When Spike Lee Became Scary

The director's movies aren't actually that incendiary, but media's reception of Do the Right Thing 23 years ago created an unfair image that persists today: that of a reckless provocateur.

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Spike Lee doesn't pop up all that often in his films anymore, which is one reason why his brief appearance in his new film Red Hook Summer is so surprising. The other is that he's carrying pizzas and sporting a "Sal's Famous Pizzeria" t-shirt, returning to the role of "Mookie" that he played in Do The Right Thing 23 summers ago. Lee has gone out of his way to insist that Red Hook, in limited release now, is "not a motherfucking sequel to Do the Right Thing," but the pictures are very hard to separate, and not merely because of Mookie's return. Red Hook has polarized audiences and critics in a manner reminiscent of its predecessor (albeit on a smaller scale). "Lee's latest rambles through almost two hours of unfocused drama, burdened with endless didactic editorializing, before lurching out of nowhere into ugly revelations and violence," wrote The Hollywood Reporter, a quote which could well have been pulled from a negative review of Do the Right Thing.

Do the Right Thing marked the beginning of Lee's ongoing tenure as a controversial public figure. Before it, Lee was often seen (to his displeasure) as a kind of "black Woody Allen": a New York-based independent filmmaker and sports fan, small in stature, who appeared in his own films. The first, She's Gotta Have It, was an examination and subversion of gender roles. The second, School Daze, concerned skin-tone prejudice—but solely among the black community. Lee was far from a rabble-rouser. Quite the contrary; had even cultivated a consumer-friendly public image via his "Mars Blackmon" Air Jordan ads. But with Do The Right Thing, and after it, Lee positioned himself as one of Hollywood's most outspoken and polarizing opinionators on the issue of race relations, with subsequent interviews and public feuds (with Clint Eastwood, Tyler Perry, Charlton Heston, and others) cultivating a popular image of him having no love lost for white folks. It's an image that persists today. Right-wing blogs like Human Rights and Newsbusters dub him, respectively, a "Hollywood hatemonger" and a "notorious racial grievancemonger." Town Hall granted that "he's finally easing up on crying 'racist,'" but writer Katie Hicks made sure to add, parenthetically, "Not about you, though. You're still racist." (A look at the comment sections for those posts indicates her facetiousness may be misplaced.)

A close look at Lee's work, though, paints a more complicated picture. Specifically Do the Right Thing, which Roger Ebert wrote "comes closer to reflecting the current state of race relations in America than any other movie of our time," reveals an artist whose understanding of race is nuanced, thoughtful, and even-handed. Why has the white-hating image persisted, in spite of the work? While Lee's bombastic public persona doesn't help things, I'd argue the largest share of the blame lies with the (frequently white) media that played a role in the creation of that persona.

Do the Right Thing is one of the few truly great films of the 1980s: an intelligent, matter-of-fact examination of race in America and also a vibrant, funny slice of New York life. It all takes place (except for a brief but powerful epilogue) over the course of the hottest day of the summer, on one block in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. The center of the block's activities (and the film's) is Sal's Famous Pizzeria, owned and operated by Italian-American proprietor Sal (Danny Aiello), with the help of his sons Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson). Deliveries are made by Mookie (Lee), who serves as the pizzeria's ambassador, bringing news in and taking pizzas out to their primarily African-American clientele.

Lee's script marshals a rich cast of supporting characters, chief among them Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), who paces the streets, blaring Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" on a never-ending loop at full volume, and Buggin' Out (Giancarlo Esposito), the would-be revolutionary who sits down that afternoon to eat his slice and suddenly notices that the "Wall of Fame" in Sal's Pizzeria is inhabited only by Italian-Americans (Sinatra, DiMaggio, DeNiro, Pacino). He asks why "there aren't any brothers on the wall." Sal replies, not unreasonably, that it's his place, and when Buggin' Out gets his own place, he can put whoever he wants on his wall. Buggin' Out retorts, also sensibly, that there aren't a lot of Italian-Americans buying pizza in Sal's joint, so maybe the wall of fame should include some black folks. ("Two valid points," Lee maintains, on a recent audio commentary.) And with that conversation, and the minor confrontation that follows, a slow fuse is lit that, by the end of the day, will explode in violence.

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The way that Lee handles that scene shows the even-handedness of his writing and directing. Neither Sal nor Buggin' Out are obviously right or obviously wrong, and Lee refuses to do his audience's thinking for them. Much is made in the film's DVD supplemental materials of Lee and Aiello's disagreement over a fundamental fact about the character of Sal: whether or not he is a racist. Lee thinks yes, Aiello thinks no, but that's the beauty of the picture—it allows room for us to go either way, and that disagreement may, in part, be one of the reasons Sal is such a fascinating, complex character.

But these characters aren't just about prejudices. What is most remarkable about Do the Right Thing is how finely shaded each and every important character is, and how all of those shadings come into play by the time the film reaches its breathless conclusion. At the end of the day, Buggin' Out returns to Sal's Pizzeria with Radio Raheem and Smiley in tow, the boom box at full blast, the sounds of "Fight the Power" filling the tiny restaurant. Buggin' Out and Raheem want "brothers on the wall," and Sal wants them to "turn that shit down." Tempers flare and harsh words are exchanged; Sal loses his cool, pulls out his Louisville Slugger, screams epithets at them, and smashes the boom box to smithereens. A full-scale brawl breaks out in the pizzeria, which spills out onto the street. Police are called—and, of course, the NYPD goes right for the two young black men.

Radio Raheem is subjected to what Lee calls the "Michael Stewart choke hold"—alluding to the 1983 death of graffiti artist Stewart while in police custody. Raheem falls to the Bed-Stuy pavement, dead; he's tossed into a police cruiser, as is Buggin' Out. The police flee the scene, leaving the angry crowd fuming at Sal and his sons. As tensions come to a boil, Mookie picks up a garbage can and heaves it through the plate glass window of Sal's Famous Pizzeria. The angry mob descends on the restaurant, smashing glass, tearing the joint to pieces, and setting it afire. Sal and his sons watch, stunned (Sal: "That's my fuckin' place." Pino: "Fuckin' niggers"). Police return, along with fire trucks. The crowd, chanting "Coward Beach" (another historical allusion, to a 1986 race clash in Howard Beach, Queens that left one young black man dead and two more injured) won't disperse, in spite of police warnings. So the fire department turns the hoses on the black residents, Lee deliberately echoing the most iconic imagery of the civil rights movement.

The question a lot of people ask about the film, to this very day, is in regards to the climax: "Did Mookie do the right thing?" Then and now, it's a silly question—of course he didn't. But why is he singled out? (Probably because he incites the destruction of white-owned property, but that's another discussion.) In the broad scope of the film, nobody does the right thing: not Mookie, not Sal, not Buggin' Out, and certainly not the NYPD. In the blistering heat of that Brooklyn sun, people who are basically good do the wrong things at the wrong moment—and we believe all of it, that all of them would act that way right then, because they seem real people, and their tenuous character flaws have been so subtly but effectively teed up. "I believe that any good-hearted person, white or black, will come out of this movie with sympathy for all of the characters," Ebert wrote, when the film was released. "Lee does not ask us to forgive them, or even to understand everything they do, but he wants us to identify with their fears and frustrations. Do The Right Thing doesn't ask its audiences to choose sides; it is scrupulously fair to both sides, in a story where it is our society itself that is not fair."

Many critics disagreed. After the film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, Lee recalls, "there was this thought that when this film comes out in the summer of 1989, black people are gonna run amuck." In understanding the impact of those original reviews, it's important to remember that this was 1989: a pre-Internet, pre-Ain't It Cool News, pre-Twitter age wherein the initial reports and editorials set the tone and defined the conversation (perhaps disproportionately) that would surround the film throughout those summer months. And that's why it was so provocative for Newsweek's Jack Kroll to ask "in this long hot summer, how will young urban audiences—black and white—react to the film's climactic explosion of interracial violence? ... People are going to argue about this film for a long time. That's fine, as long as things stay on the arguing level. But this movie is dynamite under every seat."

David Denby, currently of The New Yorker, then writing for New York, also predicted a dire outcome. "Do the Right Thing is going to create an uproar," Denby wrote, "in part because [Lee]'s so thoroughly mixed up about what he's saying." He accused Lee of creating "the dramatic structure that primes black people to cheer the explosion as an act of revenge," and concluded, "If an artist has made his choices and settled on a coherent point of view, he shouldn't be held responsible, I believe, if parts of his audience misunderstand him. He should be free to be 'dangerous.' But Lee hasn't worked coherently. The end of this movie a shambles, and if some audiences go wild, he's partly responsible."

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.