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

As a result, the punishments were swifter, more severe, and any African American convict became the representative of his race to the ignorant.  This miscarriage of assertion—sponsored in part by media sensationalism—was evident in the execution of mentally disabled black man Ricky Ray Rector.  Tensions were evidently at a high during the release of Do the Right Thing and the film only heightens that tension for what feels like art and educational purposes.  Peppered throughout are references to hate crimes and police brutality, as seen specifically in Radio Raheem’s devastating murder at the hands of the police, due to what Lee addressed as the “Michael Stewart chokehold”.  This of course, was the way in which popular street artist Michael Stewart was actually killed by police in 1983.  Askew camera angles, crescendo-ing rap music, red filters during the scenes showing arguments involving race all serve to assist the audience in grasping the fear and anxiety that these situations can bring.  However, instead of marveling at the emotional depth Spike Lee was able to reach, most Caucasian critics, with the exception of Roger Ebert, condemned Spike Lee for being irresponsible.

Was he irresponsible for depicting pre-marital sex without a condom between Mookie and Tina?  Was he irresponsible for showing kids running in the street?  No, these painfully out-of-touch critics believed Spike Lee was displaying gross negligence for making a moving film with extremely sensitive topics, because members of his race would riot.  Newsweek’s Jack Kroll stated the film was equal to placing dynamite under every seat.  David Denby of New York noted the movie was “a dramatic structure that primes black people to cheer the explosion as an act of revenge” and even added that if movie-goers were to riot that Lee would be “partly to blame”.  Not only are these lines of critique insulting to the basic intellect of every African American, they reflect poorly on the critic and also are justifying and promoting irrational fears that have plagued mass media race relations since Birth of a Nation.

On a more tragic scale, it is the justification of these fears that lead to some of our country’s most senseless contemporary murders.  The most relevant cases are those of teenage victims Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis. The disturbing trend in those examples lies in our naïve belief that we are in a post-racial culture.  People claimed that it was not Trayvon Martin’s color that George Zimmerman feared, but his bold choice of having the hood up on is sweatshirt while it was raining.  As for Jordan Davis, his shooter Michael Dunn, defended his actions, stating that the loud hip-hop music Davis and his friends had playing made him fearful.  According to Dunn’s own girlfriend, he shouted “I hate that thug music!” before he opened fire.  The labeling of hip-hop as “thug music” begs the questions: is it the irrational fear that Dunn has for the majority of artists in the genre that made him use that adjective?  If it was a group of white teens in car would Dunn have felt as fearful?  What if the music blaring that night had been aggressive heavy metal?  In a somber example of life imitating art, it was partly Radio Raheem’s constant blaring boom box that made him appear as an aggressor and a fitting target for the police in Do the Right Thing.  Assigning “thug” to a type of music generally founded by African Americans adds to the baseless stereotype that black men are brooding, intimidating characters to be feared and protected from in both of these unacceptable deaths; the men at fault let a life of ignorance and fear stain their hands with the blood of children.

Significant blemishes on the face of race relations, that would have people agreeing with the negative critiques of Do the Right Thing, were the Watts riots and more recently the L.A. riots (also known as the Rodney King riots).  After a high speed pursuit on March 3rd, 1991, Californian Rodney King was beaten mercilessly by members of the Los Angeles Police Department and the assault was caught on tape.  The general conscious was that with the surmounting evidence against the policemen, this was an open and shut case.  On April 29th, 1992, all of the cops were acquitted and there was a colossal outrage across the nation, most tangibly in Los Angeles, where tensions had been mounting for years between whites, blacks, and the influx of Korean immigrants.  Businesses were burned down and looted, people were robbed, and any non-black citizens were warned not to come down certain blocks.  In one of the most troubling scenes of the six-day riots, truck driver Reginald Denny was pulled out of this truck on the intersection of Florence and Normandie avenues.  He was almost beaten to death had brave witnesses not taken him to a nearby hospital.  He has suffered irreparable neurological damage.  The events that took place in Los Angeles during that week, caused one-billion dollars’ worth of property damage and a sense of sadness that still resonates today.

While by no means were these riots acceptable, neither was the acquittal of Rodney King’s attackers.  There are core differences between what lead up to the L.A. Riots and what Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing could manufacture in an audience.  African-American citizens that rioted in Los Angeles were reacting to violence.  If the bias attacks in New York City in the 1980s didn’t cause similar rioting, merely watching a film that depicts the same type of violence won’t incite anything but deep thought, reflection, and activism.  Its clear most of these racially motivated events, from the riots to the teenage murders have been result of people letting their ignorance manifest itself into fear and finally, hate.  We are not a war torn country in the literal sense, but any nation where one race of teens is being murdered by another race’s adults, for simply being interpreted suspicious or intimidating is certainly engaged in a war of human decency manufactured by fear and a conversation about it has to be had.  Despite what most mainstream white critics believed, movies like Do the Right Thing only help to propel the conversation forward and eliminate the reasons to fear one another.  It may be debatable if Mookie did the right thing, but with this film, Spike Lee certainly did.


Onyx Contributor:  Elle Michelle

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