When Spike Lee celebrated his 50th birthday earlier this year, he had many irons in the fire: a sequel to his successful crime thriller Inside Man, biopics about Joe Louis and James Brown, a television series for NBC, and a host of music videos and commercials. But his most intriguing plan was for a feature film about the 1992 Los Angeles riots that were sparked by the acquittal of white policemen who, infamously, had been videotaped beating an unarmed black motorist.
That Lee would return to race riots, the subject of his most original and provocative film, Do the Right Thing (1989), was only part of the intrigue. Even more extraordinary—for those who remember the white establishment’s hostile reaction to Lee’s earlier effort—was Hollywood super-producer Brian Grazer’s announcement that the new project was “the best way to use Spike’s power as a filmmaker to tell an evenhanded story that gets beyond the iconic pictures that we all remember.” Lee himself promised “a truthful and realistic examination of what happened.”
To be evenhanded about the images of Rodney King being bludgeoned by uniformed police officers and of the white truck driver Reginald Denny being attacked by black youths during the riots, seems close to impossible. Film (even documentary film) does not lend itself to evenhandedness. Even if it did, Spike Lee might not be the best choice for that job.
The young Spike Lee had an attitude; he was in white people’s faces, speaking his truth to their power. His project was unapologetic about getting even, not being evenhanded. When white critics complained about his negative stereotypes of Italians (Do the Right Thing) and Jews (Mo’ Better Blues, 1990) Lee had a ready answer: just look at the stereotypes of blacks in the movies made by Jews and Italians.
The early films that made Lee’s cinematic reputation—Do the Right Thing and She’s Gotta Have It (1986)—assumed a black audience and ignored white sensibilities and expectations. Predominately black audiences reacted knowingly and laughed, while white audiences sat quietly and missed most of the humor. When I first watched Do the Right Thing in a crowded suburban theater, there was stunned silence. Many in the all white audience would have agreed with critics Terence McNally and Joe Klein that the film was an incitement to violence. One critic went even further, describing Do the Right Thing as propaganda comparable to Leni Riefenstahl’s film about Hitler, Triumph of the Will. When I discussed the film at a public lecture, a group of elderly women who identified themselves as Holocaust survivors assured me that Lee was another Joseph Goebbels. None of them had actually seen the film; their judgment was based entirely on Lee’s combative statements and interviews as reported in The New York Times.
At the time, critics’ central focus was the moral import of a decision by Mookie (Spike Lee). Near the end of the movie a black crowd has gathered outside the pizzeria where he works and where his friend Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) has just been killed by white police. Mookie picks up a trash can and throws it through the window of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria. Mookie’s act sets off a riot that destroys the last white-owned business in the “Bed-Stuy” block in which the film takes place. Did Mookie “do the right thing”?
Most critics said no, although one defense of Mookie argued that he turns the crowd into a mob bent on property destruction rather than violence against Sal (Danny Aiello) and his sons, Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson). Mookie’s words to Sal seem to confirm this theory: “Motherfuck a window; Radio Raheem is dead.” But Lee has often said that the focus on the moral question is a white preoccupation. No black person ever asks him if Mookie did the right thing; they get it.
Nonetheless black academics here felt obligated to respond to the charges that the film would cause riots. Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates Jr., in a panel discussion reprinted in The New York Times, described it as a “porous” text that allowed viewers to reach their own moral conclusions. “The moviegoer is even left with a choice, put there literally through the two quotes of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.” Gates’s placing the moral choice on the viewer was the closest any critic got to calling Lee evenhanded.
But Brian Grazer’s recent comment about the “evenhanded” Lee must not be dismissed. That Spike Lee has changed needs no discussion. He has gone, as the critic William Lyne has written, “from black power to black box office,” and beyond that to mainstream Hollywood. In the process he has become a less original and creative filmmaker.
But the more interesting question is whether we can look at Do the Right Thing today and see, if not evenhandedness, then a non-polarizing film, and truthful part of American life. Has American culture shifted enough in the intervening years so that white audiences can see the film a different way?
What I found striking in revisiting the film is that its creative expression overshadows its political and moral import. It does not feel dated. It is as vivid today as it was in 1989, despite the “Public Enemy” soundtack, the graffiti reference to Reverend Al Sharpton’s 1980s cause celebre (“Tawana never lied”), and a Mike Tyson poster. The film itself is still alive and kicking, right from the beginning. And if white audiences felt threatened back then, today they should be able to sense the explosion of Lee’s youthful creativity in a celebration of defiant pride. That is the man’s persona and his message.
Do the Right Thing opens with Rosie Perez dancing to “Fight the Power.” Perez is indomitable, fusing sex and aggression into the language of dance. She is so over-the-top, so hyperbolic, so raw, and so totally engaged that she is less erotic than a force of nature. This is the Dionysian dance that Nietzsche could only imagine. Here Lee, whose TV commercials have the same extraordinary emotional and creative energy, is at the peak of his artistic power.
But the enduring vitality of Do the Right Thing is not only the product of Lee’s creative inspiration. His collaborators fought his power; the film is a product of that struggle. Lee initially wanted Public Enemy to do the music track based on the spiritual, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Public Enemy convinced him that young blacks were listening to rap, not spiritual or jazz, and they created “Fight the Power,” heard perhaps 15 times during the film. Danny Aiello insisted that Sal be more complex than a stereotyped racist and he improvised a human side. Others made important contributions, notably the cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, whose bold camera work gave the film an aesthetic originality and coherence.
Rosie’s dance is an overture for what follows. Lee wrote the script for Do the Right Thing in a two-week burst of creativity. It has the style and structure of a classic Greek tragedy. The events all take place on one hot day, with tempers rising with the temperature. There is a Greek Chorus, three middle-aged men, sitting on folding chairs on the sidewalk, discussing their lives and their community. There is the equivalent of the blind seer, a handicapped young man, who spastically makes his way through the film peddling photographs of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. This unforgettable character was played by an actor who persuaded Lee to create this crucial role for him, refusing to take no for an answer. And the humanized Sal is the character whose Italian pride is the hubris that leads to his downfall. But Do the Right Thing also has the style of an opera—a rap opera. Radio Raheem, who wears brass knuckles that spell out “love” and “hate” on each hand, has a rap aria:
Let me tell you the story of “Right Hand, Left Hand.” It’s a tale of good and evil. Hate: it was with this hand that Cain iced his brother. Love: these five fingers, they go straight to the soul of man. The right hand: the hand of love. The story of life is this: Static. One hand is always fighting the other hand; and the left hand is kicking much ass. I mean, it looks like the right hand, Love, is finished. But, hold on, stop the presses, the right hand is coming back. Yeah, he got the left hand on the ropes now, that’s right. Ooh, it’s the devastating right and Hate is hurt, he’s down. Left-Hand Hate KO’d by Love.
Although Lee borrowed this idea from Robert Mitchum’s love–hate speech in the film classic The Night of the Hunter, he has certainly improved on the original.
In the middle of the hot day there comes a montage of racial slurs. Characters look into the camera and deliver an aria of hatred. What stands out today is how the diversity of the Bed-Stuy community is represented: the tensions among blacks with different values, the uneasy lines between blacks and Hispanics, the conflicts in Sal’s family, and the sense that the white police are threatened and threatening—they remind us of our soldiers trying to keep peace in Iraq. What seemed then like a clash between whites and blacks, now seems far more complicated. And the disc jockey, Mister Señor Love Daddy, (Samuel L. Jackson), asks a final double question: “Are we gonna live together; together are we gonna live?” Today that question has more import than Mookie’s action.
So from this distance it seems that Gates got it right. But there is still another theme that points to the film’s openness and truthfulness. There is much that shows the destructive side of life in the inner city. Lee made it clear that he was not interested in making films about blacks who will be positive role models for the community. Nonetheless this is a film about black pride and black identity. Lee cares about that.
Three important moments demonstrate this theme. The great actor Ossie Davis, who plays “Da Mayor” of the block, delivers the first. He is a man defeated by life and by alcohol, but we will see in this panhandling bum an undying spark of self-respect, and in the end a kind of redemption.
The second moment comes when Mister Señor Love Daddy reads the honor role of black musicians and the list goes on and on in an undeniable declaration of black creative achievement.
And finally we return to Mookie’s decision to throw the trash can through the window. As the philosophers say, every act has unforeseen consequences (this is why the critics condemned the choice.). But every act also has an expressive function, and Mookie is in this moment expressing his solidarity with his community.
Throughout the film he is the Levi-Straussian figure who mediates between the categories of black and white. He delivers Sal’s pizzas and keeps the peace in the pizzeria; he mediates between the blacks and Hispanics—he is the father of Rosie Perez’s son. But after he watches Radio Raheem killed by the police in a chokehold (an incident based on real events) he can no longer be a mediator. He must take sides.
This interpretation suggests that Lee will tell the story of the L.A. riots from a black perspective, and if it is not evenhanded we can hope that it is “porous” and will ask as many questions as it answers—most importantly, “Are we gonna live together; together are we gonna live?” Today we realize Mister Señor Love Daddy’s question is not just about race in America. It is about survival on the planet. Do the Right Thing was one of the best films of the 20th century. It looks even better in the 21st.