I’ve been saying ‘Wake Up!’ before it was chic to be woke.Spike Lee, 2020
It has been 32 years since Dap Dunlop (Laurence Fishburne) issued the cry to ‘Wake Up!’ in the Spike Lee’s movie School Daze. It is an open question as to whether the subsequent years have been witness to meaningful change. We can only hope that George Floyd’s death and the on-going Black Lives Matter movement prove to be seminal. In the media coverage of these events, two movies were regularly referenced by commentators which I thought would make an informative movie double.
What to watch
The first of these is Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) which is Lee’s third full length feature and was released a year after School Daze. The movie depicts events that take place on the hottest day in the Bedford-Stuyvesant district of Brooklyn, colloquially known as Bed-Stuy and centres on Sal’s Famous Pizzeria. Sal doesn’t live in Bed-Stuy – like all the other Italian-Americans, he has long left the district which is now mostly populated by African-Americans and Hispanics. However Sal’s pizzeria has remained, and as he proudly boasts – has fed everyone in the neighbourhood for 25 years. This sense of local identity is tested when Buggin Out, a more militant local youth, questions the pizzeria’s Wall of Fame which exhibits only white Italian actors. Surely the predominantly African-American clientele would warrant at least one “brother” on the wall? Dissatisfied by Sal’s response, Buggin Out tries to organise a boycott of Sal’s pizzeria. This is initially met with indifference, but will this continue on a very hot day? And will everyone continue to do the right thing?
When Do the Right Thing was first released, it received a very mixed response. Some critics believed it would incite racial violence – a remarkable view given that the movie depicts very little violence and to a greater extent, uses humour to drive its message. The great American critic, Roger Ebert, had a more considered perspective, and said that Lee achieved the impossible – made a movie about race in American that is fair to all sides. What is undoubted is the skill and confidence with which a young Lee directed. The movie is replete with many of the techniques that have become his signature.
One of these is “Brechtian distancing”, a technique used to prevent viewers from becoming too involved with the narrative, making them more conscious critical observers. This is done by interrupting the narrative, for example, by having the actors talk directly to the audience. In the movie, Radio Raheem tells the story of the Right Hand, Left Hand. He starts talking to Mookie (played by Lee himself) and then Lee then steps away, leaving Radio Raheem to tell his story directly to us. This technique is essential in many of Lee’s movies as he wants us to step back and consider the movie’s thematic ideas rather than to be solely concerned with the events surrounding a particular character.
Do the Right Thing is now considered a masterpiece and is still highly relevant. Its’ vibrant colour palette and equally colourful characters just sparkle. Lee is aided by a remarkable cast which include Danny Aiello as Sal, John Turturro as his son Pino, Samuel L. Jackson as local DJ – Mister Señor Love Daddy, Bill Nunn as Radio Raheem and a young Giancarlo Esposito (who would later play the menacing Gus Fring in Breaking Bad) as Buggin Out. Spike Lee himself, plays Mookie who delivers pizza for Sal and acts as his unofficial ambassador to the neighbourhood.
Mookie performs a critical act in the film’s denouement that raises more questions. Lee is not interested in providing us with definitive answers or to tell us what the “right thing” is supposed to be. The movie ends with two possibly conflicting quotations: the first from Martin Luther King, Jr that “violence is always self-defeating”, and the second from Malcolm X that “violence in self-defence may be necessary”.
Do the Right Thing is available on iTunes and look out for a 4K restoration from the Criterion Collection. If you are looking for more Spike Lee movies, then catch his latest full feature release, Da 5 Bloods (2020) on Netflix. And while you are there, watch his brilliant BlacKkKlansman (2018) for which Lee received his only competitive Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. A sadly unsurprisingly poor return for one of America’s most important film makers.
If you wondered why George Floyd required 4 police officers to arrest him for allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill, or why Rayshard Brooks was shot 3 times in the back for essentially being drunk and why Ahmaud Arbery was shot dead for simply running through a white neighbourhood then our companion piece will provide some answers.
Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th (2016), examines the document that was meant to end American slavery. The 13th Amendment of the American Constitution states:
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
It is DuVernay’s contention that the amendment provides a loophole (italicised above), that allows for the continuation of slavery through the process of incarceration. Slavery was required for a certain economic model to survive and when it was abolished, it needed to be replaced. It was convenient that the descendants of those slaves could so easily be targeted and demonised with an unwarranted criminality.
The documentary takes us through successive American governments starting with Richard Nixon, as they attempt to outdo one another with an increasingly draconian ‘law and order’ agenda. Sadly, the most influential laws which resulted in mass incarceration were enacted by Bill Clinton’s Democratic administration. This has led to a situation where 25% of the population of incarcerated people in the world are in US prisons – the “land of the free?”.
What is remarkable about Amy DuVernay’s documentary is that she has managed to pack so much into 100 minutes. This is done deliberately – inviting the viewers to further explore for themselves, the themes she introduces in support of her central argument. Her documentary includes interviews representing a diverse range of opinion, from the radical black feminist Angela Davis to the divisive Newt Gingrich. She states that she interviewed all her subjects for two hours to draw a more complete opinion, making the final running time even more remarkable.
DuVernay’s previous work includes the highly regarded Selma (2014), chronicling Dr. Martin Luther King’s epic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. 13th is available on Netflix but because of its current significance has been made freely available on YouTube here.
And to bring up the rear on both of the movies in this blog…..
Both Lee’s BlacKkKlansman and DuVernay’s 13th refer to D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1914). The movie has a significant place in American movie history, being credited with inventing narrative cinema – a motion picture that depicts a complete story. Lionel Barrymore, a member of one of America’s great acting families and Drew’s great-uncle says of Griffith, that there should be a solid gold statue to him at Hollywood and Vine, fifty feet high. Unfortunately as the few excerpts shown in BlacKkKlansman and 13th exemplify, the movie is grotesquely racist, depicting members of the KKK protecting the virtue of white women from beastly black men intent on rape and violence. The Klan had been dormant at that time and the release of the movie led to its resurgence.
Lee, despite being confronted by this movie in NYU film school where it was held in high regard, does not support having it banned and believes that it has to be viewed together with its obvious socio-political issues. Needless to say, I don’t believe that there will be a statue of Griffith erected any time soon – at least I hope not!