Avery LaFlamme, BCH Program Assistant
For the month of July, Black Cinema House hosted a series of screenings at BING Art Books on Garfield called Summer of Spike. With a line-up of four films, we looked at several moments in the career of Spike Lee, a longtime Knicks season ticket holder and a filmmaker known for his bold depictions of controversial issues involving race, class and gender.
Spike Lee is a black filmmaker in the public eye. He is someone who has managed to move big budgets, command large crews and secure wide distribution within a hegemonic Hollywood industry that is in many ways designed to exclude the minority voices. On a basic level, big-cash studios control and perpetuate stylistic trends that are profitable, and many resist alternative or oppositional styles that lack wide audience appeal. But even with his relative success in this industry, Lee has retained a degree of separation from the mainstream. With his 1989 hit Do the Right Thing (my favorite of his), Spike Lee secured distribution from Universal Pictures, but utilized his own independent company 40 Acres and a Mule to handle the production. Do The Right Thing, the story of a colorful Bed-Stuy neighborhood, is one of Lee’s greatest successes, and the film and its reception reflect a lot about what makes Lee such an interesting voice in film.
Many of the critiques of Do the Right Thing referenced how Spike Lee’s proximity to Hollywood had negatively affected the style and message of the film. Identified in its visuals, themes, and character construction were shadows of the dominant market-cinematic language. Wahneema Lubiano, professor of African & African American Studies at Duke, identified a strong undercurrent of Euro-American hegemonic politics in the film’s obsession with employment and ownership. It’s true, Mookie’s character is described almost entirely through his trips to and from his job at Sal’s pizzeria. Sal’s declarations of property ownership (“This is my pizzeria!”) are often justifications for his authority over his restaurant and all the decisions made within it. Topped off with Mookie’s effective catch phrase: “Get a job!”, the film puts employment, or economic participation and self-sufficiency, as the ultimate good. Not to mention the obvious masculinist bias, exemplified by Mookie’s relationship to his girlfriend Tina. Tina’s criticisms of Mookie as a “chump-change bum” and her insistence that Mookie “be a man”, combined with her character’s relative inactivity when compared to her male counterparts, are evidence of a classic male-dominated narrative that is in step with the conventions of Hollywood.
Ed Guerrero, African-American film historian and professor of film and African-American studies at New York University, found that the visual style of Do the Right Thing, including the “glossy wide-screen, poster-bright colors, sanitized streets, overworked theatrical settings, and up-to-the-moment fashions” was representative of a market-cinema language, rather than representing a break with convention. Guerrero also found the film’s political values to be “consistent with Hollywood’s standard strategies for containing any issue it deems volatile”, the issue here being racial conflict. Supporting this claim is Buggin Out’s failure to coordinate a boycott of Sal’s pizzeria, partly due to the fact that the teens in the neighborhood would rather preserve their right to the “temporary pleasures of a good slice of pizza.” The dismissal of collective racial action, particularly the boycott which has deep historical significance in civil rights struggles, is line with Hollywood’s strategy of containment.
These criticisms of Do the Right Thing both reveal aspects of the film that support/imitate/perpetuate the dominant style of Hollywood filmmaking, and therefore the film becomes complicit in the many ways that Hollywood obscures the voices of women and minorities. But I think the film contains more than just these hints of Hollywood influence.
For example, Radio Raheem is a character that represents manhood and masculinity unrelated to employment status and property ownership. In an encounter between Radio Raheem and a group of teenagers, Martin Lawrence assures Raheem “You’re the man, I’m just visiting!” Without saying a word, or writing a check, Radio Raheem secures ‘manhood’ for himself. The close-up of Raheem’s face as he glares down at the teenagers is the perfect visual. The source of Raheem’s power is his physique and his boom box, constantly blaring Public Enemy by his side, drowning out the voices of anyone Raheem refuses to accommodate. In this way, Radio Raheem’s power is more clearly achieved through his ability to intimidate, and to protest, not through his claim to employment or economic sufficiency (besides the degree of purchasing power required to buy a massive boombox). The crashing instrumental to “Fight the Power!” is a bubble that protects Radio Raheem throughout the movie. When the music is finally silenced by Sal’s baseball bat in the film’s tragic climax, it isn’t long before Radio Raheem is silenced too.
Also, the failure of Buggin Out’s collective action campaign says much more about the diversity of the film’s characters than it does about the efficacy of the boycott as a general means. The leaders of the boycott movement, Buggin Out and Radio Raheem, are both aggressive and uncompromising. Their militancy, however, is not shared by many of the other characters. When a white cycler steps on Buggin Out’s fresh Jordans, causing a racially charged confrontation between local and gentrify-er, Buggin Out quickly launches into a full polemic against the economic injustices facing his black neighborhood. “Who told you to buy a brownstone on my block, in my neighborhood, on my side of the street? Why do you want to live in a black neighborhood anyway? Motherfuck gentrification!” In contrast to the cycler’s assurance the he “owns” the brownstone (as in, he has paid money for it), Buggin Out’s claim to ownership of the neighborhood block follows from his own perception of the neighborhood as “black” and also to his vision of himself as a “black” man. Although his frustration is backed up by legitimate economic concerns, like the gentrification of lower income neighborhoods, Buggin Out’s anger with the cycler is more closely tied to his personal black identity, an identity that allows him to claim the neighborhood as his own and to confront anyone who attempts to intrude.
But the characters he propositions to join his boycott effort are different. Da Mayor, the aging drunk and self-proclaimed patriarch of the block, responds promptly. “I don’t want to hear none of your damn, black foolishness.” Unlike Buggin Out, Da Mayor seems not to be very politically-minded at all, and does not describe his own identity in racial terms. Rather, Da Mayor plays the archetypal role of the old wise seen-it-all, offering indiscriminate advice and love, even to those who haven’t asked for it. It is from Da Mayor that we hear the ethical imperative of the film’s title, stated to Mookie: “Always do the right thing.” This request is not aligned with any particular political stance. It’s understandable why Da Mayor would refuse to participate in Buggin Out’s politically charged crusade.
Like Da Mayor before them, the group of teens propositioned by Buggin Out also laugh off the petition. For the teens, the pizza is too “good” to pass up. Earlier in the film, during a confrontation between the teens and Da Mayor, the most vocal of the bunch berates Da Mayor for being a bum, claiming “I don’t care to know your pain. You’re the one to put yourself in this situation, man!” Here the teen assumes the economic independence and freedom of the Da Mayor by claiming that his situation is a product of his own choices. Alternatively, Buggin Out, the “struggling black man trying to keep his dick hard in a cruel and harsh world,” is more cognizant of how structural economic factors disadvantage certain groups. Acknowledging the cruel and harsh economic world, where neighborhoods are gentrified and poor residents forgotten, Buggin Out would probably be less critical of Da Mayor’s situation, as it could be seen as the product of systemic forces outside of Da Mayor’s control. Perhaps it is the awareness of the constant pressure of these systemic forces that inspires Buggin Out’s constant reminder to Mookie to “stay black.”
I don’t think the failure of Buggin Out’s collective action effort is the Lee’s way of dismissing collective action as an effective political tool, and I don’t think it’s a symptom of the Hollywood influence on Lee’s filmmaking. Rather, it is a result of Lee’s success in constructing black characters that lack a unified black identity. The failure of collective action not only reflects the varying identities and political views of the black characters, but also encourages the viewer to consider each character’s unique and distinct motivations. Rather than being one symptom of the damaging influence of market-cinema language, this can be seen as exactly the kind of oppositional representation of black subjects that is often associated with Lee’s films, one that opposes the Hollywood tendency to reductively portray black characters embodying a singular stereotype.
The best part about the Spike Lee screenings this summer at BING was getting a chance to unpack and discuss all the issues and ideas in Lee’s films. Do the Right Thing is a treasure chest of conversation starters, and our post screening discussion swung from searching for the definition of “community” and “ownership” to discussing camera pans and tracks and all the other cinematic staples of Lee’s career. I walked away from that discussion with as much new knowledge as new confusion about what the film means and what its legacy is. I also realized that I had unknowingly been channeling Buggin Out’s style with a recent haircut and some new glasses. All I have left is the Jordan’s and the boycott.
Guerrero, Ed. Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film. Temple University Press, PA. 1993.
Lubiano, Wahneema. “Reading Realism, Representation, and Essentialism” in Valerie Smith ed. Representing Blackness: Issues in Film and Video. Rutgers University Press, NJ. 1997.