It’s hard not to look at what’s happening right now and not think about Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing or Malcolm X. For that matter, it’s hard not to think about Ava DuVernay’s Selma, or 13th, or When They See Us. These filmmakers are just two who have always been ready to directly confront urgent issues like those that have reached a boiling point on the streets of America in 2020.
Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, one of the greatest American films ever made, came out in 1989. Lest we forget. That was 31 years ago. In the film, Mookie (played by Spike Lee himself) throws a chair through the window that serves as a catalyst for a neighborhood uprising, quite a controversial moment at the time. Here is an excerpt from a NY Times piece written the year it premiered:
Spike Lee’s new film, ”Do the Right Thing” – which depicts racial tensions on the hottest day of the summer in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, ending with the killing of a black man by the police and a riot – has generated considerable discussion about its portrayal of blacks, racism and violence. The New York Times recently invited a group to explore issues raised by the film.
The discussion that followed, featuring many different voices from different walks of life, includes none other than director Paul Schrader who says at one point something quite profound:
I remember when I was young and very angry, I wrote this movie ”Taxi Driver.” Spike Lee does not have that privilege; he doesn’t have the privilege to be that angry. Society won’t let him. It’s too dangerous for a black person to be that psychopathically angry at whites, the way that white character in ”Taxi Driver” was at blacks. It’s just not allowed to him. Art doesn’t need to be responsible. Art can be incendiary. Art can be inflammatory. Spike has been held to an extraordinary level of responsibility, and he has risen to it. Which was more than we should ever ask of any artist, and to his great credit that he did.
Another participant, Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint, says:
One thing I think there should be no question about: the movie clearly is an indictment of police brutality in the black community. He dedicates the film to [ Eleanor ] Bumpers and to Michael Stewart and five or six people who were killed by policemen under controversial circumstances. That’s very clear.
Obviously, as far back in 1989 police brutality was a hot-button topic, and it’s discouraging that it’s taking so long to sink in, to the degree that it needed to. When 1992 rolled around, on-the-scene bystander videography was a new thing, so when millions of people were able to see Rodney King being mercilessly beaten by a handful of cops – who were later acquitted of all charges – massive protest and riots broke out on the streets of Los Angeles. Those of us who lived in LA at the time were simultaneously scared and sympathetic. What didn’t happen back then, though, was the mobilization of the entire country. In contrast, the on-camera murder of George Floyd has compelled Americans to come out of their homes during a worldwide pandemic to protest police brutality. This, thanks in large part to the determination and devoted work of the Black Lives Matter movement.
But back in 1992, there was a sense that the black community was on its own with the riots, which destroyed their community downtown – not to mention a misguided retaliatory display of violence when a truck driver was pulled from his vehicle and dragged through the streets of LA. It was, back then, controversial to call it an uprising or a protest – it was most definitely considered a riot. Spike Lee had already foretold how anger over the unjust death of a black man at the hands of cops could inevitably escalate into that kind of violent uprising, so imagine what a powder keg was lit after the Rodney King verdict. King survived his brutal assault, and of course, made his famous plea, “Can’t we all get along.” But that was really only the beginning of a long endless spiral toward worse collisions between the black community and the LAPD. We would soon be caught up in Mark Furhman’s disgraceful OJ tapes where he spewed racial slurs throughout. This problem of crude and often lethal policing is neverending and ongoing and is far from being resolved.
Spike Lee has consistently examined the topic of direct action, even violent action, when it comes to activism for racial injustice with his take on Malcolm X starring Denzel Washington. Decades later, Ava DuVernay would present an alternative but simpatico viewpoint with her Martin Luther King Jr biopic, Selma. Both of these films and indeed both these filmmakers have been diligently exploring this topic – protest, police brutality, systemic racism – for the entirety of their careers.
The main thing that has changed since Do the Right Thing is the level of public response. Everyone is listening now and everyone finally sees a message that black filmmakers have been trying to get across for 30 years.
What I love so much about Do the Right Thing is that Lee’s characters, all of them, are so complex – they are flawed, imperfect, impulsive, contradictory. There are no heroes and no villains. They are locked in a combative place much like American culture then and now.
For her part, Ava DuVernay has explored mass incarceration with with the documentary 13th, which probably does more to explain what brought us to this moment than any other film. She starts with slavery, and traces the line through the Jim Crow laws, the crime bill, to show how American society may have freed the slaves but then found insidious new ways to systematically oppress the black community for the next 100 years.
Most recently, she made the Netflix series When They See Us about the Central Park five who were falsely accused of raping a white woman. And the aftermath of the consequences for the young men who were railroaded. There is nothing happening on the news right now that isn’t explored in DuVernay’s or Lee’s films. What’s interesting is why it took so long for the broader American public to take it seriously enough to risk their own health during a pandemic to rise up and attempt real change.
There has never been an absence of brilliant people willing to take great risks to talk about police brutality, most notably filmmakers who have dared to warn us us of the powder keg that was about to explode. What hasn’t happened until now is enough people listening, understanding, and endeavoring to make meaningful change. Social media can a horrendous incident that might have previously been covered up into a starkly lit impetus that can be shared globally, which is why we now seen worldwide protests over the murder of George Floyd.
The question now becomes how can we create meaningful change to end the sickening cycle that keeps repeating so often for so long? What will it take to change how people in positions of authority perceive black men and women on the streets of America so that they aren’t hunted down and murdered in cold blood. The answers have to be hammered out between leaders of both political parties, and thankfully we have courageous leaders in the black community to ensure effective solutions in good faith. But as we look for guidance to map the right pathways, a really good place to start is with Spike Lee and Ava DuVernay.