Do The Right Thing and Spike Up Your Life – Elias Burke

Why Spike Lee’s films are just that bit more important

Spike Lee is an African-American movie director out of Brooklyn, New York. His directorial credits include cult classics ‘She’s Gotta Have It’ and ‘Do The Right Thing’ as well as the (long) biographical depiction of the Civil Rights icon Malcolm X. So what makes Spike so special? Is it his outspoken nature? Is it his commitment to incendiary film-making from a unique perspective? Is it his personification of fearlessness and diversity in the white-dominated Hollywood climate? I think it’s all of the above, and much more.

I remember hearing about Spike for the first time. My friend and I were discussing our favourite films and directors in an A-Level English Literature class. I was busy professing my love for Tarantino and his Spaghetti Western ‘Django Unchained’ when I was alerted to Spike. “You haven’t seen Do The Right Thing?” he asked. So, after more tiresome hours of reading Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman’, I went home and set it up on my favourite (very legal) streaming site. Little did I know that I had locked myself in for 2 hours of revolutionary genius.

There’s a reason that this movie is still the highlight of Spike’s glittering CV. Do The Right Thing involves great performances by himself as Mookie, Samuel L. Jackson as Señor Love, and Ossie Davis as The Mayor. Yet, what set it apart from any movie I had ever seen before, was that it was the first time I had seen such a harsh and unforgiving light shone on the bubbling racial tensions in the ‘People’s Republic of Brooklyn’.

The movie monitors Mookie meandering around his Brooklyn neighbourhood on what is reported to be the hottest day of the year, both metaphorically and literally. In examining the daily lives of its main characters, the audience is treated to explore several racial dynamics throughout the movie. We’re invited to ponder the social order of immigrant groups such as Korean-Americans and Italian-Americans, who are all trying to find their ‘spot’ in a tense environment governed by race and identity politics. Moreover, through the cult hero Radio Raheem, Spike asks the most important question, hate or love?

Contemporary opinion from many critics was that this movie was a disgrace. Their problem was that Spike dared to address an issue which, in their opinion, needed to have been approached with caution and sensitivity. This fearlessness is exactly why Spike Lee is so integral to the fabric of international filmmaking. There has never been anybody that is as willing to attack glaring issues such as racial tension with such vitriol and gravitas.

As Hollywood is continuing to evolve into a corporate cash-cow that is focused on short-term results, there is a fear that directors like Spike will become silenced. There are so many stories to be told and promising directors of colour that are desperately trying to find a pathway in a predominantly white industry. Lee recognises the difficulty of sustaining a place as an outsider in Hollywood by stating, “Being black […] means you have to be ten times better than anyone else.” It is our duty as citizens committed to equality, to enable these brave storytellers to reach a platform whereby they can influence generations in the manner that Lee has done.

Thus, it is integral that we encourage everybody to get behind the current crop of innovative, unorthodox directors and producers of colour that are already having great success in film and TV. These include;

  • Ryan Coogler / Black Panther, Creed, Fruitvale Station
  • Barry Jenkins / Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk
  • Ava DuVernay / Selma, 13th, When They See Us
  • Daveed Diggs / Blindspotting
  • Donald Glover / Atlanta
  • Jordan Peele / Get Out, Us

“Black people have to be in control of their own image because film is a powerful medium. We can’t just sit back and let other people define our existence.”

Spike Lee

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Twitter and Instagram: @eliasburke

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