A.O. Scott had an interesting piece in the New York Times this past Sunday. Reflecting on the role of art in provoking social change, Scott played editor to a curated sampling of thoughts from artists of various media, including film, television, and literature, the central question summed up by Scott’s headline, “Is Our Art Equal to the Challenges of Our Times?” Though the critic himself seemed mostly concerned with issues of economics and social class, the specter of racial injustice looms large over the discussion, and I found the comments by J. Cole and Justin Simien particularly pointed in that regard.
While I understand Scott’s concern with the necessity of contemporary art to engage with the politics of the world around it, I think a point that goes generally unspoken in his essay and the panel discussion is the power of that art which has gone before to remain relevant. I do not believe that our art is failing us, because the greatest art, the kind dabbled in by people like Steinbeck, like Arthur Miller, Woody Guthrie, the Dardennes, and many more besides, was not just rising to the occasion of its time, but of all time.
So this week, for your consideration, I would like to submit just one film. It was released 25 years ago, but I believe it speaks to the specific pain and hatred we have seen festering in this country the past few weeks as well as any other art created before or since. If you’ve never seen it, I ask you not just to consider, but to deliberately sit down and watch this film.
“Do the Right Thing” (1989)
Cast: Spike Lee, Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, John Turturro, Giancarlo Esposito, Bill Nunn, Richard Edson, Paul Benjamin, Robin Harris, Frankie Faison, Joie Lee, Samuel L. Jackson, Rosie Perez
Available to rent or purchase from Vudu, iTunes and Amazon Instant, on disc from Netflix
I spent a short time the evening before last in Times Square, joining in one of the protests in the wake of a Staten Island grand jury’s decision not to bring charges against the NYPD officer who choked Eric Garner to death (I would’ve stayed longer, but the friend I was with was pick-pocketed – another small bit of ugliness in a day that already had far too much of it). When I returned home, I felt drawn to put on “Do the Right Thing.” It’s a film I have always considered a masterpiece, and it’s always had a firm spot in my top ten films of all time. But even though I’ve seen it many times and spent a lot of time considering its many intricacies of character and ethics and righteous anger, never before had it made me openly weep. This time, Radio Raheem was dead, strangled by a NYPD officer before he even had a chance to say “I can’t breathe,” and what I was watching very suddenly wasn’t a movie anymore.
Louis Virtel tweeted on Wednesday that “Do the Right Thing” is the best movie of 2014. It’s good joke, the kind that really isn’t a joke at all. Lee’s film remains so familiar it’s almost sickening – but the reason it will, I believe, continue to hold water for many years, hopefully into the days when America sorts its shit out, is that it’s not just the violence and the fear that’s recognizable: it’s the kids playing in a Brooklyn street on a hot summer day, the friends trading barbs on a stoop, a brother and sister playfully needling each other, a father trying to look out for his sons. Times change: the clothes, the cars, the music, the news; but people stay much the same. Lee spends an hour and a half building up an utterly believable little slice of reality, so that when it all explodes, it feels not just fierce, but fair.
That he manages to make “Do the Right Thing” feel grounded while brazenly flaunting every trick of style and visual pizzazz in the handbook is Lee’s particular genius here. Public Enemy blares, the frame practically sweats, and the fourth wall shatters, over and over. There is quite simply nothing else that looks like this movie, and nothing else that can match its social power.