“fight the power” – public enemy (1989)


Growing up, I was enamored by film.  So much so that I wanted to be a filmmaker.  I was in high school when I made that decision for myself because, as we all know, what you decide for yourself as a teenager stays with you forever and you can’t change or else you’ll live the rest of your days as a miserable failure.  But, I digress.

As a plucky teenager in high school, I figured that the first step to becoming a legitimate filmmaker was to study the classics.  To see how people did things before, find aesthetics that appealed to me, and replicate them while making some mistakes that would lead to artistic, personal, and professional innovation.  In other words, I spent a lot of time in my room watching movies and not playing outside.

I tried to watch as many classics as I could growing up.  Any movie that appeared on any curated “best of” list was fair game as I critiques, analyzed, and studied each film to any degree a kid can intellectually dissect cinema.  I was paying attention to framing, composition, blocking, tracking, and any other film trick that was used to project a certain idea.  It was a very academic way to approach a movie and my introduction to film theory.

In college, I watched a lot of films as well.  Before college, I watched movies and listened to talking heads on television tell me why a particular movie was so important.  In college, I watched movies and listened to talking heads at the front of the class tell why a particular movie was so important.  This was the next logical step in my education.  I had the drive and motivation to learn, but now had more tools in my repertoire to really get at the heart of the art form.  Combine that with me studying the technical side in my video production classes and you had all the makings of the next cinematic auteur.

However, things change.  You learn new things, reevaluate your priorities based on what is happening around you, and then explore new facets of yourself you weren’t aware of before.  After college, I lost a lot of interest in studying cinema or even working in film.  I had just worked on a movie in Alaska and I was left wondering if there was more.  I left the experience a little disillusioned which was an extension of inklings of thought I had while pursuing an internship at a major media conglomerate.  I had seen how the industry cultivates a toxic level of egotism and selfishness that just didn’t sit right with me.

My outlook on film changed.  Instead, I applied my video production background in different areas including non-profits where I worked on education initiatives.  I really enjoyed the proactive and socially engaging ways that video could be used to reach people and communicate certain ideas that motivate them.  Plus, I realized that traditional video production was boring.  This is the 21st century goddammit.  Terrestrial media is dying and I can access everything I need on my little pocket oracle.  That attitude my upset purists who enjoy big theaters, but it is truth.  Plus, there is a time and place.  As much as I love sitting in a dark theater watching images on a big screen, video and film have more power than that and how we engage with it is changing.

This also affected my viewing habits.  I stopped watching television and film as much as I used to.  There were other interests and hobbies I pursued.  If I watched anything at all, it was something I hadn’t seen before or was just really goofy entertainment like a John Waters movie.  The classics were no longer a part of my life.  I had seen, reviewed, and analyzed them all. What could I gain from going through them again?

That all changed recently.  After listening to a variety of different Fresh Air episodes and books on film, I started to get the itch to revisit all my beloved classic cinema that I hadn’t seen in well over a decade.  It started with The Godfather when I picked up a copy from the library after hearing Coppola talk to Terry Gross about a new book containing the diary he kept while making that film.  Rewatching it was a great experience.  I remember it was a great film and that it was important in popular culture.  It is so ingrained in our society that whenever that title is mentioned, you know it is considered the pinnacle of great American cinema.  However, watching it over a decade later, I picked up a lot more than when I last saw it in high school.  As an adult pushing 30, I understood a deeper level of complexity and subtlety that I never did before.  I gravitated to different things as an adult.  It was like watching the film for the first time.

That experience led me to think about what I am missing when it comes to all my other favorite classics.  Can I go back and gain a fresh outlook on something I watched so many times already?  I had to find out, so I went to the library and stocked up on a dozen or so classic films that I cherished and challenged me as an adolescence.  Title likes All About Eve, It Happened One Night, 12 Angry Men, and others were calling to me.  So, I’ve begun a journey of rediscovery and becoming reacquainted with the art that inspired me.

One of the films I recently rewatched was Spike Lee’s 1989 masterpiece Do the Right Thing which I hadn’t seen since my senior year of high school.  Lee plays the lead role, Mookie, in the film who is employed to deliver pizza for a local pizzeria in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn run by an Italian-American named Sal and his two sons.  The film takes places over the course of one day and it is one of the hottest days of the year.  As Mookie delivers pizzas to various members of the community, we get little glimpses into the lives and struggles of Mookie’s neighbors.  Da Mayor, a local old drunk played by Ossie Davis, attempts to sweet talk Mother Sister, a kind of matriarch of the neighborhood portrayed by Ossie’s wife Ruby Dee.  A group of three black men, including a Caribbean immigrant, sit on the sidewalk and complain all day about the Korean shop owners being so successful after just coming off the boat.  Radio Raheem strolls through the area blasting his boom box while other people yell at him to turn it down.  Mookie’s girlfriend, played by Rosie Perez, raises their kid and argue about how Mookie is away for so long.  And Buggin’ Out, Breaking Bad’s Giancarlo Esposito, is leading his own version of a revolutionary civil right movement.  Amidst all these interconnecting stories, tensions between races and classes rise along with the mercury until everything break loose.

While Mookie serves as the voice of reason in the film, it is Buggin’ Out who drives the narrative.  Sal’s pizzeria contains a “Wall of Fame” of famous Italian-Americans which serves as a point of cultural and ethnic pride for the owner.  Since the neighborhood is predominantly black, Buggin’ Out demands that Sal puts pictures of “brothers” on the wall.  Sal refuses because it is his place and Buggin’ Out rallies people to boycott Sal’s pizzeria.  During the climax of the film, Buggin’ Out and Radio Raheem storm the restaurant.  Radio Raheem’s boom box gets broken for playing his music too loud and a huge fight breaks out.  The police soon arrive but things continue to get out of hand.  The pizzeria is burned down and Radio Raheem is choked to death by police.

Upon rewatching this film after a decade, it had dawned on me how this movie from 1989 still manages to be one of the most relevant films out there today.  Do the Right Thing is a complex analysis on race relations between multiple races and the systemic oppression that all face by people in power.  In the last few years, there has been a rise in the reporting of the deaths of unarmed black men by the hands of police; a theme explored in such a real way nearly 30 years ago by Lee.  There are even moments that deal with race issues that are not even as extreme as the death of Radio Raheem.  When Buggin’ Out’s Air Jordans get scuffed by a white resident’s bike, Buggin’ Out is shocked and offended that this white man was born and raised in the same neighborhood and blames gentrification for the decline of his role in the social order of the neighborhood.  His shoes, a point of pride for him, represented his self-worth and were disrespected by this figure he identified as an outsider.  As neighborhoods in cities continue to raise rents and seen an increase in the number of white, middle-class residents, people of color are no longer in control of their own neighborhood until they are eventually priced Out.  Again, another issue that is urgent today that was explored so elegantly nearly 30 years prior.

Do the Right Thing also contains one of the most engaging and shocking scenes involving racial issues I’ve ever seen on film.  Mookie tries to connect with one of Sal’s sons, played by John Turturro, and find out why he has issues with black people.  Mookie asks him who is favorite basketball players is, who his favorite rock star is, and so on.  And Turturro keeps responding with historical or popular black figures and then suggests that he can like them because they are black, but not really black.  That they are beyond black in a way to suggest that they are closer to white and, therefore, more respectable.  This dialog between the two characters then jumps to a montage of different characters saying racial epithets and slurs straight to the camera as it tracks swiftly to a close-up.  Mookie looks straight into the lens and launches into a tirade about Italians, Turturro insults black people, a Puerto Rican neighbor spews hate speech about Koreans, a white police office speaks on Latino stereotypes, and a Korean man goes on an Anti-Semitic rant.  This montage ends with Samuel L. Jackson, playing the DJ of a local radio station, yelling that we all need to chill.   This airing of grievances from a variety of different ethnic groups about other ethnic groups makes such an incredible statement about race relations and the environmental and social factors that influence animosity.

With Black Lives Matter, the racist ramblings of our president, and other problems facing people of color that continue to be ignored, Do the Right Thing continues to be the most relevant film out there.  The only way it could be any more relevant to current times is if it included Muslim characters.  It handles the topic and presents ideas in such a subtle and humanistic way.  Even during the finale when the raging mob targets the Korean shop owner, the Korean man is able to diffuse the situation by telling them the black crowd that they are the same.  He doesn’t mean it literally that his skin tone is the same as theirs, but he means it from the perspective that they face the same issues as non-white Americans. Incredibly powerful, the film is certainly one of the most important films out there.

Strewn throughout the film and featured so prominently as to be a character itself, Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” plays throughout the film.  The song famously opens the film as the credits play and Rosie Perez dances against a stage backdrop of colorful New York brownstones.  It is the song that Radio Raheem plays on his boom box and the track that sparks the fight in the pizzeria.  It is an incredibly thunderous song with a lot of anger and poetic rhythm.  In the song, Chuck D is urging listeners to fight the powers that be.  Confrontational and revolutionary, “Fight the Power” is anthemic and a call to action to start a revolution and engage in intelligent activism.  Famously, Chuck D states that Elvis Presley doesn’t mean shit to him signaling the toppling of a white music legend who stole from black artists only to make room for the next wave of music; music of revolution by black artists for black artists.

If you haven’t seen Do the Right Thing¸ take some time to do so.  It is a cultural tour de force with a message that still permeates our culture nearly 30 years later.  You’ll engage, learn, and fight the powers that be once you see it.

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