Do the Right Thing (US, 1989)

I’ve just published a guide to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Here’s the introduction:

In Florida on February 26th, 2012, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who had been shopping at a convenience store, was shot and killed by vigilante George Zimmerman. Zimmerman had called ‘911’ to report Martin’s apparently suspicious behaviour and was told not to follow him. However the vigilante did so and claimed self-defence after shooting the boy. Florida’s ‘stand your ground law’ meant, as officers accepted Zimmerman’s version of events, he was not charged. After a national outcry he was eventually sent to trial where he was found ‘not guilty’. For many this outcome was another example how the American legal system discriminates against ethnic minorities and, in response, the activist movement Black Lives Matter was created.

This lack of concern about black lives certainly wasn’t new: in 2009 Oscar Grant was shot and killed, when he was lying face down on the ground being arrested, in Oakland, California; the killing was dramatised in Fruitvale Station (2013). The officer, Johannes Mehserle, was prosecuted for involuntary manslaughter and served very little time in prison.

Initially Black Lives Matter seemed to have no effect as African American lives continued to be lost in contentious circumstances. Michael Brown, an 18-year old, was shot in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, and several days of protests followed. Earlier that year, in New York, Eric Garner died after being held in a chokehold by officers even though the NYPD had banned the use of this method of restraint. Nearly 30 years after Do the Right Thing featured the death of a black man at the hands of the NYPD using a chokehold, it is clear that the sore of racism, with its roots in slavery, still festers.

Spike Lee’s emergence as a high profile filmmaker wasn’t simply due to the quality of his films but also because he became, for a time at least, an African American voice that mainstream media could not ignore. Although Lee’s messages were often misrepresented, the success of his films and skill in promoting himself led him to be considered to be a spokesperson for African Americans. Due to the institutional racism that restricts Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) access, non-white voices are heard relatively rarely in mainstream media. Hence Lee, one of the few high profile African Americans in the film industry, became the conduit through which the mainstream media and audiences heard an African American perspective. Although his ambition was to be a filmmaker, not a spokesperson for his race, he hasn’t shirked the responsibility and has ensured that, in most cases, he has control over his films so he could say what he had to say.

However putting the burden of representation on one person’s shoulders is not only unfair but also impractical: one person cannot speak for a variegated group. One of the consequences of this is that Lee became a focus of criticism from African Americans because his films didn’t represent black culture the way they understood it.

At the other extreme, racist critics attacked Lee simply as a tactic to shut up a ‘diverse’ voice. The burden carried by Lee, and other ethnic minority artists who have mainstream appeal such as Beyoncé, is their art is inflected by race in a way that white artists’ work rarely is.

In 2017 Michael Slager was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for killing, when a police office, African American Walter Scott. Maybe this is a sign that the Black Lives Matter movement is working. As Do the Right Thing suggests, it is vital to continue fighting against racial oppression.

 

Available at Amazon here.

One Response

  1. […] also a political filmmaker with his focus on racist America and his Do the Right Thing is rightly lauded as a classic on this topic. Melodrama and politics are somewhat antithetical as […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: