WARNING: This article contains offensive language and racial slurs that may upset some readers.
Spike Lee doesn't pop up all that often in his films anymore, which is one reason why his brief appearance in his new film Red Hook Summer is so surprising. The other is that he's carrying pizzas and sporting a "Sal's Famous Pizzeria" t-shirt, returning to the role of "Mookie" that he played in Do The Right Thing 23 summers ago.
Lee has gone out of his way to insist that Red Hook, in limited release now, is "not a motherf***ing sequel to Do the Right Thing," but the pictures are very hard to separate, and not merely because of Mookie's return.
Do the Right Thing marked the beginning of Lee's ongoing tenure as a controversial public figure. Before it, Lee was often seen (to his displeasure) as a kind of "black Woody Allen": a New York-based independent filmmaker and sports fan, small in stature, who appeared in his own films.
The first, She's Gotta Have It, was an examination and subversion of gender roles. The second, School Daze, concerned skin-tone prejudice—but solely among the black community. Lee was far from a rabble-rouser. Quite the contrary; had even cultivated a consumer-friendly public image via his "Mars Blackmon" Air Jordan ads.
But with Do The Right Thing, and after it, Lee positioned himself as one of Hollywood's most outspoken and polarizing opinionators on the issue of race relations, with subsequent interviews and public feuds (with Clint Eastwood, Tyler Perry, Charlton Heston, and others) cultivating a popular image of him having no love lost for white folks.
It's an image that persists today. Right-wing blogs like Human Rights and Newsbusters dub him, respectively, a "Hollywood hatemonger" and a "notorious racial grievancemonger." Town Hall granted that "he's finally easing up on crying 'racist,'" but writer Katie Hicks made sure to add, parenthetically, "Not about you, though. You're still racist." (A look at the comment sections for those posts indicates her facetiousness may be misplaced.)
A close look at Lee's work, though, paints a more complicated picture.
Specifically Do the Right Thing, which Roger Ebert wrote "comes closer to reflecting the current state of race relations in America than any other movie of our time," reveals an artist whose understanding of race is nuanced, thoughtful, and even-handed.
Why has the white-hating image persisted, in spite of the work? While Lee's bombastic public persona doesn't help things, I'd argue the largest share of the blame lies with the (frequently white) media that played a role in the creation of that persona.
"The end of this movie a shambles," David Denby wrote in his review, "and if some audiences go wild, [Lee's] partly responsible."
Do the Right Thing is one of the few truly great films of the 1980s: an intelligent, matter-of-fact examination of race in America and also a vibrant, funny slice of New York life.
It all takes place (except for a brief but powerful epilogue) over the course of the hottest day of the summer, on one block in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood.
The center of the block's activities (and the film's) is Sal's Famous Pizzeria, owned and operated by Italian-American proprietor Sal (Danny Aiello), with the help of his sons Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson). Deliveries are made by Mookie (Lee), who serves as the pizzeria's ambassador, bringing news in and taking pizzas out to their primarily African-American clientele.
The way that Lee handles that scene shows the even-handedness of his writing and directing. Neither Sal nor Buggin' Out are obviously right or obviously wrong, and Lee refuses to do his audience's thinking for them.
But these characters aren't just about prejudices. What is most remarkable about Do the Right Thing is how finely shaded each and every important character is, and how all of those shadings come into play by the time the film reaches its breathless conclusion.
At the end of the day, Buggin' Out returns to Sal's Pizzeria with Radio Raheem and Smiley in tow, the boom box at full blast, the sounds of "Fight the Power" filling the tiny restaurant. Buggin' Out and Raheem want "brothers on the wall," and Sal wants them to "turn that shit down."
Tempers flare and harsh words are exchanged; Sal loses his cool, pulls out his Louisville Slugger, screams epithets at them, and smashes the boom box to smithereens. A full-scale brawl breaks out in the pizzeria, which spills out onto the street. Police are called—and, of course, the NYPD goes right for the two young black men.
Radio Raheem is subjected to what Lee calls the "Michael Stewart choke hold"—alluding to the 1983 death of graffiti artist Stewart while in police custody. Raheem falls to the Bed-Stuy pavement, dead; he's tossed into a police cruiser, as is Buggin' Out. The police flee the scene, leaving the angry crowd fuming at Sal and his sons.
As tensions come to a boil, Mookie picks up a garbage can and heaves it through the plate glass window of Sal's Famous Pizzeria. The angry mob descends on the restaurant, smashing glass, tearing the joint to pieces, and setting it afire. Sal and his sons watch, stunned (Sal: "That's my fuckin' place." Pino: "Fuckin' n*****s"). Police return, along with fire trucks.
The crowd, chanting "Coward Beach" (another historical allusion, to a 1986 race clash in Howard Beach, Queens that left one young black man dead and two more injured) won't disperse, in spite of police warnings. So the fire department turns the hoses on the black residents, Lee deliberately echoing the most iconic imagery of the civil rights movement.
The question a lot of people ask about the film, to this very day, is in regards to the climax: "Did Mookie do the right thing?"
Then and now, it's a silly question—of course he didn't. But why is he singled out? (Probably because he incites the destruction of white-owned property, but that's another discussion.)
In the broad scope of the film, nobody does the right thing: not Mookie, not Sal, not Buggin' Out, and certainly not the NYPD. In the blistering heat of that Brooklyn sun, people who are basically good do the wrong things at the wrong moment—and we believe all of it, that all of them would act that way right then, because they seem real people, and their tenuous character flaws have been so subtly but effectively teed up.
"I believe that any good-hearted person, white or black, will come out of this movie with sympathy for all of the characters," Ebert wrote, when the film was released.
"Lee does not ask us to forgive them, or even to understand everything they do, but he wants us to identify with their fears and frustrations. Do The Right Thing doesn't ask its audiences to choose sides; it is scrupulously fair to both sides, in a story where it is our society itself that is not fair."
Many critics disagreed. After the film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, Lee recalls, "there was this thought that when this film comes out in the summer of 1989, black people are gonna run amuck."
In understanding the impact of those original reviews, it's important to remember that this was 1989: a pre-Internet, pre-Ain't It Cool News, pre-Twitter age wherein the initial reports and editorials set the tone and defined the conversation (perhaps disproportionately) that would surround the film throughout those summer months.
And that's why it was so provocative for Newsweek's Jack Kroll to ask "in this long hot summer, how will young urban audiences — black and white — react to the film's climactic explosion of interracial violence? ... People are going to argue about this film for a long time. That's fine, as long as things stay on the arguing level. But this movie is dynamite under every seat."
David Denby, currently of The New Yorker, then writing for New York, also predicted a dire outcome. "Do the Right Thing is going to create an uproar," Denby wrote, "in part because [Lee]'s so thoroughly mixed up about what he's saying."
He accused Lee of creating "the dramatic structure that primes black people to cheer the explosion as an act of revenge," and concluded, "If an artist has made his choices and settled on a coherent point of view, he shouldn't be held responsible, I believe, if parts of his audience misunderstand him. He should be free to be 'dangerous.' But Lee hasn't worked coherently. The end of this movie a shambles, and if some audiences go wild, he's partly responsible."
Denby's reading of the film was stunning in its inaccuracy. The picture is the very definition of "coherence"; every character, every confrontation, and every line is subtly and deftly building towards the ending conflagration. That ending, far from a "shambles," is the accumulation of the tension that has brewed throughout the film.
We all know who he meant by the "some audiences" who might "go wild," and his review indicated a shocking contempt for those audiences, who presumably couldn't comprehend the subtleties of the characterizations or the empathetic leanings that Ebert mentioned. In Denby's view, if they see a riot, they'll go start a riot.
Speaking about Klein's article more than 10 years later, Lee was still livid: "What the fuck is that?... What he's saying is, 'Pray to God that this film doesn't open in your theater, (because) n*****s are gonna go crazy.'"
Of course, as we now know, Lee's canny examination of race relations did not incite riots in America's cities after it was released in the summer of 1989. Those riots came three years later, in spring of 1992—in response to a very different film, of four white officers beating the hell out of a black man, and to the acquittal of those officers by a (mostly white) jury. Lee was not a provocateur; he was a prognosticator.
But the notion that was crafted early that summer and disseminated on the pages of Newsweek, New York, and Time, of Spike Lee the bomb-throwing race baiter, not only held, but became common wisdom. A notorious 1992 Esquire cover story announced the widespread perception, then and now, in the plainest language imaginable: "Spike Lee Hates Your Cracker Ass."
Time has proven writers like Kroll and Denby wrong not only in their predictions of the film's impact, but of its quality—it appeared on both the AFI's 1997 Top 100 list and its 2007 revision, was deemed "culturally significant" by the Library of Congress, and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.
It's hard to know if Denby came around on the film, but his mixed Red Hook review is conspicuously absent of mentions to Do the Right Thing, its obvious point of reference (though he does go out of his way to praise Lee's "courage" and his "magnificent" documentary When the Levees Broke).
Of course, when it comes to his statements to the press, Lee is often his own worst enemy. He has, over the years, said some unfortunate things: that kids should skip school to go see Malcolm X, that he can't make an anti-Semitic film because Jewish people run Hollywood ("and that's a fact"), that it's "not too far-fetched" that the New Orleans levees were deliberately destroyed.
His 25th Hour star Edward Norton admits, "I don't think Spike is his own best advocate. I've told him that. 'You should let me talk about your movies, because I talk about them much better than you do.' He comes off as much more angry. People associate Spike sometimes with an angry righteousness and urgency that I don't think his films have. I don't think his films are angry at all. They are very compassionate."
But the tone and tenor of his comments are also frequently misinterpreted and misconstrued.
Of the Do The Right Thing era, frequent collaborator John Turturo said, "I think a lot of stuff written about Spike's movies in those days was from all these white writers, writing about a culture that they didn't grow up in... I think a lot of journalists are white and they want to put an angle on the story. And it gave them a story to write about."
"We never went to the studios with this film," Lee exclaimed, according to Entertainment Weekly. "I didn't need a motherf**king studio telling me something about Red Hook! They know nothing about black people! Nothing! And they're gonna give me notes about what a 13-year-old black boy and girl do in Red Hook? F**k no!"
Spike Lee doesn't "hate your cracker ass" ("it was not a quote," he said of that Esquire cover recently). His views about race are complicated — and so are those in his films.
Hilton Als, in a Village Voice profile on the eve of Malcolm X's release, put forth a theory: "Culture needs the 'bad nigger' or two — Lee, Basquiat, Naomi Campbell, Malcolm X — but eventually punishes them. For being ornery, a loud mouth, a champion of 'kissing my black ass two times,' they receive headlines like 'Do the Wrong Thing,' which speaks scornfully of the Negro who speaks."
But the reputation is undeserved, and in large part stems from an important and thoughtful work being misinterpreted more than 20 years ago. In Lee's landmark film, very few people onscreen did, in fact, do the right thing. But, in retrospect, too few did the right thing off-screen either.