Thursday, June 19, 2008

urban riots - a thing of the past?

I watched Do the Right Thing again a few weeks ago. In some ways it seems very much the product of 1989 that it is (Rosie Perez's dance scene in the opening credits, Spandex biker shorts on every man, woman and child); in most ways it holds up very well. To borrow from Spike Lee, who will remember Driving Miss Daisy in 20 years?

The movie was not well-received by white critics at the time. New York Magazine recently revisited former NYMag columnist Joe Klein's notorious prediction that the film would spark riots among black audiences upon its release. Spike Lee remembers it not-so-fondly:

New York’s former political columnist Joe Klein and its former film critic David Denby had very strong reactions.
One of the big criticisms was that I had not provided an answer for racism in the movie, which is insane. And what’s even more insane is people like Joe Klein and David Denby felt that this film was going to cause riots. Young black males were going to emulate Mookie and throw garbage cans through windows. Like, “How dare you release this film in summertime: You know how they get in the summertime, this is like playing with fire.” I hold no grudges against them. But that was twenty years ago and it speaks for itself.
Klein's original article doesn't seem to be available, but this Time article from Richard Corliss titled "Hot Time in Bed-Stuy Tonight" is.
Everywhere, the film has polarized white liberals for whom Bed-Stuy is as exotic and unknowable as Burkina Faso. Some see Lee as the movies' great black hope; others tut till they're tuckered. A few fear that Do the Right Thing could trigger the kind of riot it dramatizes and perhaps condones.
I doubt white liberals were the only ones with opinions on the film, but they seem to be the only ones whose opinions were discussed in contemporaneous newsmagazine columns.

I don't know why it is but columnists never seem to expend much ink worrying about the "shenanigans" of white sports fans, for instance, these in Boston after the Celtics won the NBA championship on Tuesday (via).

Love of basketball causes drunken sports fans to riot--Richard Cohen or David Brooks better get on this alarming social trend right away ...


Mariko said...

Hey. I'm kind of a blog stalker and I followed your comment on Cailin's post.
I love Do the Right Thing (as I love most of Spike Lee's films) and I agree that Lee's message is somewhat ambiguous but does not condone racial violence. The ambiguous part is on whether or not he is (unwittingly) supporting or negating many racial stereotypes. Anyone who sees the actual end of the movie can see that racism is a complex issue and cannot be pinned down to a simple answer. But, I did show this movie to my students and you could tell they were confused. Partly because they are removed from the traditional races of the face of racism, and partly because they live in the modern age, and partly because they view violence as a sort of entertainment, but I can see also that this film takes maturity to process. At the same time, you can see that the film was specifically meant for young adults, so it's too bad that it's lost on them. I hope that they revisit it later. I wonder if they don't process it well because they do not see enough films that require thinking.

yave said...

Hi, Mariko. Hope you and Jake are well. I saw Do the Right Thing for the first time in Hawaii, tho I didn't grow up there. I was 14 at the time. I remember being really confused at the end--how could Mookie, the hero, the good guy, do that bad thing at the end? It didn't line up with the steady diet of good/evil dualities most kids are fed through school and media.

When I watched it again more recently, my reaction was more juvenile than at 14. I was like, throw that shit thru the window! Burn that mother down! I didn't really want those things to happen, but emotionally that was my reaction this time around. The movie made a lot more sense to me at 29 than it had at 14, tho it was less visceral and impactful than then.

I also gained appreciation for what a great tragic figure Sal was. One (I guess) hopeful take on the movie is that I don't think people realized at the time that we were essentially at the end of the period of race riots. There were a few into the early '90s and then I don't think there've been major ones since, at least not that got national press. That's one of the things that makes DTRT seem so dated, is that the tense possibility of a race riot underlies much of the movie's action. I live in Bed-Stuy now, the neighborhood the movie was set in, and it is hard to imagine a riot of the kind in the film happening here. Not to say the problems that existed then don't exist now, but something is different.