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Doin' It Right

Doin' It Right

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Published by Jake Moore
by jake moore. on spike lee's 'do the right thing,' originally published in mercer street 2010
by jake moore. on spike lee's 'do the right thing,' originally published in mercer street 2010

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Published by: Jake Moore on Apr 29, 2012
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04/29/2012

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Doin’ It Right
JAKE MOORE
 I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to express the views of black people who oth-erwise don’t have access to power and the media. I have to take advantage of that while I’m still bankable.
—Spike Lee, Director
 My job is to write shocking lyrics that will wake people up.
—Chuck D., Founder, Public Enemy 
T
here’s a picture of Chuck D. taken in 1988, a year before he becamemedia target number one, the poster boy for violence and crime. He standsapart, dressed in a plain sweatshirt and baseball cap, both black. He lowers hiseyes. Not deferentially, but as if he were concealing a weapon. The simplici-ty of his appearance is arresting. He doesn’t flaunt twenty gold chains or themassive clock of his compatriot, Flava Flav. This is a guy who’s aware of thepower of his words. He knows that he possesses a dangerously influentialthing. His taut, stern mouth seems clenched, holding back torrents of incen-diary militant speech (Friedman).Chuck D. and Public Enemy released “Fight the Power” in 1989. Whilethe song was hardly rap’s first assault on the establishment, it was a particu-larly explosive one. After witnessing their track get trashed by the musicindustry machinery, the group relocated their countercultural manifesto tothe streets. Bootlegged live recordings of the track surfaced in metropolitanareas, and Public Enemy performed nearly nonstop throughout the boroughsof New York City to relay their militant message. Although the track was keptoff the air because of its foul language and inflammatory political themes,record sales shot through the roof. “Fight the Power” became an anthem of urban black discontent, for better or worse. Quick to find a scapegoat for arecent rash of urban violence, cultural critics pointed fingers at Public
MERCER STREET - 189
 
Enemy, accusing Chuck D. and Co. of planting the seed of revolt in black  youth. But was life imitating art, or was it the other way around? How muchof the revolution described in the track had already been lurking in neighbor-hoods across the country?Hot off the release of 
Do the Right Thing 
, Spike Lee’s third feature film,Lee faced a similar assault from critics. A gang of dissenters denounced thefilm as dangerously provocative.
 New York Magazine
’s David Denby bluntly declared that the movie was “a call to violence” (qtd. in Hill 78). Reviewer Murray Kempton went further, condemning Lees representation of blacks asexecrable, and even insinuating that the filmmaker had a “distaste” for hisown race, providing a racist template for urban discontent (106). Criticsthought Lee was playing with fire by introducing a work that could straddlethe art house and the inner-city theater—provoking both nods of admirationand, perhaps, full-blown race riots.Lee’s use of “Fight the Power” as a musical leitmotif is strikingly appro-priate. Thematically and contextually, the two works are strongly linked. Bothtexts question the so-called power behind the throne—not the folks in the White House, but those who shape cultural meaning and discourse. In
Do the Right Thing 
, though, Lee seems to be concerned with a more nuanced prob-lem than Chuck D., who performs a straight-up evisceration of the whitemedia establishment. Lee focuses on the victims as well as the perpetrators,examining those who lack the privilege of sanctioned speech, the voices of thestreets that are silenced and marginalized. While Chuck D. yells his beliefsthrough a bullhorn, Lee manages to find a niche of nuance in a world of noise.
Do the Right Thing 
is a film preoccupied with noise. The public spaces of Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, that Lee hones in on are filled with conflicting sourcesof dissonant sound. Oldsters yak, children yell, and sirens wail while musicbounces off dilapidated brownstones. Here, shouting is necessary to break through the hubbub. And indeed, the closest thing to meaningful cultural dis-course in Bed-Stuy is heard in the raised voices of incensed and unyieldingethnic opponents. We hear the angry words of a black wino berating a Koreangrocer. This is America, he says; it “ain’t Korea, China, or wherever you comefrom.” Screeching and exhausted, a teenage Latina mother chastises the black father of her child for not sticking around to raise him. Even the loud laugh-ter of kids playing next to a wrenched-open fire hydrant yields to the frustrat-ed complaints of a rich white passerby. Lee is painstakingly thorough in hisexamination of anger and expression in the public sphere. His evaluation ispessimistic but fair, unflinching, aiming to expose loud and painful truths
190- MERCER STREET
 
about racial conflict that punish our eyes and ears unrelentingly. No matterhow loud the streets get, however, extreme marginalization and ostracismprevent anyone from being heard in a larger sense. It seems that the critics were misguided in their criticisms of Lee.
Do the Right Thing 
is not danger-ous because of the riots it might provoke, but because of the lingering senseof futility that permeates the film’s violent closing scene. Some viewed Lee as just another Chuck D. figure, offering a single, violent solution. Instead, Leepicks up where Chuck D. leaves off, exploring a silenced community tornapart by untamable acts of provocation.Lee’s power comes from his unique position in the film world. Both the Manhattan intelligentsia and the inhabitants of Bed-Stuy (where Lee grewup) eagerly listen to what he has to say, accepting him as a member of theircultural arenas. The character Lee portrays in the film, Mookie, is similarly divided. Caught between clashing cultures, Mookie mediates from within. The first time we see Mookie hit his block in Bed-Stuy, we can tell he’s a well-connected guy. It’s a scorching hot day, but the residents lazily stretched outon their front stoops perk up as he passes by. He nods to acknowledge theircongenial cries of “Moo-kie!” He’s on his way to work at Sal’s FamousPizzeria, the local pizza joint run by Sal and his sons, Pino and Vito. They’rethe last remnants of the old Italian Bed-Stuy, before it became a black neigh-borhood. Mook greets them like friends, high-fiving Pino and nodding to Sal.He gingerly navigates the ethnic landscape, toeing the borderline of conflict with a mixture of restraint, diplomacy, and good-natured ball-breaking. Though Mookie is in the middle, life in Bed-Stuy is defined by extremes.Other middle-grounders disappear into the crowded brownstones, apparent-ly too busy or too apathetic to participate in the conflicts of the public sphere.Lee purposefully neglects these people, focusing instead on the polarizedmembers of rival sects. To an extent, this decision gives the film a cartoonishfeel, with larger-than-life characters screaming at us and each other. Lee usesa wide-angle lens to crowd their faces into the frame, leaving them distortedand bulging out impertinently. Radio Raheem glares at Sal as he demandssome extra cheese “on this motherfucker.” A youth clutches an empty coffeecan, waiting for the right moment to gleefully redirect the stream of a firehydrant to soak giggling youngsters and stodgy passersby. We can’t help butcare about these colorful personalities, when they’re rational and kind as wellas utterly inflamed. Ironically, this cartoony technique allows Lee to create anappropriately nuanced portrayal of the neighborhood’s racial, generational,and geographic conflicts.
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