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Disturbing the Peace: "Do the Right Thing" at 25

Odie Henderson, Michael Phillips, Chaz Ebert, and Spike Lee

During an hour-long post-screening Q&A session, filmmaker Spike Lee unapologetically described "Do the Right Thing" as "a very angry film." He added that "this film reflected the racial tension in New York at that time." Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, "Do the Right Thing" is still provoking viewers.

During a 45-minute audience Q&A moderated by festival programmer Chaz Ebert, and film critics Odie Henderson and Michael Phillips, many viewers begged Lee for neat answers. It was like an impromptu State of the Union address, only it was a dialogue, not a monologue. Excited viewers asked Lee everything: What are your impressions of post-1989 race relations? What was he trying to say about post-9/11 America in "The 25th Hour"? What was his initial reaction to the 1992 LA Riots? Lee gamely answered every question, save for one confused audience member who wondered if Americans could "put it behind us, all this slavery stuff—bring the blacks back to the US. It's a wonderful world, with everybody together." Lee's response was priceless: "We can't end on that!"

Projected at the Virginia Theater from a well-preserved 35mm archival print, "Do the Right Thing" energized and agitated Friday's audience. It's still such a nervy, awesome film, and you can hear that in the scattered laughter that attended the film's best jokes. In fact, the only theater-filling laugh was when Sweet Dick Willie takes the piss out of Buggin' Out's haircut: "You wanna boycott someone? You ought to start with the God damn barber that fucked up your head!"

I refer to Lee's characters by name for the same reason I'm reluctant to talk about "Do the Right Thing"'s plot: the film is an institution. But it's also a vital provocation as I saw when an elderly white woman to my right murmured forlornly when Lee's Mookie throws the trash can through the front window of Sal's Famous Pizzeria. Even the "put it behind us" guy had a lone supporter, a biddy that applauded his muddled plea for a new, post-post-racial American tolerance. Last night's screening wasn't really about "Do the Right Thing," but rather about the discussion it sparked.

Even contemporary viewers want closure from "Do the Right Thing," and they'll never get it. One appreciative fan commended Lee for making a work of art as open-ended as life itself. But he also asked Lee for solutions to the problems he presented in "Do the Right Thing." Lee balked at the complaint, adding that that was "one of the major complaints" his film was initially met with. "'Spike Lee doesn't know how to solve racial prejudice.' I don't know the answer then, and I don't know the answer now. The film was made to provoke, to bring awareness to people who thought things were ok. And once people talked, they can arrive at something."

Conversation was the thing at last night's screening, especially since everyone that asked Lee questions were unabashed admirers. There was the college student that first saw "Do the Right Thing" in 10th grade. Lee teased his young interrogator when he confessed he didn't remember what the name of his English class was: "10th grade wasn't such a long time ago, my man!" And after him, there was the giddy Gen-X viewer that saw "Do the Right Thing" with her mother when she was twelve. The latter fan had to have her eyes covered when Mookie traces over Tina's nipples with ice cubes. "'Thank God for the left nipple,'" Lee quoted back at his fan.

Ardent filmgoers asked Lee about contemporary hip-hop, Pharrell Williams's notion of "the New Black," and the significance of "12 Years a Slave" director Steve McQueen's recent Oscar win. Even Chaz Ebert picked Lee's brain a while, asking him about his pernicious reputation as an "angry black man." Lee replied: "You really want to see me mad, find me courtside at a Knicks game."

He added: "It's the oldest trick in the book. If you want to discredit someone or their work, call them racist, call them anti-semitic, call them whatever you want to do to dismiss the work. And it's old. I'm not the first person this has happened to. So you keep struggling along, just keep on steppin'."

And as Henderson pointed out, Lee's critics were wrong. Henderson remembered seeing "Do the Right Thing" when he was 19, at Jersey City's long-gone State Theater. Now in his 40s, Henderson insists that Mookie's trash can toss didn't incite any riots, not even at "the rowdiest hood theater in the world." This was after writers Joe Klein and David Denby prophesied race riots. Those predictions caused one panicked producer to ask Lee to make Mookie and Sal embrace at film's end. "I wasn't interested in that," Lee joked wryly.

Lee's good humor made the evening an exciting forum for discussion. He ranted about how no black people greenlit "Soul Plane"" "We weren't in the room to say, 'Hell to the mothafuckin' no!'" And insisted that "Malcolm X" couldn't be made by a major studio today "...unless we got Denzel [Washington] in tights, and a cape! Or started transforming or something..." He also talked hopefully about teaching new filmmakers at New York University's graduate film program, and helping 12 unsigned artists get their music to the public in his upcoming not-quite-vampire film, "Da Sweet Blood of Jesus."

Lee's not a cheery artist, but he's not a pessimist either. "I'm not trying to sound an alarm, like, 'White America is in peril,' or, 'There's gonna be a revolution.' Nothing like that! But this is not Ozzie and Harriet and Opie anymore. The country's changed, and I think it's for the better. Diversity is great, and I think that's reflected in business, in everything. That's what makes this country a great country. We could be even greater, but I think we should embrace diversity."

Simon Abrams

Simon Abrams is a native New Yorker and freelance film critic whose work has been featured in The New York TimesVanity FairThe Village Voice, and elsewhere.

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