Do the Race Thing: Spike Lee’s Afro-Fascist Chic
June 20, 1989
The problems Spike Lee and his new film, Do the Right Thing, represent cannot be discussed outside the context of contemporary Afro-American media success and the reemergence of black power thinking. But a good place to begin is Brooklyn on June 5, the evening that Lee and Robert Townsend of Hollywood Shuffle were given tribute by the Black Filmmaker Foundation, a nonprofit organization that distributes independently made Afro-American films. Not only were Lee and Townsend praised but the 10-year existence of the foundation was cause for an awards presentation acknowledging the mostly white funders and the best films made since 1979.
The numerous film clips shown that glamorous evening at the Majestic Theatre of the Brooklyn Academy of Music demonstrated that Lee and Townsend are but examples of the many people making films, looking at historical figures, and attempting to address the joys, ambiguities, and dilemmas central to being an American of color in our time.
But at the press conference that preceded the ceremonies, it was obvious that such problems are of less interest to Lee than the chance to express a rather muddled vision of black cinema. When I asked him what exactly constitutes black film in terms of cinematic style, Lee could only answer that there isn’t a large enough body of work to say, which suggests that he has yet to think out an aesthetic that would determine the visual style of his work. But there is no doubt that he has high regard for his new film: he claimed he had been robbed at Cannes because “they are always looking for a golden white boy.” Depicting himself as a victim, Lee complained he’d had to fight for the $6 million that this film cost and “I’ll probably have to fight for the $12 million for my next picture.” In discussing whether Do the Right Thing is racist, Lee said, “White people can’t call black people racist. They invented that shit.”
Lee’s glibness and his stage hostility weren’t particularly fresh, but there was an especially disturbing quality to his bootlegged ’60s pronouncement about racism. There is far too much proof that racism is no more the invention of white people than white people were, as Malcolm X taught so many while under the thrall of Elijah Muhammad, invented by a mad black scientist. The statement, however, seemed to be an attempt to parry what will become a central part of the discussion of the film, its very existence proof of what one can bring off with the necessary ambition to lead, the energy for self-promotion, and the ability to manipulate the simplistic ethnic ideas that pop leadership demands.
As Do the Right Thing proves, Lee is a miniaturist in more than size. His vision is small and lacks subtlety, but it continues to raise a luster of surface brilliance. The new film is such an advance in technical terms over the amateurish School Daze that one is surprised by it, even taken in — initially. Lee’s control of the contemporary cinematic language — which is so influenced by television commercials, rock videos, and the techniques of the ’60s European avant-garde — has been found impressive. All who would dismiss his gifts as a framer, lighter, and editor of images must now leave the room. He is clearly learning how to do it with exceptional speed.
But Lee, whose truest gift appears to be comedy, either lacks the intelligence, maturity, and the sensitivity necessary for drama, or hasn’t the courage and the will to give racial confrontation true dramatic complexity. At heart, he is for now a propagandist, one who reduces the world to a shorthand projected with such force that the very power of the projection itself will make those with tall grass for brains bend to the will of the wind. Though there is much cleverness, the film has no feeling for the intricacies of the human spirit on any level other than that of fast-food irony, no sense of the trickiness of both good and evil, none of the emotional scope that brings artistic resonance. Do the Right Thing, for all its wit, is the sort of rancid fairy tale one expects of the racist, whether or not Lee actually is one.
One must always face the razor’s edge of the fact that race as it applies to American identity has a complex relationship to the grace, grime, and gore of democracy, and that an essential aspect of democracy, of a free society’s exchange of ideas, is that we will inevitably be inspired, dismayed, and disgusted by the good, mediocre, and insipid ideas that freedom allows. The burden of democracy is that you will not only get a Thurgood Marshall but an Alton Maddox, a Martin Luther King and an Al Sharpton — the brilliant, the hysteric, the hustling. And in terms of film opening up to more and more black people, there is no doubt that most will follow trends and appeal to the spiritual peanut galleries of society as long as there is money to be made, while a few will say something of importance, not only to American society but to the contemporary world. Few in this country have ever wanted to be artists, have wished to challenge or equal the best on a national and international basis. Most want no more than a good job and — in our time of the rock-and-roll elevation of the brutish, the superficial, and the adolescent — pop stardom. Those who believe that such American tendencies will fall before the revelations of the sword of the Negro soul are naïve.
That naïveté, like an intellectual jack-in-the-box bumpkin, periodically popped up through the Black Filmmaker Foundation’s ceremonies. There was much talk of “controlling our images,” a term suggestive of the worst political aspects of black nationalism, one far more dangerous if taken in certain directions than, say, expanding our images. Such “control” without attendant intelligence and moral courage of the sort we saw so little of during the Brawley farce or rarely hear when Louis Farrakhan is discussed, will make little difference, since the problems Afro-Americans presently face extend far beyond the unarguable persistence of a declining racism. Intellectual cowardice, opportunism, and the itch for riches by almost any means necessary define the demons within the black community. The demons are presently symbolized by those black college teachers so intimidated by career threats that they don’t protest students bringing Louis Farrakhan on campus, by men like Vernon Mason who sold out a good reputation in a cynical bid for political power by pimping real victims of racism in order to smoke-screen Tawana Brawley’s lies, by the crack dealers who have wrought unprecedented horrors, and by Afro-fascist race-baiters like Public Enemy who perform on the soundtrack to Do the Right Thing.
In more than a few ways, Do the Right Thing fits the description Susan Sontag gave fascism in her discussion of Leni Riefenstahl, “Fascinating Fascism.” Sontag says fascist aesthetics “endorse two seemingly opposite states, egomania and servitude. The relations of domination and enslavement take the form of a characteristic pageantry: the massing of groups of people; the turning of people into things; the multiplication or replication of things; and the grouping of people/things around an all-powerful, hypnotic leader-figure or force.”
In Do the Right Thing, the egomania and the servitude, the massing of people into things, and the irresistible force are all part of blackness. That blackness has the same purpose Sontag recognized in the work of Riefenstahl: it exists to overcome “the dissolution of alienation in ecstatic feelings of community.” Lee’s vision of blackness connects to what Sontag realized was “a romantic ideal… expressed in such diverse modes of cultural dissidence and propaganda for new forms of community as the youth/rock culture, primal therapy, anti-psychiatry, Third World camp following, and belief in the occult.”
In order to bring off his romantic vision of race superseding all, Lee creates a fantasy Bed-Stuy neighborhood. No villains such as drug dealers ever appear to complicate things, nor any middle-class would-be street Negroes like the filmmaker himself. The variety of black people Lee chooses to sentimentalize, capture accurately, or to show admiration for are all lower class. Some even feel animosity for each other. But when the racial call is given, all forms of alienation dissolve and the neighborhood merges into ANGRY BLACK PEOPLE led into a riot by a rail-tailed ne’er-do-well named Mookie, who throws a trash can through the window of a pizzeria owned by an Italian he works for. In the logic of the film, the Italian, Sal, is the real villain because, even though he has had his shop in the neighborhood for 25 years and has watched people grow up and die, he refuses to put the pictures of “some black people” on his wall, which is covered with the images of famous Italian-Americans.
Sal’s refusal enrages a fatmouthing Negro named Buggin Out, who wants to boycott the pizzeria but can find only one supporter, Radio Raheem. To Lee’s credit, Buggin Out is shown as a fool and Radio Raheem the kind of social bully who commandeers audio space with his noise-blasting boombox. Raheem brandishes goldplated brass knuckles and explains why one pair is lettered “love” and the other “hate” in a soliloquy that connects him to Robert Mitchum’s psychopath in The Night of the Hunter. Near the end of the film, the two enter Sal’s place as it is about to close, the boombox obnoxiously loud, demanding the placement of black faces on the wall. Sal tells them to turn off the radio or get out. They refuse and tension builds until the Italian utters THAT WORD: nigger, then smashes the box with a bat. A fight ensues and Raheem is put in a choke hold and killed by the police during the struggle. When the police pull off with Buggin Out handcuffed as they drive billies into his stomach, Mookie throws the trash can and begins screaming at Sal that Raheem “died because he had a radio.” The neighborhood Negroes then realize that Sal is the villain, that he is THE WHITE MAN, and that they, regardless of how much they have been irritated by Raheem and Buggin Out are, like them, BLACK. They exact their revenge — the young, the old, the crippled, the crazy. To maintain obligatory Third World solidarity, the mob decides not to destroy the Korean store across the street after the owner shouts, “I’m black, too.”
When the firemen arrive after the pizzeria has been looted and torched, they hose the crowd blocking their work, and Lee commits the kind of vulgar distortion of history one is familiar with in the work of fascists. Are audiences to believe that Negroes bent on stopping firemen from putting out a conflagration are the same as those who met the force of water in Birmingham during a nonviolent demonstration? Apparently so, but that is only one example of Lee’s moral confusion. His character, Mookie, rises from the bed of his Puerto Rican girlfriend the next morning, ignoring yet another of her foul-mouthed demands that he come visit her and their baby more often, and goes back to see Sal for his $250 salary. Sal throws five $100 bills in his face. Mookie throws two of them back at Sal, then finally picks them up and walks off, perhaps providing us with a metaphor for what Lee expects of his career — that he will be able to make irresponsible films white people will angrily pay him for.
It all seems, like much of LeRoi Jones’s agitprop work, a little man’s fantasy twisted up with a confused morality that justifies itself in the name of racial pride and outrage against historical and contemporary injustice. Throughout, pipe-stem Mookie talks bad to Sal and his two Italian sons, even tells Sal he had better not try anything with his sister. If you are Mookie’s size and expect to talk that rough to a “let’s step outside” Italian, you had better be sure that you wrote the script, directed the movie, and that he is working for you!
But Do the Right Thing is already being celebrated by white critics who would never have accepted such a polluted political vision from one of their own. It is, for one thing, a perverted version of My Beautiful Laundrette, where the white guy who works for the resented Asians helps defend his employers against a skinhead riot, not out of obeisance but in reaction to anarchy. Had that rightly praised film been made by a white director and had it shown the ex-skinhead leading his buddies in the destruction of the laundrette and the assault on the Asians, it would have been sanctimoniously shouted down, regardless of the personal shortcomings of some of the Asian characters.
In fact, had Do the Right Thing been the work of a white actor/writer/director, the picket lines would stretch to the Red Sea. But the gullibility of those white people who would pretend that this film is a comment on racism and not perhaps the real thing itself is proof of what Sontag calls “pop sophistication,” the ability to perceive the actual political meaning as no more than “aesthetic excess.”
Lee’s success with the critics at this point goes beyond the fact that those whites who feel they are being treated to “the real thing” have rarely been disturbed by the exotic experience of having a turd pushed into their faces through a hole on the social deck beneath them. What makes Lee special is that fascists are never very good at comedy. Few, if any, are known for the quality of witty remarks made during their addresses or for bursts of humor in their work that provoke universal laughter. It is precisely because Lee can make audiences laugh that the fascist aesthetic he follows with such irresponsible deliberation slips the critical noose. Intellectually, he is like John Wayne Gacy in his clown suit, entertaining those who cannot believe the bodies buried under his house.
And Then There Was Nunn
By Lisa Kennedy
Bill Nunn’s Radio Raheem is like a trace across Do the Right Thing, always heading out into the Bed-Stuy streets, adjusting his attitude by pumping up the volume on his monster box. He’s part rap-nationalist missionary, part goof. His personal soundtrack comes from the fighting words of Public Enemy’s newest anthem — without a doubt one of this summer’s major beats — “Fight the Power.” When they see him coming — almost lumbering, he’s a big guy — Raheem’s neighbors are just as likely to shake their heads good-humoredly as tell him to shut the fucker down. No two people read him the same way, so why should we?
Raheem is big and silent. Sort of a quintessential stand-in for what is threatening about young black maleness. What you don’t know you assume, erring in the direction of ugliness and danger. When he finally talks, it’s a bizarre philosophical moment in which he extemporizes about LOVE and HATE, complete with visual aids — a knuckle band on each hand inscribed accordingly. It’s not for clarity’s sake, this yin/yang soliloquy. Nope, Raheem only becomes more confusing, and then he’s on his journey back and forth across the ’hood again.
Nunn picks up the phone in Atlanta and says, “Hello.” The Southern inflection makes you think Grady — the character he played in School Daze — not Raheem. Is he more a fella than a rap nationalist? Well yes, and then again. “I happen to really like rap and reggae. I’m the oldest rap fan in America. Sometimes I’m listening to my Walkman on the train, and I hear a song that I really want to turn up.” He pauses. “Raheem, well he imposes his music on people, and he’s not bashful about doing it. It was his mission.”
While an artist-in-residence at Spellman, working on plays with Monty Ross, Nunn met Spike Lee. “Spike used to come to the plays,” recounts Nunn. “One time he told me to bring a head shot to his grandmother’s house. I did. We talked, and he said, ‘I think I have something I want you to do.’ ” That’s how he got the part Grady in School Daze.
“I love working with Spike. I think he’s generous with his talent. When he writes his script, it’s not written in stone. He let me play with my lines.” He is talking more about his experience as Grady than Raheem. Besides the fact that Raheem is two steps beyond laconic, Nunn says, “In Do the Right Thing, I followed more closely what was written, because I felt Spike had a strong sense of the character.”
Despite the accent, Nunn was born and raised in Pittsburgh, before relocating to Atlanta. He also keeps a place in Harlem. Until Do the Right Thing, Brooklyn was not his province. Even so, the best borough worked its charm. “I grew attached to the people in the neighborhood,” Nunn confesses. “When the shooting was over, people were really sad about it, not just cause your money was stopping, but, I felt, we’re gone and the people are still there.”
Everyone who’s worked on this newest Lee joint is well-versed in its implications. They’re all walking the line between film and ugly reality. Nunn is kind of touching in the way he tries to negotiate the power of his fate in Do the Right Thing. “I hope they take it as a particular story,” he says. “I sure hope no one is going to bug out, ’cause it’s still just a film.”
Nunn goes on to talk about the right thing as a professional actor — keeping busy, whether it be in films, children’s theater, or a little Atlanta MCing on the side. And being in films that he won’t have to apologize to his eight-year-old daughter, his mother, his homeboys, about. He’s a big fella, Nunn, about as warm as Raheem is inscrutable.
To wit, as Nunn recounts another part of the Brooklyn shoot: “The most emotional day was when we were doing the scene where Buggin Out [Giancarlo Esposito] gets put in the [police] car, and he looks over to where I am on the ground.” He begins to sound somewhat incredulous. “It fucked up my head.” Silence on the other end of the line. “It’s making me emotional talking about it.”
Rosie the Riveting
By Guy Trebay
She plays Tina, who’s the lover of Mookie, who never comes over except for sex. Tina is mouthy and bighearted with a bitch rant so cartoonish she should be under contract to Ralph Bakshi. A compression of every cliché Latino mami you’ve ever seen, Tina is the female lead in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, tightly packaged in the coffee-colored person of Rosie Perez. No filmmaker but Lee could invent a character like Tina (or get away with it). And Lee didn’t really invent Tina in the first place. You couldn’t invent her tough and sexy streetwise attitude, or her look of permanent suspicion, or her matchless Spanglish sibilance. Let’s just say Lee met Perez and then pointed a camera in the right direction.
Here’s how Rosie was cast: “It was a twist of fate,” she says by phone from Los Angeles. “A friend out here conned me into going to this club called Funky Reggae. They were having Spike’s birthday party, and there was a butt contest, so I started acting like a smart aleck. I got up on the mike, and I was talking back to the band. Then some guy started waving at me, and I thought I was getting thrown out of the club. But he turned out to be Spike’s partner, Monty Ross. He said, ‘There’s someone I’d like you to meet.’ And I immediately thought to myself, ‘Sure. Two famous slimebuckets of Hollywood trying to influence their way into a girl’s panties.’ ”
Perez was not an actress at the time. She was a 22-year-old legal assistant from Brooklyn, one of 11 children of Lydia and Ishmael Perez, educated at Grover Cleveland High School, then at a Los Angeles community college after ditching a scholarship to USC (“I felt so stifled, I wanted to throw up on their shoes”), a sixth-generation, 100 per cent Puerto Rican native New Yorker, raised six blocks from the corner where Lee set his new film. “Later, Spike heard where I grew up and he fell out in tears of laughter,” says Perez. “I was kind of insulted at the time.”
The actress shrugged off Ross’s overtures and left the club. “For one thing, Spike and I didn’t really hit it off.” A month afterward, when her father fell ill and she decided to drive East by way of Washington, D.C., Perez dug out Lee’s 40 Acres and a Mule business card and gave him a call. “They heard my voice and said, ‘We’ve been dying to hear from you. You’re going to be in Washington? So are we. We can drive you back. We’ll pay for your train ticket. We’ll meet you there.’ Then it began to dawn on me that they were serious about this acting thing.”
It was on the car trip from the capital that Lee began surreptitiously taping Rosie, mentally altering the role of Tina, which originally called for a black actress, to accommodate Perez’s quirky talents and her inexhaustible store of slang. “Spike and Monty would take me to dinner or driving, and they would write down my little sayings and put it in the script,” says Perez. In particular, Lee took to Rosie’s way with an insult, using it to enliven the character of a (mostly) done-wrong lover. “They used it when I said stuff like ‘Your shit is to the curb,’ ” says Rosie, who should have gotten screenwriting credit for dissing.
This is not to imply that Perez plays herself in the film. For all its pouty broadness, Perez’s performance lets you know that Tina’s an invention: What keeps her from being a caricature is Perez’s ease in front of the lens. “I just regressed into childhood and the kids I grew up with to play the character of Tina,” says Perez, whose only pre–Spike Lee acting experience was a role in a seventh-grade classroom commercial. “The whole thing was simple. It wasn’t even like making a movie. My sister Carmen would bring me my rice and beans on the set. And we were shooting so close to my house that I could go and get a suntan on my mother’s roof.”
But it probably won’t be Perez’s acting that gets noticed as much as her freestyle dance solo to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” which opens the film. Or her seduction by Mookie on the hottest day of the year. “In the original script, the scene was much more graphic,” Perez says. “You know — ‘Close-up of ice cube melting in slow motion on her nipple.’ I saw that and got emotional. I told Spike, ‘This is like soft porn.’ He let me have a week to think about it. ‘I need this scene,’ he told me. I said, ‘Your tongue is not touching my body.’ ”
Mookie’s tongue ultimately doesn’t touch Tina’s body; the scene as filmed is a mildly erotic blur of close-up body parts. It wouldn’t make Perez’s mother blush.
“That shot was worth it,” Perez says, “because of the other messages the film is getting out. I’m a minority, and I grew up in one of the major ghettos in Bushwick. So I understand the conflicts between violence and nonviolence that Spike is dealing with. Basically everybody wants love and respect. If you grow up outside a system, you’re always saying, ‘I want to come in… Can I come in, please?’ Finally, nobody’s listening, so you say, ‘Fuck it.’ And you just grab a leg and break in, you know?”
Journey Into Fear
By Samir Hachem
CANNES — As the plane from Nice touched the ground at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle Airport and passengers started to get up, Sally Field — a member of the Cannes Film Festival jury that saw fit not to award Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing a single mention during the previous night’s closing ceremony — leaned over the row of seats in front of her and shook Lee’s hand. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I fought for your movie till the end, and I’d do it again.” Lee was taken aback. “They thought Mookie wasn’t heroic!” he said. “What’s heroic about a fucking pervert who interviews women about their sex lives on TV?” He was referring to sex, lies and videotape, the movie that defeated his in grabbing the Palme d’Or, and to the persistent rumor that claimed jury president Wim Wenders did not find Do the Right Thing deserving because of its lead character’s lack of heroism. “They didn’t like that Mookie threw the garbage through the window,” Field said, shaking her head. “I don’t think they understood it. It’ll do well in the States,” she added, nodding.
Lee arrived in Cannes about a week before his film was scheduled to screen, but he mostly kept out of public view, making his first appearance at a jam-packed independent American filmmakers press conference. French fans hound him for autographs and pictures. On the Croisette, they can’t keep up with him. A diminutive, handsome 32-year-old with a New York Giants cap on his head, an earring in his left ear, and a small goatee that he continually rubs while speaking, Lee has scrawny legs that stick out of bright-colored baggy shorts, and he walks on feet buried inside huge hightops, darting forward quickly with inward-pointed steps. He stops only once or twice, to regard a large billboard collage that contains his image alongside those of Wenders, Woody Allen, Satyajit Ray, and Francis Coppola and to read the title on a movie poster: How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired, which makes him frown.
Back in his hotel, the Carlton (courtesy of American distributor Universal), there are people to cater to his every need. He is punctual and obviously values efficiency. He takes promotion seriously and appears to do it tirelessly. “No one’s going to sell that movie better than I will,” he says. Lee attended the United International Pictures (Do the Right Thing‘s overseas distributor) party given in his honor and schmoozed with the bigwigs. (“UIP said they desperately need an award here,” he mentions. “I don’t think that award will mean much in the States. We want to get the reviews, to start a buzz. We hope to get a good response, not so much a prize. I don’t need a stamp of approval from the festival. I know what I’ve done.”) “You’re the man,” Universal chief Tom Pollock recites from the script. “No, you’re the man!” someone at the bash replies.
Hard as it might have been on him, Lee played by the rules at Cannes. He met the world press. One day, inside a sunny blue room at the Carlton, Lee sat surrounded by six or seven European journalists, who asked him questions like “Why aren’t there many riots in New York or Chicago?” “What is your opinion of films like Cry Freedom?” (“I hate movies like that,” he answered.) “What do you think of Islam as a vehicle for blacks?” “Do you like pizza?” Most of the time, the filmmaker answered the questions politely. “Malcolm’s quote [at the end of the film] is not about violence; it’s about self-defense,” he told one reporter, and, later, “This film is not about a ghetto. It’s about racism, and racism exists everywhere.”
Sometimes a question really riled him up. “What about black racism?” one journalist asked. “Black racism? What’s that?” Lee snapped. “I think we have to distinguish between racism and prejudice. Black people are not racist. If I call you a white motherfucker, that’s not racist; that’s prejudiced name-calling. But when you’re in a position of power to affect my life and economic reality and you abuse that power, that’s racism.”
And some things really irritated him, as when a USA Today reporter stood up during the big press conference to complain that the neighborhood in Do the Right Thing was “too clean, there’s no garbage, no drugs. Where’s the rape, where’s the crack?” “The questions I get asked by journalists a white filmmaker would never get asked,” Lee told me a few mornings later. “I think those insights just show their racist notions of how black people are. We were not going to have garbage, squalor, and broken glass, and women throwing their babies out of windows. Even in the reviews, the word militant keeps coming up. When white people stand up for their rights, they call them freedom fighters, but if a black man gets up and speaks for his rights, he’s militant! I didn’t make this film so white people would feel guilty. We want this film to further discussion. We think it’s a news item. New York City has become polarized along racial lines. Mayor Koch has been very disrespectful to minorities in his policies. It’s pathetic how he’s trying to do a complete turnaround. But it’s too late. He’s not going to get any black votes.”
I told Lee how a French TV journalist, upon meeting him, had described him as “dangerous.” He did not disagree. “I could see if I was in power and a young black man got in the movie business and he could influence thoughts, I think you’d call that dangerous too.” He flashed a smile. “I can see some of them wondering, ‘How did we let this one get through? How did he get through the cracks? We thought we had it all sewn up.’ ”
Following the awards ceremony, Lee and his family went back to their hotel rooms and drank a little champagne. When he got up the next morning, Lee opened his door to find a banner rolled up on the floor beside it. Its writers were sympathetic to his loss. “Sorry Spike, but you’re black,” they wrote. At the airport in Nice, a woman wearing large sunglasses approached him. “Hi, I’m Jane Fonda. I’m a big fan of your work. My children love your movies.” Lee’s face broke into a smile. “I hear the Europeans didn’t get it,” she said. “Too aggressive.”