I’d started taking the El for the first time in 1989, via Metra from Beverly up to summer school at Northwestern, when billboards for Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing began popping up along my route. “It’s the hottest day of the summer,” they read. “You can do something. You can do nothing. Or you can Do the Right Thing.”
Seeing the film was a revelation for my 13-year-old self. The Bed-Stuy milieu bore a certain resemblance to the neighborhoods around the magnet schools I’d attended in West Pullman and Morgan Park. But Brooklyn seemed different than Chicago too. Instead of going home to islands of relative homogeneity at the end of the day to talk smack on other groups amid the safety of our own ethnicity, it seemed that the New Yorkers were in each others’ face 24/7, and an explosion was inevitable.
Spike tore off the cover for me, revealing an exhilarating undercurrent of righteous rage. The fiery climax presaged in miniature, or detractors would argue helped inspire, the L.A. Riots three years later. In the epilogue, Malcolm X gets the last word, with a warning we’d do well to heed today:
“I think there are plenty of good people in America, but there are also plenty of bad people in America and the bad ones are the ones who seem to have all the power and be in these positions to block things that you and I need. Because this is the situation, you and I have to preserve the right to do what is necessary to bring an end to that situation, and it doesn’t mean that I advocate violence, but at the same time I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don’t even call it violence when it’s self-defense, I call it intelligence.”
When I’m asked my favorite film, this is still the one I pick.
Spike Lee speaks and signs copies of his photo memoir Spike Lee: Do the Right Thing, written with Jason Matloff, today, Dec. 24, 4-6 p.m. at Barbara’s Bookstore, 1218 S. Halsted St.