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‘Do the Right Thing’: Insight to Riot

Director Spike Lee takes a provocative look at race relations

Do the Right Thing

Spike Lee on the set of 'Do the Right Thing.'

Anthony Barboza/Getty Images

I don’t need this shit!” says USA Today gossip columnist Jeannie Williams. It’s the morning of May 19th, and Williams has just seen the breakfast press screening of Do the Right Thing at the Cannes film festival. Tonight, the film will have its black-tie, red-carpet gala première at the Palais des Festivals, on the Côte d’Azur beach, where it will be competing with films from around the world for the coveted Palm d’Or prize. This morning, the more modest Palais press-conference room is abuzz with a few hundred international journalists and photographers waiting for the arrival of the film’s director, Spike Lee.

“I live in New York,” Williams says, her eyes flashing. “I don’t need this movie in New York this summer. I don’t know what they’re thinking!” The ghetto in the movie is “too clean,” Williams complains to a colleague, its inhabitants are “too nice,” and there’s too much violence. Williams’s diatribe is interrupted by Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times critic and TV personality, the only journalist ever called on by name at these conferences. He sweeps into the room and declares, “It’s a great film, a great film. If this doesn’t win the grand prize, I’m not coming back next year.” (In the back of the room is Tom Pollock, the head of Universal Pictures, which is releasing Do the Right Thing on June 30th; Pollock later says Ebert’s threat may hurt the film’s chances of winning.)

Williams, who clearly values Ebert’s upward thumb, is horrified. “How can you say that? What’s going to happen when they release this?”

Ebert smiles and says, “How long has it been since you saw a film you thought would cause people to do anything?” Ebert moves on, leaving Williams to bluster. “I can’t believe Roger liked it!” she says.

Without even entering the room, Spike Lee has rocked it. Do the Right Thing portrays a block in Brooklyn’s predominantly black Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood during the hottest day of the summer. The day starts peacefully and ends in a racial brawl, the murder of a black youth by a white cop and an ensuing riot. Lee’s impressive, upsetting movie is inspired by — and pointedly dedicated to — black victims of white violence in New York City, like Eleanor Bumpurs, an elderly woman who was killed by police after she wielded a knife; Michael Griffith, who was chased onto a highway by white youths in Howard Beach, Queens, and killed by a car; and graffiti artist Michael Stewart, who was killed while in police custody. As complex and insistent as its title, the film is designed to spark controversy from its opening song — Public Enemy’s discordant, militant rap “Fight the Power” — to the quotes that scroll before its end credits: Martin Luther King Jr. decrying violence, then Malcolm X claiming that violence used in self-defense is “intelligence.”

When the wiry, poker-faced Lee, 32, enters the press-conference room, he is wearing a T-shirt that says MALCOLM X: NO SELLOUT. He sits at a table with cast members Ossie Davis, Joie Lee (his sister) and Richard Edson; he announces that today would have been Malcolm X’s sixty-fourth birthday and that Davis gave the eulogy at the 1965 funeral.

This leads a journalist to ask Lee about the movie’s two end quotes. “The quotes complete the thread of Malcolm and Martin that has been woven throughout the film,” Lee says patiently. “In certain times, both philosophies can be appropriate, but in this day and age, the year of our Lord 1989, I’m leaning more toward the philosophies of Malcolm X.… Nonviolence and all that stuff had its time, and there are times when it’s still appropriate, but when you’re being hit upside the head with a brick, I don’t think young black America is just going to turn the other cheek and say, ‘Thank you, Jesus.’ “

Someone asks why drugs are never mentioned in the film. “This film is not about drugs,” says Lee. “It’s about people and racism. Drugs are at every level of society today in America. How many of you went and saw Working Girl or Ram Man and asked, ‘Where are the drugs?’ Nobody. But the minute we have a black film that takes place in the ghetto, people want to know where the drugs are…because that’s the way you think of black people. I mean, let’s be honest.”

Another journalist says, “I’m a Canadian living in New York, and it’s my sense that it’s all going to come down this summer, it’s going to be a mess. A lot of people are going to get hurt. Your film seems to be anticipating that and speaking to that. What is your impression?”

Lee smiles and says, “I see Mr. Pollock getting fidgety back there.… We wanted to come out this summer [because] in November there’s going to be an election for mayor of New York, and [current mayor Edward] Koch has divided the city into black and white.… If anything happens, it’ll be because the cops killed somebody else with no reason, but it won’t be because of Do the Right Thing.”

“This film,” another journalist says, “takes a very despairing view of the possibility of an amicable relationship between the races.”

“I think there’s some hope at the end, a shaky truce,” says Lee. “But on the other hand, I think it’d be very dishonest to have a kind of Steven Spielberg ending where we all hold hands and sing ‘We Are the World.’ “

In many ways, the same could be said about Spike Lee’s relationship with Hollywood.

The question that really gets Spike Lee going is “What do you think of Mississippi Burning?” The Academy-Award-nominated film — which recast the civil-rights movement as the triumph of a white FBI agent — came up during many of the constant interviews at Cannes, being one of the few recent Hollywood films that is even about blacks, and it symbolizes everything Lee thinks is wrong with Hollywood today. Like Cry Freedom and The Cotton Club, Lee says and says again, Mississippi Burning distorted history, exploiting blacks to turn whites into heroes. “Hated it,” Lee says. “They should have had the guts to have at least one central black character.”

Lee speaks in measured tones, every now and then unleashing a wild “Ha!” or a quieter “Ch-ch-ch-ch” laugh. But he mostly goes about the tedious business of answering for his movies with a deadly seriousness. Lee calls his production company Forty Acres and a Mule Filmworks (after the never-realized proposal following the Civil War to give land and a mule to each freed slave); he’s published a book about the making of each of his films. In the one about Do the Right Thing, he writes: “I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to express the views of Black people who otherwise don’t have access to power and the media. I have to take advantage of this while I’m still bankable.”

Spike Lee sees himself as a man with a mission: to shake down the creeping resurgence of racism in post-Reagan America, to inform, entertain and motivate — all the while operating in an industry entirely controlled by whites. It is a tall order for a man who stands five feet six in Air Jordans.

His path to Hollywood, Lee says, has been pitted with racist potholes. After growing up in various racially mixed Brooklyn neighborhoods and graduating from all-black Morehouse College in 1979, he went to New York University’s film school and found himself in a “hostile situation.”

“I had to prove whether I belonged,” Lee says, “or was just another quota.” When NYU professors criticized his first student film, The Answer, he attributed it to “cultural arrogance,” because his film took D. W. Griffith’s classic The Birth of a Nation to task for its condescending portrayal of blacks.

Lee’s 1982 senior thesis, Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, was shot by Ernest Dickerson, the only other black to complete NYU’s three-year program while Lee was there. (Dickerson has gone on to shoot all of Lee’s films.) The movie won the student Academy Award. Two years later, Lee got a grant to start filming a script called Messenger, but the Screen Actors Guild refused to grant him a low-budget waiver of its union wages, Lee says, on the grounds that his script was “too commercial.” According to Lee, white directors with larger budgets are regularly granted the waiver. It was a definite case of racism,” he says.

Lee quickly wrote the serious and saucy comedy She’s Gotta Have It, which takes place mostly in a woman’s bed, and filmed it for $175,000 in the summer of 1985. (His hilarious performance as bike messenger Mars Blackmon stole the film.) In order to keep She’s Gotta Have It from getting an X rating, he had to shorten one of the film’s sex scenes; he insists that white sex scenes in films like the R-rated 9 1/2 Weeks were much more deserving of an X rating than what he had to cut.

She’s Gotta Have It won the Prix de la Jeunesse at Cannes in 1986 for Best New Director, was released by Island Pictures and earned $8 million. This enabled Lee to get Columbia to finance his second feature, School Daze, a $6 million musical about activism and intraracial divisions at a black college. School Daze also did well at the box office, grossing $18 million despite no advertising support from Columbia Pictures after its chairman David Puttnam was deposed. School Daze was ambitious, if problematic — suffering from overlong dance numbers, wandering plot lines and an insider tone. Lee didn’t take the criticism well, particularly the pan from New York Times critic Janet Maslin, who questioned Lee’s technical abilities. Believing her comments “dangerous, like the same Al Campanis shit that black people don’t have the capabilities to be baseball managers,” Lee wrote a petulant letter to the Times, demanding that Maslin never review his films again and ending with the line “I bet she can’t even dance, does she have rhythm?”

Is this reaction racist? “I don’t think blacks can be racist,” Lee says. “Racism is where you put laws into effect, structures that affect you socially. What can black people do to harm Jewish people as a people? Set up laws in Congress, stop them from voting? That’s what racism is.

“We still have people in America who say that racism ended when Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and black people were allowed to vote,” he continues. “And because Michael Jackson’s the number-one rock star, Eddie Murphy’s the biggest box-office draw in the world, Bill Cosby is the number-one TV star, Mike Tyson is the world heavyweight champion, Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player in the world, that black people have arrived, and everything is all right. But the black underclass in America now is larger than it’s ever been. So you can’t be lulled to sleep just because Eddie Murphy’s huge.”

In fact, Lee has been an outspoken critic of celebrities like Murphy and Whoopi Goldberg, who he feels have not asserted their black identities and have not flexed their money muscle to get blacks hired.

According to the Los Angeles Times, while twelve percent of Americans are black and blacks make up twenty-five percent of the moviegoing audience, minority membership in the Writers Guild is a paltry 1.6 percent. Furthermore, there are no black film executives with the power to approve a movie, and although Lee has helped open the door for black directors like Robert Townsend (Hollywood Shuffle) and Keenen Ivory Wayans (I’m Gonna Git You Sucka), blacks directed fewer than one percent of Hollywood’s releases last year.

Against these odds, Lee has gotten his movies made, adopting Malcolm X’s credo “By any means necessary.” He works without an agent, a manager, a publicist or membership in the Writers and Directors guilds, supervising every aspect of his films down to the logos, soundtracks and videos. He’s scraped around for studio “pickup deal” financing that guarantees him the final cut. Both onscreen and off, he has tried to employ as many blacks as possible, founding a minority-student scholarship at the NYU film school and a Forty Acres film-training program at Long Island University. He has also been able to make some pocket money from being an ad clotheshorse for both the Gap and Barneys and from directing a series of jump-cut commercials for Nike starring Michael Jordan.

But the necessary means were hard to come by for Do the Right Thing, even though its final budget was $6.5 million, one-third that of the average Hollywood film. The first studio Lee approached, Paramount, balked at the ending, and Disney also passed. When Universal approved the script, the executives there hadn’t yet experienced the uproar over the studio’s release of Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ. And when Lee’s finished film seemed harsher than the script, some were troubled; there were nervous murmurs that it could be a second coming of Christ.

The film is being released in one of the most competitive movie summers ever, against Batman and surefire sequels like Ghostbusters II and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Though Universal would like it to earn $30 million, vice-president of production and acquisitions Jim Jacks says, “It deals with emotional issues, and when you make movies like that, you never know what’s going to happen.” All Lee hopes is that the controversy doesn’t dampen the receipts, because his license seems short-term. “Hollywood will overlook subject matter in my case,” he says, “because my films [so far] make money. Universal did not make this movie because they’re in love with me.”

I loved your movie,” a man says, approaching Spike Lee at the outdoor-terrace bar at the stately Carlton Hotel, in Cannes. “I run this film festival on the West Coast. We’d love to have you out there.” He hands over a pamphlet.

Lee looks at it and reads, “Wine Country Film Festival? When is it?” The man tells him it’s in mid-July, two weeks after Do the Right Thing opens. “Maybe next film,” Lee says kindly.

He’s sitting with Jim Jacks, and, leafing through the latest copy of Variety, he stops at the ad for See No Evil, Hear No Evil. “How does Gene Wilder keep getting top billing over Richard Pryor?” Lee asks Jacks. “Folks are not going to see him.”

Lee turns to the chart of grosses. “Mississippi Burning made only $34 million? What happened, backlash?”

“It’d be great if we made more than them,” says Jacks. “Hey, imagine what kind of file J. Edgar Hoover’d have on you if he were around today.”

Lee doesn’t smile. “My phone was bugged, you know. The line was dead, then came back on two days later. I had it checked, they didn’t find anything, but that doesn’t mean anything.”

“What are you doing?” asks Jacks, skeptical.

“Film is a very powerful medium,” Lee says soberly.

“Don’t make it any more powerful,” says Jacks with a laugh. “I don’t think I could take it!”

The official screening of Do the Right Thing is tomorrow night. Jacks asks Lee if he’s nervous about the Cannes competition, which pits him against much-ballyhooed films such as Denys Arcand’s Jesus of Montreal, Shohei Imamura’s Black Rain, Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train and Steve Soderbergh’s sex, lies and videotape. Lee shakes his head. “This man is ice!” Jacks exclaims.

Lee puts down Variety, stands up and pantomimes dribbling a basketball on the terrace floor. “On the line,” he says, taking aim at an invisible hoop. “One second to go, one point down.” He mimes two shots and makes two whoosh! sounds and sits down again, smiling.

Do the Right Thing was stirring things up even before it got to film. Lee showed up last July 12th at its first cast read-through with T-shirts emblazoned with the film’s title and flags of Africa, America, Italy and Puerto Rico, and he distributed them to the cast he had assembled from wildly varied backgrounds: Bronx street-kid-turned-actor Danny Aiello as pizzeria owner Sal; Lee himself as pizza deliveryman Mookie; stage veterans Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee as neighborhood stalwarts Da Mayor and Mother Sister; stand-up comic Robin Harris as one of three layabout “corner men”; legal secretary Rosie Perez as Mookie’s Puerto Rican girlfriend Tina; and Yale School of Drama graduate John Turturro as Sal’s racist son, Pino. Turturro mumbled his scripted slurs, thinking, “God, what have I got myself into?”

After the reading, Lee opened the floor for discussion, and Paul Benjamin, who plays a corner man, complained that the script showed nothing but lazy, shiftless blacks.

This sent Rosie Perez — who grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant and whom Lee discovered dancing at an LA. disco — on a ten-minute tirade about how people like the corner men exist and that the cast should go to Bed-Stuy and take a look. Lee explained that he wanted to deal with the realities of the neighborhood but treat the people with dignity and humor.

Today, Lee says that he doesn’t agree with those who think that only positive black images should be portrayed. “I think people still look very good in this movie,” he says. “You can accent the positive or talk about the problems. My approach has been to talk about the problems.”

Yet after the read-through, the cast of this movie about racial issues never really discussed those issues. “It’s an indication of how divided the races are that you can’t even talk about racism on a personal level,” says Richard Edson, who plays Sal’s more sympathetic son, Vita There’s too much distrust, too historical a thing to be able to relax. To even bring it up is a threat, to both blacks and whites.”

The turning point in the movie is a fight between Sal and a neighborhood agitator named Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito). And while the scene was being shot, the improvisation that Lee encourages on his sets tapped something deep. Esposito’s real-life mother is black and his father is Italian; off-camera, he had gotten chummy with Aiello, and the two talked in Italian. But when the cameras rolled, Aiello, adlibbing, suddenly called Buggin’ Out “nigger,” and Esposito went wild, flinging back epithets like “guinea bastard.”

“It was a sense of pride,” says Aiello. “Giancarlo and I have an audience out there watching — neither of us wanted the other guy to get one over on us. So we started using words like the roughest truck drivers you ever seen.”

“It was very shocking to me,” says Esposito. “When Danny said, ‘Nigger,’ I freaked. It finally came up for him. I knew that at some point in his life, he’d called somebody a nigger, and I went crazy because he was someone I liked. Danny was upset with himself, I was really upset with myself, and Spike was gleaming, because he’d gotten the scene.”

Filming took place on location in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Members of Louis Farrakhan’s Fruit of Islam were employed as suit-and-bow-tie security men; they closed down three crack houses on the block, nailing them shut. Lee used locals on the production and set up a scholarship fund for the neighborhood high school. (He also commissioned black filmmaker St. Clair Bourne to make a documentary about the filming.)

Filming the riot took weeks. “It was frightening” says Joie Lee, 26, who plays Mookie’s sister, Jade. “Once the cameras were rolling, you didn’t know what to do — there was water, flames. There was one time I looked at the monitor and I saw film, but the rest of the time, I believed it.”

“You’d stop and see the pizza parlor burning,” says Edson, “200 extras running out in the street, and you’d think, This could be the real thing, this is the shit.’ The question is, why do these things keep happening? Who’s gonna do the right thing? Would I? And what is the right thing, at the moment of truth?”

Can I get a dessert?” Spike Lee asks the waiter. He’s back at the bustling Carlton Hotel bar. “Non,” the waiter replies, “only drinks on ze terrace.”

Lee, a near teetotaler, disappears a few seconds later, then returns in his slightly pigeon-toed, speedy gait, carrying a fruit-and-cream confection. “That guy didn’t know what he was talking about,” he says and digs in.

Asked to name his influences, Lee says, “I would say my parents more than any filmmaker.” Bill, a jazz musician who has scored all of Spike’s films, and Jacquelyn, a teacher (she died in 1977), took Spike and his four younger siblings to dance and jazz performances and Broadway shows. (Besides Joie, there is David, 28, a still photographer on Spike’s films, and Cinque, 24, also a filmmaker, who appears in Jarmusch’s Mystery Train. Another brother, Chris, lives in Washington, D.C.) “I think that’s what everything’s about, exposure.”

The first films Lee recalls going to are Bye Bye Birdie at Radio City Music Hall and a double feature of Dr. No and A Hard Day’s Night. But his favorites are searing cinéma vérité like Hector Babenco’s Pixote and Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets and fantasies like The Wizard of Oz and West Side Story.

As a kid, Shelton Jackson Lee (his mother nicknamed him Spike as a baby) was more of a sports fan, organizing games on the block, sending baseball cards away for autographs, fighting to watch Knicks games on TV when his sister wanted to watch The Brady Bunch. Today, his main reading is the daily sports pages; he has Knicks season tickets, he says, “but not as good as Woody Allen’s.”

Until graduating from high school, says David Lee, Spike had a “massive Tito Jackson ‘fro,” and Lee himself says he looked like a kid until halfway through college. The only one of the Lees to attend Morehouse, Bill Lee’s alma mater, Spike got involved there with writing, directing and producing the gown-and-float homecoming coronation, a spectacle on the order of an MGM musical, which served as the inspiration for School Daze. He began to dabble in 8-mm movies, and after graduating in 1979 he went to NYU film school. “I went knowing that I wasn’t going to learn anything from the faculty,” he says. “I just wanted the equipment to make films, because I knew that’s how I’d become a filmmaker.”

When rookie Spike Lee was in Cannes in 1986 touting She’s Gotta Have It, he was one of eight people sharing a cramped apartment. This year, his photo is up on a billboard on the palm-tree-lined main drag alongside those of Woody Allen, Francis Coppola and Wim Wenders, and with Universal’s money, he has a two-room suite at the Carlton to himself. (He doesn’t have a steady girlfriend but would like to someday get married and have five kids.)

He walks around the hotel in sneakers, athletic socks, a T-shirt, stonewashed jeans, a leather-thong Public Enemy medallion, a baseball cap and a Knicks windbreaker. He spends much of his time giving interviews to the international press, which often puts him in the dicey position of being the spokesman for Black America. He is quick to remind reporters that the movie applies not just to New York or America but to racism everywhere. Because of his introverted, aloof manner, at least one journalist departs saying, “I think he thought my questions were stupid.”

One interviewer asks about the grandstanding of the Reverend Al Sharpton, the New York black activist. “By focusing on him, the press ignores the issue,” Lee says. “Any time there’s a movement, people tend to focus on personalities, instead of what’s being fought for. Whether people think Sharpton’s a clown or not has nothing to do with what happened to Tawana Brawley.”

One scene in Do the Right Thing takes place in front of a brick wall sprayed with the graffiti TAWANA TOLD THE TRUTH! Despite overwhelming evidence that the upstate-New York black teenager’s story was fabricated, Lee says, “I find it unbelievable that a fifteen-year-old girl would amear herself with feces and throw herself in a plastic bag. The truth still hasn’t come out yet.”

Asked about black-separatist leader Louis Farrakhan, Lee says, “I don’t agree with everything he says. But anything the media says about him has been distorted. Time and time again, the press has tried to have me come out and blast him, but I won’t do it.”

Certain questions pop up in nearly every interview:

What’s “the right thing”?

“I don’t know. I know what the wrong thing is: racism.”

Will Sal be able to reopen his pizzeria after the riot?

“I don’t know. The movie’s not about that. It’s about racism. The white critics identify with Sal, but the movie’s not about him. You cannot equate a human life with the destruction of a pizzeria. Why does no one ask me if the cops are going to be tried for the murder?”

What can be done about racism?

“People cannot expect me to have answers. That is not my goal or agenda. What I have to do as a filmmaker is present the problem so that discussion can start. If America was thinking about racism, Do the Right Thing wouldn’t be the first film about it.”

Spike Lee still lives in the same spar-tan Brooklyn basement apartment he did before making She’s Gotta Have It, works out of the same converted firehouse, travels by subway. Forty Acres vice-president (and Lee’s Morehouse classmate) Monty Ross explains, “If people who’re going to make a difference leave the black community, how is the standard there ever going to be raised? Spike wants to make a difference. Hanging out in Brooklyn, you tend to stay involved and committed, instead of out in a mansion in Hollywood.”

Lee only started to vote in 1984, when Jesse Jackson ran for president; he directed a commercial for Jackson’s ’88 campaign and has offered to do the same for David Dinkins, a black candidate for mayor of New York City.

Next, Lee says, “I want to do a less antagonistic, less confrontational film.” He has already written the script, Love Supreme, named after a John Coltrane song. It’s a contemporary tale of a jazz musician trying to balance his work and his love life. Lee, who will play the jazz band’s manager, is reportedly seeking a $12 million budget.

Also in the planning stages is a movie about drugs and their effect on young kids. “We can’t have art for art’s sake,” says Monty Ross. “There’s so much of black life that needs so much work. Forty Acres will always do movies that are entertaining and give people something to talk about. It won’t be movies in the south of France with people running around talking about a cherry moon. Our agenda has to include education.”

Lee himself has few illusions about the educational impact of his movies. “The only time I’ve seen a film take real effect was The Thin Blue Line — that got a guy out of jail. Something like that only happens once in a blue moon. I don’t think I’m gonna be able to walk through Benson-hurst or Howard Beach because of Do the Right Thing: ‘Let’s not crack him on the head with a bat because we saw his movie and we’re all brothers and sisters.’ “

On May 23rd, the Cannes film festival awards were announced: The Palm d’Or went to sex, lies and videotape, the first feature by Steven Soderbergh, a twenty-six-year-old American. Many films won prizes, but Do the Right Thing was shut out. The New York Times reported that the film’s only supporters among the judges were director Hector Babenco and actress Sally Field. “We got robbed,” Lee says back in Brooklyn. “I guess they really wanted to stick the knife. [Cannes jury president and film director] Wim Wenders was quoted as saying, ‘Sex, lies and videotape shows there’s a future for cinema,’ so I guess we’re not the future.”

That same week, an unemployed construction worker named Richard Luke, twenty-five and black, died in a New York City jail after a struggle with city-housing police. His family had called the police because he was having difficulty breathing. But after his death, his mother was quoted saying. “My son was beaten…. They had a nightstick right up under his throat.” The Reverend Al Sharpton held another demonstration. The medical examiner ruled the death was drug related. A grand jury said it would investigate.

And the summer hadn’t even begun.

Newswire

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