Spike Lee Inflames the Critics with a Film He Swears Is the Right Thing
07/10/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT
The garbage can sails through the air as swift and silent as hatred itself, shattering the pizzeria's plate-glass window, and with it the fragile peace that had existed between black residents and the white shopkeepers on a sweltering ghetto block. A match is struck; the store explodes in flames. As the camera pans over the inferno, the rap song on the sound track exhorts, "Fight the power! Fight the power!"
The race-riotous climax of producer-director-screenwriter-actor Spike Lee's new film, Do the Right Thing, has made it the year's most controversial movie. Critic Roger Ebert praised it as "the most honest, complex and unblinking film I have ever seen about the subject of racism." But more than a few commentators worry that Lee has done the wrong thing—and that real people in real cities may see the fire next time. "Lee appears to be endorsing the outcome," warned New York magazine's David Denby, "and if some audiences go wild, he's partly responsible."
"I'm not advocating violence," responds Lee, whose undersize stature, oversize glasses and schoolyard attire make him seem younger than his 32 years. "I'm saying I can understand it. If the people are frustrated and feel oppressed and feel this is the only way they can act, I understand."
The line between depicting violence and advocating it is blurred by Lee's casting: Lee himself plays Mookie—the friendly, funny, unthreatening pizza de-liveryman who leads the audience through what seems a friendly, funny, unthreatening movie—until the end. Mookie, distraught over the killing of a pal by police, smashes the window and starts the riot, raising the question: Who threw the can, Mookie or Spike Lee?
"I think all of black America threw that can," says Lee. "Black America is tired of having their brothers and sisters murdered by the police for no other reason than being black."
Such stirring but not-quite-on-the-point statements have dismayed even some liberal commentators (the Village Voice ran one article labeling Lee a "propagandist"), but few doubt that the filmmaker has expressed a widespread alienation among urban blacks. At the end of the film, the words of Martin Luther King scroll up the screen: "Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral." But then come the words of Malcolm X: "I don't even call it violence when it's self-defense; I call it intelligence."
If the connection between burning a pizzeria and self-defense is elusive, it is also beside the point, according to Lee. He argues that the film's most serious violence precedes the riot, when a black youth, "Radio Raheem" (Bill Nunn), comes to blows with Sal, the pizzeria owner (Danny Aiello), and a cop responds by putting Raheem in a fatal choke hold. "The critics are focusing on the burning of the pizzeria, and nobody ever mentions the death of Radio Raheem," says an exasperated Lee, "because to them Sal's property is more important than another death of a young black kid, another black 'hoodlum.' "
The residents of the block where Lee shot the film, on Stuyvesant Avenue in Brooklyn's impoverished Bedford-Stuyvesant section, don't share critics' concern that it might incite violence. Violence arrived in their neighborhood long before Lee, who grew up and still lives in middle-class Brooklyn, a couple of miles and a world away. "They're rioting right here now," says Mary Little, 45. "They don't have to go see a movie." She points out the spots where one youth hit another over the head with a baseball bat, where one boy stabbed another, where a woman stuck her boyfriend with a butcher knife because "he smoked more crack than she did."
Lee's incursion brought hope to the block, if only for a while. He hired residents as workmen and extras, installed windows in the block's five abandoned buildings, planted shrubs and flowers to give the movie its incongruous Mister Rogers' Neighborhood look. But now all the windows are broken, and many of the plants have been stolen. And, of course, the pizza-parlor set has been struck, leaving the trash-strewn lot that was there before. One crucial improvement that has lasted: Lee's security force—men from Minister Louis Farra-khan's Fruit of Islam private army—shut down and sealed two crack houses on the block.
Curiously, for a director who has described himself as a "social realist," Lee makes no reference to drugs in Do the Right Thing. Asked why, he quietly but firmly forecloses any discussion: "I think that's a racist question because no white filmmaker has ever been asked where are the drugs in his film. Nobody asks Barry Levinson where are the drugs in Rain Man. This film was not about drugs. This film was about race relations."
Such tough talk perpetuates Lee's image as a radical outsider, but he can also speak Hollywood's language: money. He scraped together $175,000 to make his first film, the 1986 sexual comedy She's Gotta Have It; it grossed $7 million. Columbia laid out $6.5 million for last year's School Daze, in which Lee took on the taboo subject of tensions between light-and dark-skinned blacks. It reaped at least a $15 million gross. And he achieved these successes without a white face on the screen. Lee tells his stories his way, and the studios buy it. A goad and a scourge to black stars who he feels compromise too readily with the white power structure, Lee has criticized Eddie Murphy and other "Hollywood Negroes" for not using their box office clout to force the studios to hire more black executives.
Lee's own clout will no doubt grow with Do the Right Thing. And he has already made clear how he'll use it. To celebrate the release of his last two movies, he contributed $50,000 to the United Negro College Fund and raised $200,000 more; he has also established two annual $5,000 grants for minority students at New York University's film school, where he learned his craft. If Spike Lee has his way, there will be many more black filmmakers raising such disturbing questions as those articulated by Do the Right Thing's deejay. Mister Señor Love Daddy, after the riot: "Are we gonna live together? Together, are we gonna live?"