The Historian: 25 Years After Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing

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By Spencer. Brooklyn, New York and Ferguson, Missouri are 950 miles apart — but it’s a trip that takes 25 years. In the quarter century since Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing premiered in theaters, it feels like we’ve come such a great distance. Today, in Brooklyn, you don’t find race riots or policy brutality; you find hipsters and organic markets. Hip-hop is as common in suburbia as it is in the streets. Public Enemy, whose “Fight The Power” gave the the movie its soundtrack and its soul, is in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Even our choice of president, a man of both black and white heritage, seems to suggest that whatever the racial animosities Spike Lee exposed back in 1989, we’ve long since learned how to get along.

Yet the events in Ferguson last week can’t help but deflate that kind of confidence. I fear even writing about this, because it’s a topic so fraught with danger and so sensitive to so many. My life has been divided between white suburban Texas and black urban D.C., and the experience has only made me more aware of the impossibility of ever truly understanding the circumstances of lives so different than my own. In lieu of understanding, I aim for at least empathy. Sometimes, I succeed. Often, I fail.

Even so, Do The Right Thing is a movie that begs us to discuss. To run away from that conversation is to rebuke everything for which the film stands. Watching it this weekend for the first time in two decades, I almost wished I hadn’t. Because everything that makes this film feel vital and relevant, even after all these years, serves too as signals of our failures.

Visually, the movie slaps you with color (an appropriate choice of words in more ways than one). Just take a look at the opening credits: from the music to the palette to the dance moves of Rosie Perez, it’s the perfect distillation of the brightness and the energy and the frustration of that particular moment in pop culture history.

And we forget, but it’s a very funny movie too. Of course, the humor is only a setup for the film’s disturbing climax, in which things become very serious, very fast. An altercation between the Italian owners of Sal’s Pizzeria and two black customers escalates quickly out of control, ending with the death of a black man at the hands of the police.

From there onward, it’s all too easy to see the echoes of Ferguson. An angry mob burns Sal’s Pizzeria to the ground, and it’s Spike Lee himself who breaks the first window.

Is this Lee’s personal endorsement of the violence that follows? That’s tough to say. He intentionally builds layers of moral ambiguity into the film. What’s wrong with an Italian pizzeria owner hanging pictures of famous Italians — but no African Americans — in his shop? Does the equation change if his customers are almost exclusively black? If two of those customers forcefully storm his shop, scream and curse at him, blast music from a boombox, and demand that he change his policy, does he have a right to defend himself? If they won’t turn off the boombox, does he have a right to smash it? What if, swept up in the anger of the moment, he uses the n-word? Is that indiscretion mitigated by the fact that, just minutes before, he told his one black employee that he thinks of him as a son and wants him to share in the family business? Or that he takes pride in being a part of this neighborhood, of having fed an entire generation of these kids and watching them grow up, and that he refuses to abandon that to move elsewhere — even if it would be safer?

Those are the easy questions. The harder questions come in the aftermath. Did the police use excessive force in taking down Radio Raheem? Does it matter that he was a large man in an uncontrollable rage taking on four officers at once? Does Sal share in the blame? Was the crowd justified in burning his shop to the ground? Is mob violence ever justified? Who’s right and who’s wrong in this whole mess?

Do-the-Right-Thing-movie-posterIt’s such an uncomfortable moment in film history because, chances are, your answers to these questions depend on your race. And we don’t like that. Two people sitting next to each other in the same theater shouldn’t walk out having seen two completely different movies. We want to believe there are good guys and bad guys, clear moral lessons and definitive lines between the innocent and the guilty, and that these things are universal. We want this not just in movies but in life.

Clearly this is a message film. But what the hell kind of message are we supposed to take away when the closing credits — featuring competing quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X — advocate both violence and non-violence in the same breath?

That’s why watching Do The Right Thing, this week of all weeks, is so unsettling. I’m annoyed that Spike Lee has just enough courage to raise tough questions but not enough courage to answer them. I’m angry because we as a society, for all our progress, haven’t done any better. I see a movie from three decades ago whose look, whose style, whose core message should feel wholly outdated by now. And I thought it was. Until last week.

But now I watch those two quotes scroll down the screen at the end, and I go back and read everything I’ve written here, and I can’t decide whether it’s the movie that seems naive, or me.

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