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.”