Twenty-five years ago, in the summer of 1989, Barack Obama took his new romantic interest Michelle Robinson on a first date to see the debut of Spike Lee’s film "Do the Right Thing." Premiering just 25 years after the watershed civil rights events of 1964, Lee’s iconic film challenged the narrative of American racial progress, citing rising ethnic tensions, continued police brutality, and increasing urban disaffection among black folks living in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood.
Rooted sonically and aesthetically in a hip-hop ethos authored by Public Enemy’s Chuck D, who wrote the film’s signature song “Fight the Power,” the film engaged the social realities of urban blacks living in New York in the aftermath of civil rights. I use the term “aftermath” deliberately. Chuck D famously referred to hip-hop as the CNN of black America, precisely because much of the music that emerged from the culture in the late 1980s detailed with troubling acuity and precision the war zone-like conditions in which black and brown folks lived in the two decades following the out-migration of good factory jobs. For elder characters like Da Mayor and Mother Sister, played by our beloved Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, moving North had signaled something akin to freedom and possibility for most of the 20th century. After 1970, more black folks than not opted simply to stay South.
Chronicling the experiences of a generation of people whose freedom dreams were deferred, the film presages the major political issues that have shaped black political identity in the late 20th and 21st century. Mookie, the film’s protagonist played by Spike Lee, is a young unmotivated and unambitious black man, who works a job as a delivery guy at Sal’s Pizzeria. The film makes clear that Sal and his two boys are in the neighborhood but not of it. They make their livelihood off the hard-earned dollars of these working-class people, but live elsewhere. Sal’s older son resents this fact and is ashamed that his father’s business is not in a more desirable and respectable, white location. Where Mookie represents his own resentment of his dependence on Sal and kin by half-assing his job, Buggin’ Out, his homeboy, openly challenges Sal, asking questions about why no black people appear on the restaurant’s Wall of Fame.
This refusal of representation becomes a festering sore that threatens to burst and eventually does by the end of the film. The gratuitous whiteness, the racial hubris of putting only white photos on display, when you already own a corner lot on the block constitutes an active form of disrespect, an injury, a kind of social perforation upon which young black men can and do make a clean break with the way that whiteness operates to their disadvantage in the neighborhood.
Eventually Buggin’ Out, spurred on by Radio Raheem and his monster beats, stage a protest against Sal’s. The confrontation ends with Raheem dead, after police use excessive and unwarranted force when placing him in a chokehold. His boom box is in pieces on Sal’s floor. Mookie, enraged by the whole turn of events, tosses a trashcan through Sal’s window, while Smiley, a deaf and mute man from the neighborhood, lights the place on fire.
The killing of Radio Raheem, the image of his struggling, jerking body, having the life choked out of it with such force that his feet leave the ground, is my most enduring memory of the film.
I watched as a kid, probably a year later, when it became available on VHS tape. Traumatized by those large, dangling feet, and too young to understand how Northern billy clubs and large Southern oaks could produce the same kind of strange fruit, I didn’t watch again until my senior year of college in an urban politics course.
Then as now, I remain unable to make sense of expendable black life and unpalatable black death. But then perhaps, excepting those of us who actually have black lives, black death is not particularly unpalatable.
In indexing the social palatability of the destruction of black communities, Lee’s film has proved prescient in more ways than one. Three years after the film’s release, Los Angeles erupted in race riots that lasted for six days after a jury acquitted four officers for the brutal beating of Rodney King. Much as Lee’s film had foreshadowed tensions between African-Americans and Korean American shopkeepers in Brooklyn, during the L.A. riots, businesses owned by Korean Americans were one of the many targets of rioters.
The film also acted as a visual prelude to the current gentrification of Brooklyn. Much as Sal, the police and others treated Radio Raheem’s unapologetic hip-hop aesthetic as an unwanted intrusion, a troubling set of behaviors to be disciplined away, or snuffed out, rather, by the force of a billy club, in contemporary Brooklyn, the gentrifiers in Notorious B.I.G.’s former neighborhood refuse to even name a street after the place he made famous. Meanwhile, tales of police brutality – from Amadou Diallo to Sean Bell to Kamani Gray -- are so regular, that they are treated mostly as an inconvenient truth of New York life rather than a practice worthy of the committed resources necessary for eradication.
It has been 25 years since Lee’s "Do the Right Thing," and one other iconic film, "Lean on Me" (a personal fave) attempted to help us make sense of the lives of the first post-civil rights generation. We are now two full generations removed from the summer of 1964, even as we are awash in nostalgia for that moment. We are one generation removed from 1989, though we seem far less nostalgic for the crack wars, urban blight and gangsta rap that marked the end of one of the most turbulent decades of the 20th century.
Twenty-five years ago, in the wake of Jesse Jackson’s two major presidential campaigns in 1984 and 1988, having a black president seemed an elusive goal, one that sank into the background so quickly, that even 10 years ago, the possibilities seemed unfathomable. Now, we have a black president, and a black family in the White House, disrupting if only briefly the totalizing racial signification of that designation. But we also face a moment in which 25 years from now the terms “inner-city” and “urban” may no longer be short hand for “black folks.”
"Lean on Me" narrated in the context of urban schooling the same set of issues that shaped urban living. It showed the persisting segregation that marked the educational lives of urban black youth, even as "Do The Right Thing" marked the persisting segregation of black neighborhoods. The same year that these two films were released, Wendy Kopp wrote a senior thesis at Princeton proposing an innovative new program to help with the problem of failing urban schools. The next year she drafted and placed her first class of Teach for America recruits.
Twenty-five years later, the TFA model, which has effectively deprofessionalized teaching, is at the center of the school reform movement,. That same movement has increasingly privatized and gutted the public school system, creating even more inequality for black and brown youth.
In 1989 urban black and brown youth were in the midst of creating the global cultural movement known as hip-hop. Chuck D’s and Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” gave sonic and affective force to the project of "Do the Right Thing." In a film that frames itself, at least in part, as a moral commentary on what the right thing is and how to do it in the context of a civil rights narrative shaped by Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, whose quotes along with a photo of the two of them, appear at the end of the film, hip-hop offers the answer: fight the power! These days mainstream hip-hop offers no such answers. It has neither the versatility that made space for Public Enemy, NWA and the 2 Live Crew, in exactly the same moment, nor the kind of moral and political clarity that will act as a compass in the midst of our current social upheaval.
As our own high court eviscerates the legal basis for the civil rights of both black people and women, it is clear that the court has abdicated all sense of moral suasion. What does it mean to “Do the Right Thing” in this post-moral context of ours? How do we fight the power?
Answers seem slim, but if anything can help us, art, black art, which allows us to confront these inconvenient truths as present realities and not simply historical events, offers a start. Even as the president fondly reflects on his first date with the first lady, I hope he will remember that in so many respects social conditions are worse now than they were 25 years ago. I hope he and the other powers that be remember, and I hope they will find the courage to do the right thing.