Tuesday, March 28, 2017
Finding the Truth, Ruth. My Complex Journey with Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing
*CONTAINS MULTIPLE SPOILERS*
In the summer of 1991, as I was preparing to enter the ninth grade, my parents decided to send me to a boarding school in Newport, Rhode Island. I was not a good student, you see, as I preferred to daydream, write stories, and watch movies as opposed to studying. I was raised in an upper/middle class household where I was basically spoon fed everything I could possibly ever want and need, so why should I care how well I did in school? I was the poster child of white privilege...dad is a lawyer, mom stayed home, and we had an African American housekeeper. Yep, I was that kid. Anyway, due to my bad grades, my parents felt that sending me far away with other equally privileged screw ups would whip me into shape. While that summer certainly did not improve my grades, my blinders were removed to reveal an existence I had no concept of until then: racism. Up until that point, the only hateful acts I knew were when boys, all white, got in fights on the playground or called each other "stupid." All of that seemed so small in retrospect to what I was about to witness during my time away from home.
My first day on campus, one of the kids referred to the Asian students using a slang term I was not familiar with. There was only one, yes one, African American student in the program, and my roommate had told her she couldn't sit with us at lunch because it was a "segregated" table. Once she left, another kid called her the "n" word, which I'd heard but never knew what it meant. I was pretty shocked. Why were these kids so angry? The idea of different races had never even crossed my mind before, let alone that you wouldn't like another person because of their skin color or nationality. How had I been so unaware? Interesting then, that at this school with so many white kids who didn't like other races would be the first time I saw Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing. Since I'd been movie obsessed since about the age of eight, I'd heard of it, the controversy around it, and because of Siskel & Ebert, I knew it was supposed to be great film. Most of the movies shown up to this point had been goofy comedies or balls-to-the-wall action movies...we'd just left the '80s after all, so I was not even close to being prepared for what I was about to soak in that day.
The TV room in our dorm was small, and there were a limited number of chairs available. By the time I wandered in, right as the opening credits were beginning, it was already packed so tight that I had to stand in the corner behind the door and hope it stayed shut so my view would not be blocked. Two hours later, I was absolutely mesmerized, as my senses had been overloaded as they never had before by a movie. Or any piece of art, for that matter. My body was numb and I was boiling hot, partially from the room being overcrowded, but more so because Ernest Dickerson's exquisite cinematography made me feel, even seeing it on a tiny TV screen, like I was truly living that day in Bed-Stuy. If I recall correctly, I was the last one out of the room. It was the first time in my life a movie experience had left me literally paralyzed as I tried to process it. I was exhausted, overjoyed, exhilarated, sad, and angry, all in equal measure. The difficult part was going to be sorting through it.
I lied awake that night, constantly replaying the movie's climax in my head, wondering why Mookie threw that trashcan through the window at Sal's. It didn't make sense. I was so perplexed. Sal didn't start it. And he didn't kill Radio Raheem. So why take it out on him? It would be another decade or so before I finally understood. But we'll get back to that. Aside from challenging me as no movie ever had, I'd never seen a movie with so many diverse characters, each so distinct and memorable, even if they weren't all likable. I would study the movie from a technical standpoint for many years to come. I became a fan of Dutch angles and begin to use them in my high school shorts whenever I was attempting to create tension. I got Do the Right Thing on VHS that following Christmas, and I watched it as often as I could. If film can be a religion, Do the Right Thing had become my Bible. I always anticipated the climax with fear because it always struck a nerve and I couldn't figure out why. I tried to get my friends to watch it, but they didn't want to see a "Black" movie (unless it was I'm Gonna Git You Sucka!). As my teenage years progressed, racism and prejudice became more present in my life, not just around me but directly as well.
My friends and I were the equivalent of Pino, Sal's son, when it came to people of other races. If you were a celebrity we admired or someone we went to school with, you were just like us. Everybody else was lumped into whatever stereotype had been created for them. If a bike was stolen, it must have been a Mexican. If someone was cheap, they were labeled as a Jew. If you didn't have a girlfriend, you were automatically Gay. A best friend's mom used to tell him if he didn't make good grades, he would have to go to a public school with all the poor Black kids. That was my life and as far as I knew, it was normal. I had been led to believe that other races were inferior and a threat to me, especially Black people. My friends and I had a whole collection of racist joke books. And yet, because of Do the Right Thing, I was beginning to expose myself to more Black culture. At this point, all the art I had sought out was created by white people and only focused on white experience. I got my first CD player the same Christmas that I got Do the Right Thing, and one of my first purchases was Public Enemy's Apocalypse '91: The Enemy Strikes Black (which I had to keep hidden from my parents or they would take it away as "propaganda"). At first, it was difficult for me to follow the lyrics, but one thing was certain...these guys were pissed off. But why? You couldn't understand the lyrics to angry music by white artists either, mainly because it was a bunch of screaming. However, when you read the lyrics, it was just a bunch of trivial bullshit. Not so when I read the lyrics for Public Enemy or even N.W.A., who I had listened to in junior high and thought it was hilarious that they cussed so much. Looking at it in a different context, thanks to Spike's movie, I realized that what they were saying was no laughing matter. But was it right? Could these guys really justify all this rage? Surely it was all their fault that their lives and the lives of other Black people were under such scrutiny. After all, even the characters in Do the Right Thing, straight down to the one Spike plays, were openly racist. I was still missing a key piece to this puzzle. When I went to college several years later, I would finally see firsthand that racism was not the casual joke my friends and I had made it out to be.
I spent my freshman year at The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, and it felt like the largest place on Earth. Outside of my summer in Rhode Island all those years ago, this was the longest I had ever been away from my sheltered and privileged life, a life that I was naively expecting to continue once I left home. I pledged a fraternity, which was a decision I would grow to regret long before the semester was over. Many of the members were the first exposure I'd had to honest-to-god "rednecks," and they proudly wore that title in everything they said and did. If it went against being straight, white, and male, it was an offense. I wore a purple shirt and was told never to do it again because it meant I was Gay. I had to take a survey during pledge week, and one of the questions asked if I believed lynching was an "old tradition" or "good fun." I was taking a class called American Lives, and one of my assignments was to read Malcolm X's autobiography. When the fraternity saw me reading it, a powder keg went off and the only reason I didn't get the crap beat out of me was because it was for a class. I'd always thought making fun of other races was harmless as long as you kept it among friends. These guys were living proof that it wasn't and never had been. If the other pledges came to my dorm room, I hid my copy of Do the Right Thing. Spike Lee actually came and spoke on campus shortly after Clockers was released, and I made sure no one knew I was going to see him. It was the first time I ever had the experience of being "star struck." So much so that I couldn't even work up the nerve to ask him a question, which in the long run didn't matter because I was in awe just to be in the same room with him. In hindsight, it was for the best, as the questions I so desperately wanted to ask had answers I needed to figure out on my own.
Needless to say, I quit the fraternity and was hazed the rest of the year for it, mostly with messages left on my answering machine that are too vulgar to recreate here. At this point, I had never considered how someone must feel when being called one of the names I'd so casually thrown out at my white friends in the past. But now that someone was doing it to me, and it was obvious they were not joking, I had my first true moment of clarity. I left Alabama after that year grateful that I had learned something about how cruel people could be, for no other reason than to make themselves feel bigger than they really were. Once I got home, I began to see it existed all around me...I had just been naive to it before because it was something I had not taken seriously. Do the Right Thing does such a brilliant job mixing the funny bits with the sober ones that often it was tough for me to find the line, at least until you get to the climax. I now had a new way to examine it. And I did.
Everyone in the movie is prejudice, to be sure, but Spike Lee carefully reveals it in layers throughout. The "heat" has always been under the surface, but it takes a scorcher of a day to cause an actual eruption. What's most honest in the way the movie portrays its racism is that none of the characters feel they are wrong for being prejudice. It clearly is the other race's fault. Look at when ML rants about how the Koreans opened a business in a Black neighborhood before he was able to. Or Radio Raheem getting aggressive with the Koreans because they have trouble understanding English when he needs new batteries. Or Sal's stubborn refusal to put any pictures of Black people on the wall in an Italian owned business. Or on the flip side is Buggin' Out's insistence that he do so (I debated for many years who was on the "right" side of that argument). Or how the white man driving through the neighborhood arrogantly assumes the Black kids will pour water on his car...and then the police assume they will strip it clean. Or, in the movie's funniest instance, when the sole white man who lives on the block accidentally steps on Buggin' Out's new Air Jordans. There are many more examples, but what makes the movie so powerful is that no one is innocent and in some cases, such as the one I just cited about the police, and we'll see it again at the end with the death of Radio Raheem, it's hard not to hold prejudices when the world is constantly holding them against you. While it may not be right, sometimes it's the only defense one has. This is particularly telling during the climax when, after Sal's has been burned to the ground, the Korean store owners fear their store will be next. Sonny swings a broom while yelling, "We're the same!" in hopes he will not be attacked. ML responds by putting his hands on his chest and exclaiming, "Black!" He wants Sonny to understand that no, they're not the same, because if Sonny had attacked Sal for destroying his radio, he would have been put into the back of the cop car alive. One of the movie's most arresting images is of Radio Raheem dead, on the ground, his brass knuckle reading "LOVE" visible in the bottom corner of the frame.
The movie is very clever in the way (almost) all of the characters are as likable as they are unlikable. They all have at least one moment where they are on the defensive. They all prove to be as selfish as they are sincere. And some of them even prove that their kindness is not as genuine as it may have appeared. In other words, they're real people, and Spike Lee wisely does not play favorites (his Mookie is a lazy employee and a bad father). I am still taken aback when five different characters, each of a different race, stare directly at the camera and spit racial slurs at the audience. We, the viewer, get to see how it feels to be insulted from multiple perspectives, the result of each equally numbing due to how specifically hateful they are. Most movies that tackle the subject of racism (just look at Crash, which inexplicably won the Oscar for Best Picture where Do the Right Thing wasn't even nominated) are about going down a checklist and having all the characters recite painfully overwritten speeches and learn valuable lessons that are supposed to make us nod our heads in agreement that racism is bad but in the end, we'll shake hands and ride off into the sunset. The approach of Do the Right Thing proves why it is still as relevant today as it was when it was released almost 28(!) years ago...because it shows our inability to take responsibility for our prejudices. The line between "right" and "wrong" is blurred and always has been. Instead, we continue to point fingers and the result is a finger being pointed right back. It's having to listen to truths we don't want to hear and admit that yes, there are people out there who are not treated as people because they don't fit into the original vision of "The American Dream." And that, I finally discovered, is why Mookie throws the trashcan. If the American Dream can't belong to everyone, it should belong to no one. Sal's feeling of entitlement ("You gotta do what you gotta do.") for a man's death shows a sense of superiority that was never his, even though he believes this simply because the people of the neighborhood "grew up on my food." Originally, Mookie and Sal had a more civil resolution to the burning of the pizzaria, which would not have stayed true to the movie's message. Instead, they have to agree to disagree and go on with their lives. Yes, a new day begins, as hot as the last, and whether or not the right thing has been done will depend on the eye of the beholder. Spike Lee cleverly confirms this by presenting two quotes before the end credits, one by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the other by Malcolm X. Both would have applauded Smiley's triumphant moment of taping their picture to what's left of the Wall of Fame at Sal's...the bigger question is would they have applauded what it took to make it happen.
I have seen Do the Right Thing at least twenty times since 1991 (I watch it at least once a year, most recently on Spike Lee's 60th birthday). While I began to seek out art (mainly film and music) from other cultures while I was in high school but even more so after my time at The University of Alabama, my understanding and empathy of the world that existed out of my white bubble comes from Do the Right Thing. The more I watched it, the more my preconceived notions evaporated. After I got home from that eye opening first year of college, I still had plenty of exposure to prejudiced conversations with white friends. And I must admit that when I began condemning the behavior I had once practiced, there were people close to me who didn't believe I was really serious. They called me a hypocrite. They accused me of jumping on the liberal bandwagon. They told me minority problems were not my problem. Yet, they ARE my problem. They are and should be the concerns of everyone regardless of race, now more than ever. Spike Lee's film educated me and prepared me to open my eyes and ears and listen, really listen, to what others have to say. That their voices matter just as much as mine does, and it is my responsibility to face the heat instead of going inside where it's cool and comfortable. Prejudice will always exist...as long as there are multiple races, cultures, religions, etc., there's no way around it. But how do we get to a place where we no longer have to use it as a weapon against each other? Where we don't automatically judge people because they look or love or worship a certain way? What makes Do the Right Thing so incredibly timeless is that it is able to ask these questions in challenging, thoughtful, uncompromising ways, provide no easy resolution, and also manages to be one hell of an entertainment at the same time. It is the movie that not only changed (and still changes) the way I look at movies, but managed to change my life as well. I don't know if there will ever be another quite like it. If so, I doubt it could achieve the grace, power, and humanity of Do the Right Thing.
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