“Lee has already proven that he is one of the greatest film directors of all time; now is his time to prove that he is also a responsible influencer upon society at large.”
pike Lee is in the same league of film directors as Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles. In the midst of the current racial tensions, he has once again put his enormous cinematographic talent on display. This time, he has released a very short (and equally disturbing) film that combines scenes from George Floyd’s murder, Eric Garner’s fateful arrest in 2014, and a scene from his own 1989 film Do the Right Thing, in which one black character is choked to death by a white police officer.
In a recent CNN interview, Lee went on to say: “This is not new, we saw with the riots in the ’60s…I am not condoning all this other stuff, but I understand why people are doing what they are doing.” However, this sounds to me like loosely veiled dog whistling, and I remain skeptical that he does not condone these riots, especially after my having watched Do the Right Thing.
The film narrates a day of racial tensions between black and white New Yorkers in Brooklyn. A white pizzeria owner and his children have some animosity towards their black neighbors; however, apart from insults and slurs, they never commit acts of aggression. As the film unfolds, two black customers turn out to be especially problematic: The first goes to the pizzeria with a loud stereo; the other eats at the restaurant but demands the owner put pictures of famous African Americans on the store’s wall, since there are only pictures of famous Italian Americans.
These encounters generate some friction, and racial tensions grow. In the final scenes, the client with the loud stereo enters the pizza joint, and he disregards the owner’s request to turn the volume down. The pizzeria owner grabs a baseball bat and smashes the stereo to pieces. The disgruntled customer steps up to fight the pizzeria’s owner, and soon enough, the whole neighborhood becomes inflamed. Then, the police arrive, and in the midst of chaos, one officer brutally murders the customer who had the loud stereo.
A group of black neighbors gather, and, very clumsily, the restaurant owner tells the crowd that the police officer did what he had to do. A black employee of the pizzeria, who up to that time had been friendly to his employer, breaks one of the restaurant’s windows, and the mob then follows his lead, looting the restaurant.
The problem is that looting the pizzeria was not an act of self-defense. It was an act of scapegoating, and it took place simply because the pizzeria owner had the same skin color as the police officer.
At the time of Do the Right Thing’s release, there were concerns that this film might itself incite riots. Over the years, Lee has responded to this claim, once saying: “I don’t remember people saying people were going to come out of theaters killing people after they watched Arnold Schwarzenegger films.” Yes, he has a point. That is why many psychologists are skeptical about the claim that playing violent video games encourages acts of violence. In Do the Right Thing, Lee was simply portraying the realities of racial tensions in Brooklyn; to blame him for riots would merely be blaming the messenger.
Yet, the ending of the film is what makes me skeptical about Lee not condoning riots. The film concludes with an image of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. saluting each other, and then it features a quotation from each leader. The King quotation reads:
“Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends by destroying itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.”
In contrast, the Malcom X quotation reads: “I think there are plenty of good people in America, but there are also plenty of bad people in America and the bad ones are the ones who seem to have all the power and be in these positions to block things that you and I need. Because this is the situation, you and I have to preserve the right to do what is necessary to bring an end to that situation, and it doesn’t mean that I advocate violence, but at the same time I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don’t even call it violence when it’s self- defense, I call it intelligence.”
It is fair to say that Lee has a soft spot for Malcolm X—and not just because Lee made a film about the civil rights icon in 1992. Lee’s own approach to race is much closer to Malcolm X’s more confrontational stance. The viewer at the end of Do the Right Thing indeed receives the impression that for Lee, the Malcolm X quotation is the more relevant of the two to the story portrayed in the film. It appears as if the looting was an act of self-defense against racial oppression.
Businesses that have absolutely nothing to do with police brutality are being looted.
And indeed, it is not a bad quotation. I, for one, do not consider pacifism always to be a morally effective position. The problem is that looting the pizzeria was not an act of self-defense. It was an act of scapegoating, and it took place simply because the pizzeria owner had the same skin color as the police officer. The person who killed the young black person was a police officer; it was not the restaurant owner who did it. Yes, the pizzeria owner had made racist remarks, and his insensitive comments had helped to incite the riot. However, looting his business was not a proportional response to his deeds. After all, he was the owner of his own business, and he had every right to ask his client to turn the volume down (admittedly, destroying the client’s stereo player was uncalled for). Similarly, he was well within his rights to place photograph of whomever he wanted on his restaurant’s wall.
In the current chaos, once again, riots are directed at scapegoats and not actual aggressors. Businesses that have absolutely nothing to do with police brutality are being looted. Unlike what is depicted in Do the Right Thing, this time, many victims are black themselves. Predictably, privileged people, many of whom are white, will be safe in their communities. By contrast, ethnic minorities will likely suffer the most as a result of the current chaos. If Lee truly cares about his own people, he ought to use far stronger words than just “I am not condoning [riots].” That irresponsible soft language is dog whistling, and it sends the same message as Do the Right Thing. Lee has already proven that he is one of the greatest film directors of all time. Now, it is his time to prove that he is also a responsible influencer upon society at large.
Dr. Gabriel Andrade is a university professor. His Twitter is @gandrade8o.