. The movie is Theresa Randle’s only lead role to date, despite her solid list of supporting credits. Her performance is bolstered by the shine of her more notable co-stars, many of whom appear as heightened or subverted versions of themselves.

Quentin Tarantino plays a crude blaxploitation director who orders Girl 6 to take her top off during an audition, while celebrated New York acting coach Susan Baston plays a bombastic acting teacher who chides Girl 6 for rebuffing the director’s advances. Madonna makes a cameo as a nefarious strip club owner who interviews Girl 6 before she lands at the call centre, where Naomi Campbell briefly emerges to deliver a monologue as a coy dominatrix in a top that reads “MODELS SUCK.”

This star-studded ensemble might be the result of stunt casting, but placing the recognizable-yet-little-known Randle amongst a brood of brand-name celebrities creates a tension that only emphasizes the anonymity of her character.

Nameless, ageless, and sans backstory, Girl 6 is the ideal canvas on which to project a fantasy. Throughout the movie, she imagines herself as Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones, as Bern Nadette Stanis in Good Times, and as Pam Grier in Foxy Brown. Randle lampoons these characters through Girl 6’s aspirational embodiment of them, her exaggerated facial expressions and cliche line delivery reducing these famous fictional women into flat archetypes available for 99 cents a minute.

These playful recreations, awkwardly wedged between plot points, pay irreverent homage to the history of Black American cinema while simultaneously exposing a link between sex work, Hollywood, and the pressures of Black feminine performance. Watching Randle parody a pantheon of icons to which she doesn’t belong makes the satire of these interstitials especially bittersweet. 

These daydream sequences are either triggered or interrupted by Jimmy, Girl 6’s layabout neighbour. A shrewd skeptic, Jimmy is critical of our heroine’s new vocation and what he perceives as its tenuous connection to her career as an actress. “Phone sex. Is. Acting,” she tells him, “and if you don’t like it, you can step.” Jimmy has strong opinions, but unclear intentions. Does he want the best for Girl 6, or is he just another pervert looking to control her? Jimmy, of course, is played by Spike Lee.

Lee often plays secondary roles in his own movies. In this instance, his decision to cast himself serves as a meta-commentary on his position as a Black director wading through the fraught responsibility of cinematic representation. Like Jimmy, Lee doesn’t know what to make of Girl 6. Is she a multi-dimensional character capable of exercising sexual agency, or is she simply a fantasy for some man, whether a famous director or a one-time caller?

Girl 6 packs none of the feminist punch of She’s Gotta Have It, Lee’s groundbreaking comedy from a decade earlier, but in its ambivalence towards its title character, the movie suggests a more complicated and unresolved reckoning with the history of Black women in film. Crouching behind her, Jimmy helps Girl 6 secure her wig and finish her makeup in front of the vanity. “Who’s this?” she asks, her hair, eyes, and mouth all in place. 

“Dorothy Dandridge,” Jimmy replies, a director beholding his star.

Cason Sharpe is a writer currently based in Toronto.