Wednesday, November 4, 2009
Fight the Power
By and large, this blog is dedicated to the proposition that the Russian Revolution of 1917 can illuminate the darkness and shadows of contemporary American life. However, on occasion the reverse is true: American contemporary life can explain the Russian Revolution. Witness the case of that great American film, Do the Right Thing. When Spike Lee’s masterpiece came out, I saw the movie three times in the theater, and many times since. The movie’s excellence is a product of many different aesthetic factors, but I think the heart of the matter is this: it explains the central logic of revolution, and not just in the sense of 1960s-style cultural change, but in the fuller sense of violent action in the pursuit of justice.
Let’s review the elements in Lee’s successful attempt to articulate that which is, almost by definition in American society, unacceptable. To begin with, Spike Lee shows how ordinary people can be transformed from passive, ordinary, exploited people into an angry mob. There are some casual factors here. Excessive heat, for example, is everywhere manifest in Do the Right Thing. The community disk jockey reports it, the characters complain about it, kids play in the water generated by an open fire hydrant to avoid it, the lead character, Mookie, uses an ice cube during sexual foreplay to enhance it, and everybody is busily fanning him or herself to mitigate it throughout the film.
Then there is the urban setting. Revolution happens most frequently, or most dangerously, within the context of a crowded city like New York. Next, Lee delineates the nature of the kind of community that is capable of mobilizing: it’s one that is connected in a thousand ways by interpersonal connections. In Lee’s film, the community—however unorganized or informal by the standards of traditional political science—contains a genuine organic structure. People, many unemployed, hang out on porches, eat in cheap pizzerias, talk to passersby out windows, listen to pirate radio, play in open fire hydrants, and listen to message-laden music.
Community ties are latent: solidarity within Lee’s world isn’t easy to see; folks are united by economic circumstance, a shared ideological worldview, general exploitation, and race. They are capable of uniting, but don’t do so often for a variety of subtle reasons. After all, it’s much easier not to mobilize and one extremist who pedals Black Power photos is routinely mocked by others until a specific act of police brutality energizes or inflames community feeling.
The community even has its own leaders, such as Da Mayor, an alcoholic who may not possess formal authority, but who does, nevertheless, have the ability to sway crowds, based on his own moral strength and historical ties to the neighborhood. Someone once said—was it Tip O’Neil—that all politics is local. This is surely true in Do the Right Thing.
Lee’s cinematic depiction of revolution is reinforced by the movie’s soundtrack. The music is central to the message. To take nothing away from the beauty of the music, the cool, ponderous jazz symbolizes the slow, monotonous routines of ordinary, non-revolutionary life. The city is alive and vibrant in a cultural sense, but asleep in a political sense. The group, appropriately called Public Enemy, manifests revolutionary consciousness. Chuck-D’s tough abrasiveness strikes the perfect note for mobilization. The movie’s anthem, "Fight the Power," is brilliant: it records the long history of white exploitation of the black community—already known to its listeners—and calls them to action. In this case, the cultural is the political.
One of the best things about Do the Right Thing is the fact that it shies away from any simple storyline of good versus evil. In Lee’s film, the revolutionaries are deeply flawed characters. Although economic oppression may partly explain unemployment in the community, it doesn’t fully explain the problem. Mookie, who has a job at the pizzeria, is seen as unique among his African-American peers. Why does he go to work every day, while many of his friends don’t? Indeed, the two sources of economic vitality and entrepreneurialism on the block are maintained by an Italian family and a Korean family respectively. If Sal and his sons are racists, so are the African-Americans, Koreans, police, and everybody else. This is best represented by a series of racist rants Lee strings together in a collage of hatred.
The moment of truth arrives when community lassitude gives way to action. The spark that ignites the literal conflagration is Sal’s attempt to defend his pizzeria from an unwanted intrusion by the aforementioned Black Power radical and Radio Raheem, a man who insists on carrying his boom box right into the restaurant to the tune of "Fight the Power."
Lee’s climactic scene is morally ambiguous, as most revolutionary actions probably are. In this case, the intruders seem to be advocating a relatively innocuous demand: that there should be more pictures of black people up on the pizzeria’s wall of fame, now occupied exclusively by Italian Americans. For his part, Sal seems to have some reason on his side too. He owns the restaurant, loves serving the community despite its daily frustrations, and has worked hard enough over the years to have earned some right to maintain his property according to his own standards.
When Sal asserts the primacy of his claim by asking Radio Raheem to turn down his radio, and then smashes the radio with a baseball bat, he has clearly gone too far. The two men erupt into battle and before long the police have arrived. In Lee’s film, the police are essentially an extension of the white power structure that Sal, perhaps unwittingly, benefits from. The police immediately take the side of the white man, and actually strangle Radio Raheem to death as a result of either ardor or anxiety. At this point, the mini-revolution explodes: even the mild-mannered Mooky sees—or perhaps feels—that the community is in need of a vigorous defense. He leads the charge against the symbol of the recent murder—Sal’s pizzeria, his former employer.
The film closes with two quotations, one from Martin Luther King asserting the claims of peace; the next from Malcolm X asserting the claims of violence when used in self-defense. Giving Malcolm X equal time with Martin Luther King shocked many white Americans, but it was this more than anything that allowed Do the Right Thing to escape official American ideology and explain how revolution happens, which needed some explaining since the Los Angeles riots occurred not long afterward.
Wonderfully, Lee left the reader to wonder what “the right thing” really had been. Was it to defend the status quo or was it to assert the rights of the community, no matter how frenzied? The movie’s final scene showed Mookie and Sal reconciling: neither man apologizes, but Sal offers Mookie his old job back and Mooky accepts it. One feels that Sal, while not convinced, understands that the death of a man has trumped the destruction of insured property. And perhaps Sal has also come to understand some of the logic of revolution.