Amplifying Black Voices: Do the Right Thing- A Spike Lee Joint

If you are tired of turning on the news to see another black person being killed by another policeman then you need to watch 1989’s Do the Right Thing. If you are tired of having to memorize another name on a never ending list of Breonna Taylor’s and George Floyd’s then you need to watch 1989’s Do the Right Thing. If you are frustrated that things seemingly never get better then…well you know.

Every one should watch or re-watch Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Especially right now in this moment in time when a chunk of the world is starting to actually admit there is a problem. What you will find is things are exactly the way they were back in the ’80s. In 30 years nothing has changed. And that should make you angry and disgusted. Even if you are tired of hearing about it you need to keep reminding yourself how bad it is because we can’t have another 30 years of unfettered violence by those pledged to protect all of us.

For those of you who are too tired of dealing with the same stories over and over, just imagine having to live through it for decades. Just imagine being 32-year-old Spike Lee writing, directing, and starring in a film about a policeman killing a black man and then waking up on May 25th, 2020 as a 63-year-old man witnessing George Floyd falling victim to the exact scenario you made a movie about. And George Floyd is only one of the many, many, many victims in the 31 years since the movie’s release. Just another name on a never ending list.

The truth is this film could have been released in 2021 with only minor changes (Mookie would work for Grubhub instead of directly for Sal’s Pizzeria for example) and it would be renowned for the timeliness of it’s message. Hell, in a twist of life imitates art, it might have been criticized for shamelessly ripping off the headlines of the George Floyd murder. Sadly, this film represents the present as much as it is a story of the past.

And in the present, as it was in the past, this film is near perfect. It has the feel of a play with an irresistible cast of characters set on a single block in a neighborhood in the borough of Brooklyn. The block is a character. The heat is a character. The pizzeria is a character. The boiling racial tension is a character. It is set in a single day and moves through it with pacing that is impeccable and makes you want to stay forever.

For a while you think this is going to be a movie seemingly about nothing. Just a day in the life of numerous people living in Bed-Stuy on a hot summer day. And it still feels worth your time because the movie is alive and real. Then you realize this film isn’t allowed to be about nothing because people of color don’t have that privilege.

And then it happens. Sal, the owner of the pizzeria is remarking how good of a day it was. Despite the heat he and his sons made a lot of pizza and earned good money. He is a proud Italian-American and even prouder that the mostly black neighborhood that he serves has grown up eating his food. From there everything shifts quickly. Tensions boil over due to a seemingly small thing. It moves fast and before you know it a black man is dead by the hands of a policeman and the single block in a neighborhood in the borough of Brooklyn will never be the same.

Except it will. Because things never change and this is the existence of the block and of black lives. Sure they will all miss their friend that died but at the end of the day he will just be another name on a never ending list.

BlacKkKlansman Entertains and Educates

Part of the reason that I touched on Charlottesville last week was because of the end of BlacKkKlansman. Before the final credits, the film cuts to a recap of the Unite the Right protests and counter-protests, ultimately coming to rest on a dedication to Heather Hayer and an upside down American flag. Spike Lee’s award-winning social commentary is a stark reminder that racism and white supremacy are still alive and well in our country, and you never have to go back very far to find the proof.

That ending had a profound impact on me. Aside from the fact that it was a classy gesture on Lee’s part to pay his respects to Hayer, he made it clear that we’re too quick to forget what happens in front of our very eyes. Upset as I was upon learning the horror that unfolded in Charlottesville, I admittedly moved on with my normal life and gave it very little thought until I saw BlacKkKlansman. Lee knows this about our society and isn’t going to let us off the hook just because we found his movie entertaining.

And that really doesn’t even do justice to the film. BlacKkKlansman is a riveting, surprisingly humorous account of Ron Stallworth’s infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan. He can’t do this on his own, since the Klan isn’t big on recruiting black guys, so he enlists the help of his white co-worker Flip Zimmerman to pose as Stallworth in person. What follows is a series of tense encounters between fake Stallworth and the Klan, and the real Stallworth and his fellow officers. Not surprisingly, racism emerges in both situations and the reluctant partners are forced to rely on each other more than they would like.

John David Washington, the son of Denzel, commands the screen like his father while simultaneously setting himself apart. His Stallworth is a determined, tenacious officer, forced to juggle multiple responsibilities in a town where some of his peers want to see him fail. He makes a connection with the president of a local Black Student Union, and she openly expresses her disdain for cops (with good reason based on how a certain racist officer treats her). It’s a literal no-win situation, but Stallworth remains steadfast through it all, The man turned in a remarkably impressive performance and I look forward to seeing the prodigal son in Christopher Nolan’s Tenet next month.

And what a relief it was to see Adam Driver with a script that matches his talent, considering they completely wasted him in Rise of Skywalker. To Zimmerman, this whole operation is just another assignment. He grumbles at Stallworth’s directions not because he’s a black man, but because Zimmerman doesn’t like a rookie telling him how to do his job. And yet, he sticks with it and stands in solidarity with Stallworth. At a certain point, you can see it slowly dawning on the Jewish Zimmerman that he should probably have personal motives for bringing down the KKK. Driver is a Rubik’s Cube of emotions, bringing a complexity to the role that resonates all the more in this day and age.

There are scenes in BlacKkKlansman that strongly evoke recent events. That’s because instances of racism in America are never that far removed from present day, if at all. The question isn’t what we’ll do to finally address this issue as a country, but when.

When will America finally own its racist ways and implement some meaningful change?