“1989, a number, another summer, sound of the funky drummer”
—Public Enemy, “Fight the Power”
One of the most unforgettable images from the summer of 1989 was the video for “Fight the Power,” the theme song for Spike Lee’s classic film Do the Right Thing, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this month.
Spike Lee and Public Enemy (with the Fruit of Islam guards in tow) walked the streets of Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, with what seems like a thousand black youth walking alongside them and hanging out of apartment windows. The scene was set up as a contrast to the 1963 March on Washington.
Equally jolting was the scene from the film’s opening: dancer Rosie Perez, alternately adorned in boxing garb and Lycra bodysuits, performing a visual archive of black dance. Moving against the backdrop of Brooklyn brownstones, Perez’s performance—jagged, angular, forceful, masculine and sexy—mapped contradictions of a new generation.
The film was at the center of what was a burgeoning generational debate about the meanings of blackness in the post-civil rights era. Lee’s ability to index the issues of poverty, police brutality, gentrification, interracial romance, the black liberation struggle, the decline of black-owned business, celebrity worship, sexual violence and environmental racism revealed a sophistication that few directors were capable of.
With Do the Right Thing, Lee became the “funky drummer” for a generation of writers, thinkers, artists and musicians trying to get their intellectual freak-on. (This apparently included Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson, two Ivy League professionals going on their first date.)
The film seemingly anticipated the 1989 murder of Yusef Hawkins, a black Brooklyn youth who was shot in an Italian-American neighborhood of Bensonhurst, and the eventual election of David M. Dinkins as New York City’s first African-American mayor.
Not surprisingly, many mainstream critics misread the film. The National Review dismissed it as an “artful exploitation of racial tensions in New York,” and writer Joe Klein famously predicted in New York magazine that the film would cause riots.