PRINT October 1989


Doing the Right Thing

Am I advocating violence? No, but goddamn, the days of twenty-five million Blacks being silent while our fellow brothers and sisters are exploited, oppressed, and murdered, have to come to an end. Racial persecution, nat only in the United States, but all over the world, is not gonna go away; it seems it’s getting worse (four years of Bush won’t help). And if Crazy Eddie Koch gets reelected for a fourth term as mayor of New York, what you see in Do the Right Thing will be light stuff. Yep, we have a choice, Malcolm or King. I know who I’m down with.

—Spike Lee (with Lisa Jones), Do the Right Thing: A Spike Lee Joint, Fireside Books: Simon & Schuster, 1989

IN THESE DOG DAYS of right-wing suppression of the arts in Congress and reactionary intolerance on the Supreme Court, it seems wrong, in good conscience, to write about the problem of “women” in Spike Lee’s new film Do the Right Thing. Rather, the only valid progressive response would appear to be to celebrate Lee’s courage in making a film about “racism” that, unlike Betrayed and Mississippi Burning and Places in the Heart, is really about black people, and that doesn’t end with whites and blacks linking arms to sing “We Shall Overcome” as though Martin Luther King, Jr., had never been shot.

First, because we are surely headed for race riots much worse than the one depicted in the film if there aren’t some drastic changes made in our present economic and political policies, in our representations of “race,” and in our individual attitudes about race. Second, because the film’s story about the hottest day of the summer on a block in the heart of New York’s Bed-Stuy focuses upon the hopelessness and despair of a poor, disenfranchised urban black male population which is increasingly regarded as the “abject” not only by the white status quo but also by the black middle class. Third, because the film was made by a young black independent filmmaker whose mission is to demystify and reclaim the process of filmmaking for blacks, in particular those who are genuinely concerned about exploring its avant-garde political and esthetic potential. And fourth, because no one in her right mind would want to be associated with the negative criticism that has been made of the film by people like Joe Klein at New York magazine, who asks why the police aren’t more sympathetically portrayed, as if every other film or TV show weren’t about how wonderful white cops are, or by the Seven Days writer who said the film might cause riots. Rather I suspect this film may have acted as a symbolic substitute for a riot this summer.

In Do the Right Thing, it would be a mistake to focus on the specific details of female characterization. For whatever it’s worth, Mother Sister (Ruby Dee), the neighborhood conscience and busybody; Tina (Rosie Perez), a Puerto Rican/black unmarried mother of Mookie’s child; and Jade (Joie Lee), Mookie’s sister, present much more “positive images” than Mookie (Spike Lee), a money-hungry young pizza deliverer for Sol’s Famous; Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), an elderly drunk who likes to give advice and arbitrate disputes; Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), who carries a big ghetto blaster turned up to maximum volume; Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith), who is mentally retarded and sells copies of the only photograph of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., together; and Buggin Out (Gioncorlo Esposito), a contentious protonationalist whose most prized possessions are his Air Jordon sneakers. Lee is not offering these characters as role models nor does he portray them in depth. Like the characterizations of the males, the female characters are funny reversals of black stereotypes, foils for such white characters as Sal (Donny Aiello) and his sons Vito (Richard Edson) and Pino (John Turturro), Italians who own and run the neighborhood pizzeria, or the Korean couple (Steve Park and Ginny Yang) who run the grocery store across the street. Insignificant in themselves, each is completely instrumental to the larger purpose of the film, which is to set up a scenario in which the worst aspects of urban apartheid become explosive and intolerable. But one image of a female stands out in this arrangement because it so clearly transgresses the skeletal linear narrative that propels this film forward.

The film’s opening sequence hits us with the jarring visualization of Tina in boxer shorts b-boy dancing to Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power,” her large “Negroid” lips emphasized in red lipstick as though she were a latter-day Josephine Baker, a younger Grace Jones. Without a glimmer of narrative explanation, we accept with perverse fascination this woman of color gyrating and grimacing in a series of titillating moves coded as androgynous resistance but without the power of an explicit feminist political critique. The reification here reminds one of an MTV video. That this cinematic event is not meaningful but mythic and signals a gap in the text that will follow is confirmed when Tina is confined to a two-dimensional role in which she can only bitch mindlessly at Mookie about his failure to live up to his “responsibilities” as father and lover.

In fact, everybody in this film bitches all the time. Indeed, the most surprising and effective thing about the movie is in its use of “negative images.” But the shortcoming of the film remains that “racism” is artificially purified of sexual difference, except in that brief moment when Mookie insists that his sister Jade should not return to the pizzeria where he works because Sal is coming on to her. It is almost as if Lee/Mookie were warning Jade (played by Lee’s sister in real life), as a representative of black women in general, to stay out of the focus of his film.

Despite my conviction that films about racism, like this one, are infinitely preferable to all the films that simply pretend that nonwhite people don’t exist, I am forced to raise an objection. I believe that they entirely miss their mark, that they reinscribe the very thing they aim to dislocate, when they trivialize or deny the importance of women’s oppression in general, and the problems of black women in particular. Moreover, to do so makes no sense in terms of the material reality of representations of “race” in American culture, which has always been profoundly entangled with issues of gender, sexuality, and the female body.

Although we are geared to focus on the careers of great men, in fact the history of black liberation struggles invoked by the photograph of King and Malcolm X together is unimaginable without the input of women. The present poverty and deprivation of the black community that the setting of the film in Bed-Stuy invokes is impossible to accurately conceptualize without thinking about women, as well as men, and their relationship to such issues as homelessness, teenage pregnancy, abortion, AIDS, drugs, illiteracy, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, unemployment, poverty, and police brutality. Yet the very dilemma that Mookie and his cohorts Radio Raheem, Smiley, and Buggin Out face and fail to surmount—how do blacks respond to racism—seems forged in a longstanding disinclination within black circles to consider women as subjects and objects of analysis in black formulations of social policy and political philosophy.

In the film, Buggin Out becomes infuriated to discover that Sal will not consider adding a photograph of a famous black person to his Wall of Fame, which features photographs of famous (white) Italian-Americans like Frank Sinatra, AI Pacino, and Robert De Niro. Near the end of the film, Radio Raheem and Smiley unite with Buggin Out to force the issue. The police inadvertently kill Radio Raheem in an attempt to subdue and arrest him. The racial violence of Howard Beach and the police brutality against such celebrated victims as Eleanor Bumpurs and Michael Stewart are explicitly invoked as a riot begins.

As Harold Cruse so provocatively suggested in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, 1967, black political philosophy has always seesawed between an integrationist/assimilationist agenda and a cultural nationalist agenda. Each approach has had its own insurmountable difficulties. Integrationism always ends up being an embarrassment to its black supporters because of the almost inevitable racism and bad faith of its white supporters; they are willing to “integrate” with a small portion of upper-class blacks only if the masses of poor blacks are willing to remain invisible and powerless. Cultural nationalism, on the other hand, has conventionally taken refuge in a fantasy of economic and political autonomy that far too often compounds its sins by falling into precisely the trap of bigotry and racism (against gays, women, Jews, "honkies,’’ and others) it was designed to escape. The problem with this is not just the danger this poses to whites, which has so far been mostly insignificant, but also the danger it poses to the black community internally in the form of intraracial violence, brutality, and self-hatred.

By ending with a quote in support of nonviolent resistance from Martin Luther King, Jr., who is the hero of the integrationist/assimilationist position, and a quote in support of self-defense from Malcolm X, who is the hero of the cultural nationalist position, Lee squarely places his film in the vanguard of contemporary experiments to reinterpret the two approaches. But, beneath the surface, the entire debate spells “history” as great men have made and written it, not as so many women and the poor have lived it. If the life-giving processes of the female body and the “family” are not figured into the calculation, what remains is the lifeless, inhuman abstraction of war games.

Michele Wallace is a cultural critic and writer. A collection of her essays is forthcoming from Verso.