Friday, July 3, 2009

This is a Michael Jackson, Jon & Kate - Free Zone: Thinking about Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" at 20

I've been thinking about civility lately. We're working on civility at the university, attempting to identify what it looks like when it happens and what it doesn't look like (which is much easier). We're trying to find that fine line where free speech becomes harmful speech.

Sissela Bok postulates you always need a reason to lie but not to tell the truth.

As a journalist, I agreed with her at first. But 20-some classes of students talking about the same idea have taught me to think again about it. Maybe you need an excuse sometimes to say something you think is absolutely right but also hurtful. Then, again...

What, for example, is the difference between passionate speech and angry speech?

What we've found in our working group deliberations, instead of answers, is the therapeutic nature of free speech. In particular, we've found how powerful it is to say things honestly to each other, to trot it all out the way people trot out their belongings for a yard sale -- that old couch over there, the broken lamp here, the high chair we think we'll never need again out by the street.

Thinking about this reminded me of "Do The Right Thing," Spike Lee's brilliantly profane film which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this month. I thought strongly about bringing in a clip of the infamous scene where each character simply stands in the street shouting racial slurs into the camera. It is a testament to a film when well-meaning people are afraid to show clips from it even though those clips perfectly fit the situation.

"Do The Right Thing" was beautifully photographed. The way Lee used the camera to create unexpected points of view reminded me of "Rebel Without A Cause." The dialogue was Henry Wiggen in a completely different context. The voices were so real they hurt.

And the film raised as many ethical questions as it answered. For example, Lee decided before he made the film no one in it would smoke. He said he wanted to undo the stereotype of African-Americans as smokers. I think only a couple character are shown drinking alcohol in the film and I can't recall a character who was drunk in any scene. This is, of course, a lie. But, is it a justifiable lie?

Lee might say African-Americans have been subjected to lies about themselves and their communities from the invention of film. And, he'd be right.

Here's another ethical dilemma. I read an interview with Rosie Perez. She said she cried through the entire scene where she appeared in the nude -- the ice cube scene -- which killed the eroticism of those wonderful goosebumps for me forever.

And, of course, the solution to the film, what appears to be Lee's answer to what "the right thing" is, raises more questions than it answers. When he raises the trash can over his head as the protagonist Mookie and hurls it through the window of Sal's Pizzeria, you can't help but cheer.

Brecht warned the use of catharsis in theater in his time, the 1930s and 1940s, had fallen to the level of bourgeois drug traffic. Lee, however, turns catharsis on its noodle. Here, the catharsis we feel makes us everything we wish not to be. It feels good, it feels right, it feels bad and it feels wrong, all at the same time.

Is it therapeutic? After 20 years, I still don't know. But I do know this. Any film which can keep you engaged in a single question for two decades, certainly did its job.


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