‘Do the Right Thing’: Insight to Riot
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.
Elliot Page on How His Acting Career Impacted His Gender Dysphoria
- Complicated Perception