Author: Ed Guerrero
/* Style Definitions */
mso-padding-alt:0cm 5.4pt 0cm 5.4pt;
mso-fareast-font-family:”Times New Roman”;
Few films have tackled racism in such a direct or complex way as Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do the Right Thing. This isn’t the racist tract as delivered in such films as Mississippi Burning (1988) or In the Heat of the Night (1967). It deals with inner city tensions over a 24-hour period one hot summer in the small black neighbourhood of Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, which is inhabited by Koreans, Italian-Americans, Hispanics and Caucasians. This book is written by Ed Guerrero, one of the most reputable writers in the field of African-American cinema and politics. On the back of the book there’s a photo of Dr Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. This gives a strong indication that Guerrero isn’t going to be approaching the film as a formal study of filmmaking or merely placing it within the canon of 80s cinema, but instead putting it squarely in the context of American race politics within the framework of the time it was made. Guerrero is the Associate Professor of Cinema and African Studies at New York University and sits on the board of the National Film Preservation Board at the Library of Congress; this once again demonstrates that books in the series of BFI Modern Classics (and its sister books, BFI Film Classics) are serious writings on cinema.
Guerrero gets straight to the heart of race politics in the 80s as he details Lee’s own polemics as well as issues affecting black Americans. As with most of Lee’s work (an at times inconsistent but always fascinating filmmaker), Guerrero looks at the details – the graffiti on the wall or the mise-en-scene of Lee’s film. In the scene where Mookie (Spike Lee) is discussing with his sister Jade (Joie Lee) his discomfort at the way his boss, Sal (Danny Aiello) flirts with her, there’s graffiti on the wall stating that ‘Twana told the truth’. Guerrero often discusses (as Lee had also on the film’s release) an alleged incident which took place in New York in which a black girl, Twana Brawley, was jogging in Central Park where she was raped by a group of white youths, some of whom were said to be police. A grand jury dubbed her claims a falsehood. The incident was met with strong black support (although in the book it is mistakenly printed that Brawley was white and the assailants were black!). In another scene in the film we see graffiti stating ‘dump Koch’, Lee’s message to New York Mayor Ed Koch, who was seen as a divisive mayor who fuelled racial tensions in New York in the 80s. But this, like much in the film, can go both ways as in the scene when black political agitator Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito) confronts Sal in his pizzeria about why there are only Italian icons on the wall and not black brothers. He goes on the street to garner local support (although the residents he wishes to join his cause refuse to boycott the popular place) and behind him there’s a poster of Mike Tyson – hardly a good black role model, which Guerrero acknowledges. Guerrero, like Lee himself, tries to get to the heart of the racial politics in the film in the same balanced way as Lee.
To me, this film has always been about how many of the multi-ethnic groups in the neighbourhood are far from blameless and in many instances use blackness or race identity as an excuse for being held back. This is shown particularly by the older generation of characters such as Da Mayor, Mother Sister and the old boys on the corner who have been held back by pre-Civil Rights oppression and have become lazy wasters, where as an angrier younger generation express their anger and disappointment in other ways reflecting their identity through consumerism (trainers, bling and music). In the meantime the Korean clichés of the grocery store owners as prosperous hard workers represent another side of prosperity and ambition to do well as relatively new immigrants. Wasn’t it Martin Luther King who said that the black man has to prove himself to be ten times better than the white man?
Guerrero codas his book with the iconic messages of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X as guardians of the struggle – and in that sense Lee is continuing that struggle artistically.