Fear the Right Thing: The Unfortunate Timelessness of Spike Lee’s Sophomore Effort

In light of a new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which shows how black male youths are generally looked upon as older and less innocent than their white counterparts, I wanted to cover some of the interminglings of authority, race and fear as well as how much they’ve been made to look as though they are improving, but how little they have changed.

A group of men in the Queens’ neighborhood of Howard Beach are followed and beaten due to the color of their skin.  A teen walking near his father’s home in Florida is gunned down due to the motivating factor of his race.  As much as our society likes to believe that we have evolved further than the ignorance of the past, it’s clear with these two examples—the former happening in 1986,the later in 2012—that in a lot of ways, we are stagnant.  One art form that tells the first-hand account of societal evolution is film, and Spike Lee’s 1989 sophomore effort Do the Right Thing along with the controversy that followed, is representative of a self-sustaining problem that engrosses our country: fear of a demographic influencing individuals to act more horrifically than those they fear.

Picture for a moment, the fear you would have to be experiencing in order for you to believe that running into traffic was a safer alternative to what you were running from.  That sort of panic-induced loss of logic is exactly what twenty-three year old Michael Griffith was overcome with, when he bolted onto the Belt Parkway on December 20th, 1986, while being chased by a group of white men yelling racial epitaphs.  Now, picture the irrational fear in his attackers that transformed itself into enough hate, that they chased another human being to their death.  It was this tragedy that was part of Spike Lee’s inspiration to make the controversial Do the Right Thing, which covered the events leading up to a racially driven murder and riot in a blended Brooklyn neighborhood.  Controversy surrounding the film was palpable at the time because there was an insurgence of hate crimes in the boroughs of New York City.  Lee made it clear for anyone with doubts what the provocation of the film was, as the crowd chants “Howard Beach!” throughout the riot scene.  After the credits, he goes on to thank the many victims of the hate crimes at the time along with their families.  Telling the story of violent injustice evokes a sense of anger and tension amongst people, telling that story as its happening allows that reaction to multiply.

In the late 1980’s, it wasn’t just the self-segregating citizens in some neighborhoods that were feeling a divide, elected leaders were adding fuel to the fire under the guise of “protecting the innocent”.  The innocent during the majority of that time were not black and brown skinned citizens. During these years, otherwise relatively liberal politicians such as Bill Clinton, searching for election or re-election, ran on a staunch platform of justice system reform, where any major violent crime committed in their governing state, became their personal cause and any African American behind these crimes would soon find a metaphoric price on their heads, in the form of votes.  As Andrew Hartman states in his essay on the political climate of the time:

“The rhetoric of national politics during the 1980’s and 1990’s testified to the suborn significance of race…Ever since Nixon leveraged “law and order” to help him win the presidency in 1967, throngs of politicians have used similarly coded messages about ostensible black lawlessness to great effect.”

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