Spike Lee Did the Wrong Thing

Spike Lee graced my city with his presence nearly a week ago, and I’m still in disbelief of the lecture that he gave that evening to at least a thousand fresh faced college students, mixed in both gender and race.

As an aspiring filmmaker and a self-proclaimed critic of all things artistic, I was obviously excited to hear his words of wisdom. However, at the end of the evening, he left me uninspired, unmotivated and disenchanted.

In an effervescent entrance, wearing his usual Air Jordan hi-tops, Spike opened with incendiary prodding at local sports teams who he did and didn’t like. After he’d wasted that precious speaking time he later he moved into how Katrina victims have long since been forgotten, and that just because everyone thinks that Mardi Gras happened this year and the Saints won, that New Orleans is all better and everyone is back at home again living their perfect life. On this aspect I agreed with Spike, however disappointed that he could so carelessly jump from antagonization to insinuation, that everyone in his audience had similarly forgotten the atrocity that was Katrina. He is wrong to assume such things.

Finally, he began the diatribe that is his biography (and filmography); at least, up until the film he obviously feels to be the apex of his career: Malcolm X. After that point in the reminiscing on his life/career he said nothing, instead opening up the floor to questions. The few nuggets of useful info I was able to pick up on the business of filmmaking and screenwriting, were trivial and disappointingly useless. Students and other aspiring filmmakers asked questions such as which does he suggest as a filmic medium for upcoming, independent filmmakers: shooting film or digital? His simplistic response: whichever you have access to. Gee, thanks Spike.

What really burned me was the way he treated a question posed by another young individual. “So, why DID Mookie throw the trashcan through the plate-glass window of Sal’s restaurant in Do the Right Thing?” Spike initially responded to this by laughing in dismissal, saying (almost as if he felt belittled), that “it’s not the first time he’s been asked that question,” seethingly following with provoking rhetoric to the young white male, “but, you know who I’ve NEVER been asked that question by?”

Who Spike? An African American? So, what he’s basically saying is it’s okay, and it’s justified for Mookie’s character to react in violence, instigating a riot, because of his friend Ray Raheim’s unjustified death at the hands of white, uniformed NYPD? I’m not saying one shouldn’t feel raw after seeing what was done to Ray Raheim by the police, but is the best reaction one from the gut, or one from the mind? Mookie is the character who seems to be the only person on his block in New York who can get along amicably with any one of the various races or cultures on one of the four corners of his neighborhood. So, when his character reacted in such violence at the end, I must admit I was shocked. A character such as Mookie could have potentially done a lot more good by taking such an injustice up to a media outfit or the proper authorities (and, I know, that’s probably the “white” thing to say in Spike’s eyes), but by inciting a riot in his own neighborhood, all he’s done is essentially aid and abet the problem of racial injustice in America and even the world.

At any rate, I was equally taken aback by Spike’s response to the young man, for Spike basically reassured me that Do the Right Thing is a movie he crafted with more hatred for social stagnancy than with inspiration or hope for social change. I guess I thought that for all the social prowess Spike had shown throughout his filmography (i.e. Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, Mo’ Better Blues), plus the fact that he himself played the character of Mookie, the character I respected the most until the denouement of Do the Right Thing, he would have had a different perspective on this one important social topic: race. Lately, Spike hasn’t propelled me into a frenzy of social clarity with any of his recent films; 25th Hour was memorable, but only in the way that a train wreck on the news is memorable. To me, Craig Brewer is doing more important films on the topic of race, dealing with cinematic portraits of inequality that don’t scream at you like Spike’s, but rather seep into your consciousness from the screen.