Can a Little Spike Lee (and a Lot of Brooklyn) Save Uber From Its Troubled Reputation?

New film that premiered Wednesday night sure aims to try

Headshot of Robert Klara

It’s a few minutes before the house lights come down at the Brooklyn Academy of Music for the premiere of Spike Lee’s new “joint,” Da Republic of Brooklyn. Standing off to the side—largely unnoticed—is Lee himself. He gives the occasional thumbs-up to the few who recognize him in his ordinary getup: black track pants, a white Nike windbreaker and a baseball cap. When he takes the stage, Lee keeps his comments to under a minute: It’s good to be “in the Fort” he tells the packed house, a reference to the Fort Greene neighborhood where Lee keeps a studio. “Thank you for coming out.” And that’s pretty much it. Lee makes his exit.

After 39 years of making movies, including legendary films such as Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X, Lee is clearly past the point where he needs to impress the public.

Alas, the same cannot be said for Uber.

Uber is the corporate sponsor behind Lee’s latest film, the full title of which is actually Uber Presents Da Republic of Brooklyn. It’s a polished piece of content marketing—five short biographical sketches strung together—that’s not just entertaining, but one that’s clearly trying to shift the conversation away from Uber corporate in favor of talking about the raw and authentic lives of the men and women behind the wheel.

“The five short films in the series each feature a different driver,” reads the booklet handed out at the front door, “and we hope their stories … shine a light on this vibrant, energetic, hardworking borough.”

And that’s probably a smart strategy, especially given the sort of headlines Uber generated in 2017.

There was the #DeleteUber campaign that resulted from company founder Travis Kalanik’s involvement with the Trump administration. There was the leaked video showing Kalanik berating one of his own drivers. And, looming above all else, there was the widespread news of Uber’s sexist, frat-boy culture that eventually forced Kalanik himself to give up the CEO’s office.

While Uber did report a profit of $2.45 billion in May—analysts credited that figure mostly to Uber’s selling off its businesses in Southeast Asia and Russia—2018 has also seen its share of bad news for Uber, including a self-driving Uber vehicle killing an Arizona pedestrian in March and, just this week, the company’s HR chief Liane Hornsey stepping down over her handling of racial discrimination claims.

Little wonder then that Uber is championing its drivers though Lee’s film, which celebrates the hustle needed to make it in the Big Apple, and specifically Brooklyn, the borough Lee’s work has championed for decades. And regardless of how viewers feel about Uber these days, it’s hard not to like the drivers Lee interviews on a huge purple couch and whose cars take Lee’s camera for a ride.

There’s Domingo, whose self-described “Brooklyn hustle” has him working a dizzying array of jobs—including flight attendant, auxiliary police officer and chicken farmer—in addition to his Uber shifts. “What I like most about driving is the interaction with people,” he says in the film.

There’s Sunny, a St. Louis transplant to Brooklyn who saves her tips from making deliveries for Uber Eats to further more artistic ambitions. “Thanks to Uber, I have a little bank,” she says, “so now I can send myself to acting school.”

Malka, from Pakistan, escaped a prearranged (and abusive) marriage and now supports her two kids by driving for Uber. Rodney is an aspiring painter who says driving for the company helps him “focus” on what he wants to paint next.

And there’s Keith, who dreams of opening a doggie day care center one day but for now drives for Uber with his dog Teeny riding shotgun. With Uber, he says, “you work when you want—and I get to work with my dog every day.”

It’s genuine, funny and affecting material. But the most significant component of the movie may be what’s not in it. With the exception of a few quick cuts to Uber’s stick-on windshield badge, there’s no corporate voice here at all. It’s almost as though the company, no doubt aware of the public’s recent memories of a blowhard CEO and an ambivalent public, decided it’s best to let someone else do the talking.

In fact, the only voice from corporate at Wednesday night’s opening was Uber’s GM for the New York region, Sarfraz Maredia, who humbly took the stage to salute the company’s “amazing driving partners.”

“New York isn’t New York without their contributions,” he said.

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.