When Spike Lee Became Scary

Denby's reading of the film was stunning in its inaccuracy. The picture is the very definition of "coherence"; every character, every confrontation, and every line is subtly and deftly building towards the ending conflagration. That ending, far from a "shambles," is the accumulation of the tension that has brewed throughout the film. We all know who he meant by the "some audiences" who might "go wild," and his review indicated a shocking contempt for those audiences, who presumably couldn't comprehend the subtleties of the characterizations or the empathetic leanings that Ebert mentioned. In Denby's view, if they see a riot, they'll go start a riot.

The same notion crept into Joe Klein's editorial in the same issue of New York, in which he surmised as to the film's possible political effect on David Dinkins's mayoral campaign. He wrote: "Dinkins will also have to pay the price for Spike Lee's reckless new movie about a summer race riot in Brooklyn, Do the Right Thing, which opens in June 30 (in not too many theaters near you, one hopes)." Speaking about Klein's article more than 10 years later, Lee was still livid: "What the fuck is that?... What he's saying is, 'Pray to God that this film doesn't open in your theater, (because) niggers are gonna go crazy.'" Lee points out that white audiences aren't presumed to "go crazy" over far more violent action films, "but we're such mental midgets that we can't tell the difference between what's on screen and what's in real life?"

Klein apparently thought so. In his words, the film has only two messages: "the police are your enemy" and "white people are your enemy." And, like many white critics, he seized on Mookie throwing the trash can as the film's turning point, not the death of Radio Raheem. "It is Spike Lee himself—in the role of Sal's deliveryman—who starts the riot," Klein wrote, proceeding to describe that action, with jaw-dropping hyperbole, as "one of the stupider, more self-destructive acts of violence I've ever witnessed." It should be noted, in contemplating that sentence, that (as Lee points out) Klein's editorial never even mentioned the murder of Radio Raheem, to say nothing of describing it in those terms. In Lee's view—which is hard to argue with, reading a piece like Klein's—many white critics are more concerned with the loss of "white-owned property" than with "another nigger gone."

Of course, as we now know, Lee's canny examination of race relations did not incite riots in America's cities after it was released in the summer of 1989. Those riots came three years later, in spring of 1992—in response to a very different film, of four white officers beating the hell out of a black man, and to the acquittal of those officers by a (mostly white) jury. Lee was not a provocateur; he was a prognosticator. But the notion that was crafted early that summer and disseminated on the pages of Newsweek, New York, and Time, of Spike Lee the bomb-throwing race baiter, not only held, but became common wisdom. A notorious 1992 Esquire cover story announced the widespread perception, then and now, in the plainest language imaginable: "Spike Lee Hates Your Cracker Ass."

Time has proven writers like Kroll and Denby wrong not only in their predictions of the film's impact, but of its quality—it appeared on both the AFI's 1997 Top 100 list and its 2007 revision, was deemed "culturally significant" by the Library of Congress, and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. It's hard to know if Denby came around on the film, but his mixed Red Hook review is conspicuously absent of mentions to Do the Right Thing, its obvious point of reference (though he does go out of his way to praise Lee's "courage" and his "magnificent" documentary When the Levees Broke).

Of course, when it comes to his statements to the press, Lee is often his own worst enemy. He has, over the years, said some unfortunate things: that kids should skip school to go see Malcolm X, that he can't make an anti-Semitic film because Jewish people run Hollywood ("and that's a fact"), that it's "not too far-fetched" that the New Orleans levees were deliberately destroyed. His 25th Hour star Edward Norton admits, "I don't think Spike is his own best advocate. I've told him that. 'You should let me talk about your movies, because I talk about them much better than you do.' He comes off as much more angry. People associate Spike sometimes with an angry righteousness and urgency that I don't think his films have. I don't think his films are angry at all. They are very compassionate." But the tone and tenor of his comments are also frequently misinterpreted and misconstrued. Of the Do The Right Thing era, frequent collaborator John Turturo said, "I think a lot of stuff written about Spike's movies in those days was from all these white writers, writing about a culture that they didn't grow up in... I think a lot of journalists are white and they want to put an angle on the story. And it gave them a story to write about."

For journalists covering Red Hook Summer's premiere at January's Sundance Film Festival, the "story to write about" was less the film itself (reviews and reactions were mixed) than the post-screening Q&A after the film's first screening. Audience member Chris Rock's question about Lee making the film outside the studio system prompted a lengthy, expletive-filled rant from a filmmaker clearly stymied by his hiatus from mainstream filmmaking (his last narrative feature, Miracle at St. Anna, came out in 2008).

"We never went to the studios with this film," Lee exclaimed, according to Entertainment Weekly. "I didn't need a motherfucking studio telling me something about Red Hook! They know nothing about black people! Nothing! And they're gonna give me notes about what a 13-year-old black boy and girl do in Red Hook? Fuck no!" Film sites and blogs breathlessly reported that Lee had gone on a tirade against white studio execs, and though he's carefully rephrased his thoughts in subsequent interviews ("I'm not condemning Hollywood," he told The Playlist. "They can do what they want to do"), he still takes pains to discuss his primary preoccupation. "Racism is interwoven with the very fabric of America," Lee told Salon's Andrew O'Hehir earlier this month. "I mean, it permeates everything." That point of view, and his insistence on not letting racial politics leave the discussion in the "post-racial" Obama America, has made Lee a continued target of those who would like to pretend that race relations are all okey-dokey, and that Lee is nothing but a paranoid race-baiter—and to be fair, he doesn't help that perception when he makes as embarrassing and potentially dangerous a mistake as retweeting the incorrect home address of George Zimmerman's parents. But there's also more to Lee than race. "I know I have a reputation," he told Piers Morgan recently. "But I'm always being put—not ganging on it, but I'm always being put in this position that I have to speak on race, and I'm speaking on behalf of 45 million African-Americans."

Journalists put him in that position because they know they'll get a good quote—something lively and provocative—and that his name gets a rise out of readers (particularly those that haven't seen his work). Along the way, several fine films with no racial component whatsoever have been all but ignored: impassioned, well-crafted works like Summer of Sam and 25th Hour. When Lee went on Good Morning America to promote the latter film, he was instead asked about Trent Lott's then-recent comments about Strom Thurmond, and, true to form, gave good quote ("The man is a card-carrying member of the Klan. I know he has that hood in the closet"). When the discussion finally turned to the film he was ostensibly there to promote, Lee joked, "I guess no one is going to the movie now." And too often, in the years since Do the Right Thing, that's exactly what's happened.

Spike Lee doesn't "hate your cracker ass" ("it was not a quote," he said of that Esquire cover recently). His views about race are complicated—and so are those in his films. Hilton Als, in a Village Voice profile on the eve of Malcolm X's release, put forth a theory: "Culture needs the 'bad nigger' or two—Lee, Basquiat, Naomi Campbell, Malcolm X—but eventually punishes them. For being ornery, a loud mouth, a champion of 'kissing my black ass two times,' they receive headlines like 'Do the Wrong Thing,' which speaks scornfully of the Negro who speaks." But the reputation is undeserved, and in large part stems from an important and thoughtful work being misinterpreted more than 20 years ago. In Lee's landmark film, very few people onscreen did, in fact, do the right thing. But, in retrospect, too few did the right thing off-screen either.

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Jason Bailey is the film editor at Flavorwire. He is the author of The Ultimate Woody Allen Film Companion.

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