Fight the Power: On Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and Social Unrest in Ferguson

“You’ve got to do the right thing.”
-Malcolm X

“A riot is the language of the unheard.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.

We are still grappling with what, in 1903, W. E. B Du Bois defined as the most divisive issue in America: “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.” What Du Bois was getting at when he was talking about “the problem of the colour line” was to show that race is ultimately about how racism and power are correlated and socially constructed. Despite this construction, cultural theorist George Lipsitz argues, “Race is a cultural construct, but one with deadly social causes and consequences.” We like to think in 2014 (especially for those of us living under the banner of multicultural Canada) that racism is a problem of the past. In many ways we are still living with the vestiges of a slavery system, what Saidiya Hartmen refers to as “the afterlife of slavery” once practiced in America and Canada.

Last night it was announced that the police officer who shot an unarmed Michael Brown (at least 6 times) was not indicted by a grand jury. Even though Brown’s family called for non-violent change (stating, “While we understand that many others share our pain, we ask that you channel your frustration in ways that will make a positive change”), soon after the grand jury announcement riots in Ferguson spiraled out of control. In many ways Brown’s death—like the death of other unarmed black men, such as Oscar Grant III and Trayvon Martin—became symbolic and systematic of a broken justice system. How are oppressed people supposed to do the right thing, irrespective of whether the approach taken is Malcolm X or Martin Luther King, Jr. in strategy? The problems are so deeply rooted that the entire system requires a complete overturn. It’s like terrorism, which too cannot be stopped by addressing symptoms and not the causes that bread violence: poverty, inequality, and other violence. The same goes for a riot: we are quick to condemn a riot rather than ask, what is at the root of such public outrage?

It is fitting that I had Spike Lee’s seminal film Do the Right Thing—a powerful work of cinematic verve—scheduled to watch in one of my English classes this morning. Although released 25 years ago in 1989, Do the Right Thing remains as pertinent as ever, particularly against the recent backdrop of race riots and social unrest in Ferguson. Lee was instrumental in launching a new wave of Black cinema in 1986 with his renowned protofeminist film, She’s Gotta Have It (although bell hooks takes Lee’s work to task as antifeminist). In the way that She’s Gotta Have It draws its energy from Brooklyn, Do the Right Thing too uses Brooklyn as the backdrop for a slowly brewing race riot. As the thermometer goes up, the film intensifies. The last act of the film is so powerful that some in the media contended that white people should not see the movie in theatres because there might be riots. This is racist because it assumes that only white people can tell the difference between reality and representation.

For many film critics, much of the focus was on the loss of Sal’s Pizzeria while the murdering of Radio Raheem in a brutal chokehold didn’t register. One of the critiques of the film is that Spike Lee does not provide an answer to racism or prejudice at the end of the film. In my opinion this is the real strength of the picture. As Roger Ebert wrote in his review, “He’d [Lee] made a movie about race in America that empathized with all the participants. He didn’t draw lines or take sides but simply looked with sadness at one racial flashpoint that stood for many others.” Ferguson stands for so many ongoing racial malaises in the West that we could spend entire books unpacking them. In this short post, I hardly have the space to delve into them, but I make the comparison between the film (representation) and the current reality (Ferguson) to draw attention to how racism (and the fiction of race) continues to dehumanize those who are non-white as lesser and inferior. Racism like colonialism is a matter of power: it is about who gets to decide who is more pure, more capable, more right—essentially, more white. The protestors in Ferguson are fighting for a voice because historically they have been silenced.

There are no simple answers to deal with the tensions and injustices that beget civil disobedience. In Do the Right Thing, as the long hot summer day wanes, you can gradually anticipate the moment where the trash can smashes through the pizzeria and sparks a riot. Racism is a sickness so imbedded in America (and Canada) that it is only a matter of time before tensions boil over. I am for peaceful protest but—especially for those who face unspeakable horror and injustice— sometimes the only response that feels appropriate is a version of Malcolm X’s “by any means necessary.”

Even Martin Luther King, Jr., who is often remembered for his approaches to civil liberty through nonviolence, once said: “Massive civil disobedience is a strategy for social change.” Of course, how we define civil disobedience is a matter of interpretation. I don’t think riots necessarily solve anything; more likely, they bring out the worst in all parties involved, but I do understand that people riot when they feel desperate. Like the “love” and “hate” brass knuckles that adorn the hands of Radio Raheem (and like Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” blasting out of his portable ghetto blaster), we need to find ways to use love to battle the hate that cannibalizes contemporary North America. We need to continue to find creative, positive, hopeful, and, at times, militant ways, “to fight the powers that be.”

A Christmas Sermon on Peace

In November and December in 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered five lectures for the renowned Massey Lecture Series on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), released initially as Conscience of Change, and then as The Trumpet of Conscience. His polemical, “A Christmas Sermon on Peace” was first delivered at Ebenezer Baptists Church where he served as a co-pastor. On Christmas Eve, in 1967, the CBC aired his sermon as part of its 7th annual Massey Lecture.

It made sense that Martin Luther King, Jr. reached out to other, often international, audiences given the growing scope of his message for world peace through the mobilization of united people around the world. Further, King thought highly of Canada, praising the country for its role as a haven (Canaan land) for the escaped slave: “So standing today in Canada I am linked with the history of my people and its unity with your past” (Trumpet 3). Moreover, while King, Jr. is often remembered for his approaches to civil liberty through nonviolence, the Massey Lectures display how his approach towards justice became more radical and layered, avowing civil disobedience: “Massive civil disobedience is a strategy for social change” (Trumpet 55).

Some attribute King, Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 1968, to his outspoken stance against the American government as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” (24), stating that the “war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit” (32). In his “A Christmas Sermon on Peace” he articulates his vision of peace as antiwar, criticizing then President Johnson for his hypocritical stance towards achieving peace:

Every time we drop our bombs in North Vietnam, President Johnson talks eloquently about  peace. What is the problem? They are talking about peace as a distant goal, as an end we seek, but one day we must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal we seek, but that it is a means by which we arrive at that goal. We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means. All of this is saying that, in the final analysis, means and ends must cohere because the end is preexistent in the means, and ultimately destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends. (73)

As the above passage shows, King’s “Christmas Sermon” is more global in vision than his powerful 1963 “I Have a Dream Speech.” Many applaud the King who was opposed to violence, but then ignore the King who called for massive nonviolent demonstrations to end war and poverty in America and throughout the world. As he says in “Christmas Sermon”: “I tried to talk to the nation about a dream that I had had, and I must confess to you today that not long after talking about that dream I started seeing it turn into a nightmare” (78). That nightmare came just a few weeks after King’s speech when four innocent black girls were murdered in a church in Birmingham, Alabama.

Once the Civil Rights Act was signed in 1964, of which King was present and instrumental in bringing about, he noticed that while much had changed in America, the larger racist and globally oppressive systems of injustice remained intact. Hence, in “Christmas Sermon” his ideological compass was much more international, as he described how more “than half a million sleep on the sidewalks of Calcutta every night,” declaring: “No individual can live alone; no nation can live alone, and as long as we try, the more we are going to have war in this world” (70). King’s new message, which still related to his hope for fraternity between humankind and God, was ecologically and theologically based on the notion that all life is related. In the same speech he said: “all life is interrelated. We are all caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly” (71). Given the global economy we now live in, and depend upon, King hit the nail on the head with the lightning of prophecy.

He optimistically argued that solving these ever growing problems was perfectly achievable, since the wealth of the United States alone makes the elimination of poverty perfectly practicable. His overall message always remained the same, which was that love overcomes all. He didn’t mean love merely in the romantic or friendship sense, but in the Greek language usage of the word, Agápē, which basically translates as “unconditional love.” He describes Agápē as “understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill towards all men. Agapē is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return” (75). For King, this love was tied to the love of God operating in the human heart.

And how hard is it to love our enemies, or those who disagree with our viewpoints? King’s message was built on the teachings of Jesus who didn’t say, “like you enemies,” which King distinguishes as an imperative difference, “because there are some people that I find it pretty difficult to like. Liking is an affectionate emotion, and I can’t like anybody who would bomb my home. I can’t like anybody who would exploit me […] We must work passionately and unrelentingly for first-class citizenship” (76). Like Gandhi, King was someone able to match others capacity to inflict suffering by his capacity to endure it and love them in return. Even though King became “personally the victim of deferred dreams, of blasted hopes” (79), he chose to go on loving.

King’s “A Christmas Sermon on Peace” remains as powerful as when it was delivered 46 years ago today. He argued that in Christ there is neither male nor female, communist or capitalist, but human beings as one in the love of God. I am no longer a practicing Catholic, but I find his message of acceptance and the will to help those who have less than us an overwhelmingly powerful one, especially during the time of year when many of us reflect on how much we have compared to those who have so little. Imagine if we thought this way throughout the year?

There are those who try to label King as non-subversive, but Malcolm X and King are really two necessary sides of the same coin. Many Christians fail to remember that Jesus was a radical in his time, a man who hung around lepers and prostitutes, was anti-public prayer (Matthew 6:5), was anti-wealth, and who never once mentioned abortion or birth control, and who was not white. Too often people judge others based on the colour of their skin, their sexual preference, religious or non-religious beliefs, rather than choosing to love them unconditionally.

King’s love was unconditional enough that he was willing to die for it. In Canada, King’s notions of what he termed The Just Society greatly inspired Pierre Elliott Trudeau who was the only candidate to mention Martin Luther King, Jr. King and Trudeau’s notions of The Just Society present an opportunity to negotiate disorder and fragmentation by embracing difference and trying to come together as a holistic group. There are only people and the hope, to quote the late and great Martin Luther King Jr., “that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!” (“Mountaintop”), whatever that land might represent for us now, and the hope of a still more free future. Every year my wife and I listen to King’s “A Christmas Sermon on Peace.” Its message of goodwill and peace on earth through “cosmic companionship” (78) is a vital trumpeting amid the hurly-burly atmosphere of the holiday season. Agápē.

You can view the full transcript here.

Audio is available, from here.

Works Cited

King, Martin Luther, Jr. “A Christmas Sermon on Peace.” The Trumpet of Conscience. Boston: Beacon Press, 2010. 67-80. Print.
—. “I Have a Dream.” 28 Aug. 1963. American Rhetoric. Web
—. “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” 3 April. 1968. American Rhetoric. Web.

Feature image is of Martin Luther King, Jr., speaking against the Vietnam War, St. Paul Campus, University of Minnesota, from Minnesota Historical Society.