When Do the Right Thing was released 20 years ago, a generation of black writers and intellectuals became instantly radicalized by Spike Lee and Public Enemy’s vision of black America. Their fist-pumping black nationalist slingshots, along with The Autobiography of Malcolm X, were the perfect antidote for the isolation and alienation many black youth felt growing up in white suburbs in the post-civil rights era.
Together Do the Right Thing and Chuck D’s single “Fight the Power” made a pitch-perfect argument for a United States of Black America, composed of a constellation of urban outposts like Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, that were free of white patriarchy. USBA was a place where black people owned the restaurants, businesses and schools, and inhabited their own black worlds free of oppression. The film’s fiery conclusion, with the Italian-American Sal’s Famous Pizzeria going up in flames after the police murder of Radio Raheem, was the perfect denouement, a catharsis for every sleight at the hands of white people.
I was only 12 when the movie came out, but the film’s fire ignited my own smoldering resentments. Burn, white supremacists who harassed my family for daring to move to a white suburb of Indianapolis! Burn, cops who followed me and my teenage friends just because! The literal fire set in the film and the social fire that followed was payback for my black classmates who rode deseg buses from the inner city to suburban schools, leading to inevitable culture clashes that we would never win.
The satisfaction that came from that released rage played out for years. I remember a similar feeling just after Los Angeles police officers were acquitted in the videotaped Rodney King beating, when my friend Nzinga, a Black Panther’s daughter, announced with relish outside our high school lockers: “Niggas is rioting in L.A.”
Uuuuunnmph! Take that, we thought.
Do the Right Thing is still a powerful movie. But today many of the scenes that elicited cheers seem off the mark.
Sal’s racist son Pino tries to persuade his father to leave Bed-Stuy because black people didn’t want them there. Sal, played by Danny Aiello, defends the neighborhood, expressing his pride that the people there had grown up on his food. Didn’t Sal have every right to be there?
And what of the supposed triumph at the end of the movie when Smiley pastes up a photo of MLK and Malcolm X on Sal’s Wall of Fame?
Watching it this time around, I found myself wishing to the very end of the film that the inevitable wouldn’t happen, that Sal’s pizzeria would not go up in flames at the hands of a black mob.
I am not immune to the charms of black nationalism. I’m a proud Howard University graduate raising my family in the middle of a black neighborhood in D.C., the Chocolate City. But I am also keenly aware of black nationalism’s lingering contradictions. Today, Bloomingdale, my D.C. neighborhood, is in the throes of gentrification: Yoga studios bump up against public housing projects; cafes clash with methadone clinics; farmers markets displace bodegas. Today, I see dozens of proverbial white men in Celtics jerseys, laying their historic claim to the neighborhood where their ancestors settled but where a black majority has lived for decades.
Today I find myself agreeing with the original critics of Do the Right Thing who condemned Mookie (the pizza deliveryman played by Spike Lee) for throwing the trash can through the front window of the pizzeria, kicking off the riots. At the time, such criticism set off Lee and the film critic Roger Ebert. How dare anyone equate the restaurant with Radio Raheem’s life, they argued with a heavy dose of moral fury?
But that was not the point critics were trying to make. Property cannot and will not ever equate to a human life. When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, hundreds of black Washingtonians made the same (false) equation between property and life, and they burned black parts of Washington, D.C., to the core. What followed were decades of pain, decay, dysfunction and isolation.
Over in Bed-Stuy today, chances are Sal’s pizzeria would still be shuttered, leaving its denizens with no place to get a decent slice. And by now, many blacks of means would have moved on (Spike Lee himself moved to Manhattan years ago), allowing the place to rot, literally and figuratively.
Not exactly what Malcolm X had in mind.
It is only in the past decade that many corners of the so-called United States of Black America have shown signs of new life, and that is thanks to a multiethnic mix of people who have made the deliberate attempt to work through their racial (and class-based) fears. Yes, some of the white newcomers are pushy, strident, entitled, privileged and often just plain culturally incompetent. Some of them even have dreams of a pristine white neighborhood free of black people. But most don’t.
A few years ago, for an article I was writing about gentrification for the Washington Post, I spent some time with Nicole Tramonte, a white widow who in the late 1970s bought Catania Bakery from the Carusos, an Italian-American family that had been in my neighborhood since immigrating in the early 20th century. (I briefly met an elderly member of the Caruso family who kept an apartment above the shop for sentimental reasons.) Tramonte’s family was baking bread for area restaurants. She stayed bunkered up in a fortress-like shop on North Capitol Street, which she exited only through the rear and under guard. In 2003, Tramonte was so encouraged by the new life in the neighborhood that she resumed selling her baked goods to the public and even planted flowers outside. Weeks after the article appeared, her flowerpots were upended. Her bakery was robbed. She put the bars back on the windows and shuttered the fortress again.
The bakery has been mostly inaccessible to street traffic since. And that’s too bad.
In 1989, Do the Right Thing rightly railed against police brutality and institutional racism that reduced the life chances and quality of life of many black people in urban areas. If combating those conditions, which still exist, is what we mean by fighting the power, I will be the first to put on boxing gloves.
But 20 years on, Buggin Out’s kind of fight feels futile. Symbolically and literally speaking, we are the Power. We need Sal’s Famous Pizzerias in the neighborhood, and we need the Mookies of the world to open their own businesses, too. It’s messy. It’s sometimes tense, often uncomfortable. We won’t always understand each other. But come on back. We need that slice.
Natalie Hopkinson is the associate editor of The Root.
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Photo courtesy of STARZ.com.
Natalie Hopkinson is a Washington, D.C.-based author whose current projects deal with the arts, gender and public life. She is the author of Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City. Follow her on Twitter.