Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Do The Right Thing: Race Relations Twenty Years Later

"Those that will tell don't know, and those that know don't tell."

This week marks the twentieth anniversary of the release of director Spike Lee's defining movie, "Do The Right Thing." Released on June 30, 1989, the movie boasted a cast of very talented thespians, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Samuel L. Jackson, Rosie Perez, Martin Lawrence, Danny Aiello, John Turturro, Bill Nunn, Spike Lee amongst others. The movie was received critically and scored two Oscar nominations in the categories for best actor and best screenplay. When the movie was released, there was concern over its contents being too incendiary and capable of inciting violence. However, the fears of violence were not realized and the movie was important then and still is relevant in initiating dialogue between different racial groups.

Set in the multiethnic Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in New York, the events in the movie take place on the hottest day of the summer. For a younger audience not familiar with the movie, the key events in the movie take place in a single day just like in the Friday trilogy. The movie examines racial tensions between Sal, the owner of an Italian pizzeria, his employee Mookie, Korean immigrants who own a fruit stand, Puerto Ricans, Caribbean immigrants, and other African-Americans in the neighborhood.

The plot of the movie revolves around Sal and his sons and their relationship with their predominantly black clientele. Tensions in the movie rise when an African-American customer Buggin Out demands that Sal add pictures of African-American heroes to his wall of fame that up till that point only had pictures of renowned Italian Americans. Sal refuses to comply and charges Buggin Out to leave his store and not return. In another scene, Sal gets into an altercation with another young man, Radio Raheem, who walks around with a radio that constantly plays the Public Enemy anthem, "Fight the Power." In order to receive service Sal orders the young man to turn off his radio. Feeling scorned both Radio Raheem and Buggin Out return to the pizzeria after hours with the intent of having a show down with Sal. A fight breaks out between Sal and Raheem, the police gets called in and asphyxiate Raheem in attempt to quell the fight.

The tensions in the movie are so important in understanding race relations and perceptions shared by certain ethnic groups about other cultures. In one scene, Mookie who works as a delivery boy for Sal gets into an argument with Sal's son, Pino. Pino is extremely racists, however he lists Magic Johnson, Eddie Murphy and Prince as his favorite athlete and entertainers. When he is made to realize that his roll call included only African-Americans, he makes the argument that these individuals are not African-American. Or even if they are, they were a different kind of African-American. They weren't like the thugs he had to deal with in his neighborhood. It's llike most Caucasians and other non-blacks today who revere Oprah but will not have a conversation with their African-American neighbors. For most Caucasians, because Oprah is rich and influential, she is seen as not black, less black, more than black, or not as black as perhaps the young kid who sags his pants on his knees. In order words, her social status, affects her race, making her "white" since of course someone as successful could certainly not be black because being black is often associated with malign forces.

The movie also helps to re-examine some of the unrealistic expectations certain cultural groups hold other groups to. When Buggin Out, challenges Sal over the wall of fame, did it not ever occur to him to open up his own establishment if he wanted to see African-American revolutionaries honored? There is hardly an African-American hairdresser who will put up a picture of Marilyn Munroe on the wall of her salon. Whatever happened to Madame C.J. Walker? Too often African-Americans pull the race card and engage in unforgiving self pity. However, this behavior is often not addressed for fear of being labelled a bigot. Using slavery as a crutch, there is a reluctance to contribute actively to society and instead a prevalence of social ills. Examine most major inner cities in the United States and the rise in gang violence, teenage pregnancies, and high school drop-out rates are shocking. Nonetheless, there is the ever increasing demand in most African-American communities that the government meet certain needs because of a feeling of entitlement.

Common themes explored in the movie that still remain relevant today are the power of a mob to incite a fight. In the scene where a Caucasian bicyclist steps on Buggin Out's shoes, he gives in to pressure from the crowd and challenges the man for the infraction. It's not quite clear if the action was intentional or an innocent accident. Police brutality especially towards African-Americans is also examined. Interestingly, Spike Lee weaves two disparate reactions of the police into the movie. In one scene where a man makes a complaint about his car geting soaked, the police do not press charges. It should be noted that the police could have decided to arrest everyone on the scene if not for getting the car wet, then for tampering with a fire hydrant. But in the final scene, the police kill Radio Raheem in an attempt to break up his fight with Sal. Police brutality still has not ended and New York's finest still haven't paid the full costs for the deaths of Ahmadu Diallo or Sean Bell.

In the end, the movie raises the age old question of the place of violence in race relations. When is violence necessary and do some people ever have it coming? Over the past weekend celebrity blogger Perez Hilton was assaulted by the manager of the group Black-Eyed Peas. Many argued that Hilton deserved the beating because he constantly antagonized celebrities on his ride to fame. In the same vein it can be argued that Radio Raheem had it coming. If he respected Sal and turned his radio off he would not have suffered Sal's wrath. But is violence ever the solution? As the anniversary of this ground breaking movie is celebrated it is imperative that Americans once again examine race-relations with meaningful dialogue.

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