Before everyone thinks I'm jumping on the train because of the events of this weekend, I've had this article in mind for a bit now. Really, since the red band trailer for OLDBOY came out earlier this week. And then Spike Lee tweeted something on Friday that concerned me. Note that this editorial may be horribly presumptive on my part, and that I could be wrong on what I think Lee meant by this tweet he made Friday morning:
I Want To Thank One And All For The Love And Support You Have Given Me Over The Course Of My Film Life.Monday I Will Be Making Announcement.— Spike Lee (@SpikeLee) July 12, 2013
The first thing that came to my mind when I read that was, "Uh oh, Spike's retiring from filmmaking." And I became very sad in thinking that. My first exposure to Spike Lee was in 1989, with the release of DO THE RIGHT THING. I'd heard of him, of course - SHE'S GOTTA HAVE IT may by one of the most powerful and effective first films in any director's catalog, and it and SCHOOL DAZE gave Lee a lot of attention; enough for a studio to back his little story about a street in Bed-Stuy on the hottest day of the summer. Can you imagine a studio like Universal releasing a movie like DO THE RIGHT THING today? No way in hell. It would be a strictly independent release, something along the lines of this year's FRUITVALE STATION, which while receiving a ton of critical acclaim probably won't be seen by 95% of the moviegoing public.
Anyway, I remember all the fretting that the media did about this "incendiary" movie, so I did what any nineteen-year old would do at the time - when they tell you not to see something, or read something, or listen to something, well you go see, or read, or hear it. Because when you're nineteen, what you're "supposed" to do and what you do are normally two entirely different things.
When I came out of DO THE RIGHT THING that first time, I was angry, but not for the reasons you might think. I was angry at Spike Lee. I was angry at this movie that provoked deep feelings in me, feelings that at the time I really wasn't equipped to handle. I was very sympathetic to Sal and his family, even over the cries of the community and over the death of Radio Raheem. Sal didn't kill anyone. His sons didn't kill anyone. They didn't deserve what happened to them, I thought. They didn't deserve Mookie throwing a trash can through their window and destroying years of a family-owned business, serving a community with their food and their presence. As I said, I was nineteen.
When I revisited the movie a few years later, I was older. And I knew then what I should have known before - that this is a world with all varieties of people - races, creeds, beliefs, orientations. And the only way that any of this - any of America - is going to work is through empathy. That, like Scout on the porch of Boo Radley's house, we have to walk in other people's shoes. That Radio Raheem, no matter how you feel about him personally, didn't deserve to die in the street just because he wouldn't turn his radio down. That in the battle of love and hate, hate delivered a knockout blow that evening, and a community reeling against that hate and oppression reacted in the only way they knew they could, in the only way that people might understand.
When Mookie threw that trash can, I thought for years that he did it to save the lives of Sal and his sons, to focus the crowd on the pizzeria and not on them. And while that might have been on Mookie's mind, that wasn't why he did it. He did it because he spoke for all of those people, disenfranchised, not given any kind of voice, and screaming in the void. None of this would have happened had Sal simply put those pictures on his wall. And he didn't need to do it because he was told to do it by Buggin' Out - Sal should have done it because if he loved the community as much as he claimed he did, he would have done it to become a part of that community. That he really did love the people living, working, and playing there. No one deserved what happened to them that night, but when a hard wind blows, you either bend or you break. That night, no one wanted to bend.
DO THE RIGHT THING may be the most important American movie ever made. And Lee followed it with such great films as MALCOLM X, CLOCKERS, 25th HOUR, BAMBOOZLED, INSIDE MAN... the list goes on and on. He has a distinct visual style, and more importantly, a voice sorely missing among most of the great directors of today - the voice of advocacy. There isn't a single movie out there that Lee's made that doesn't have that voice. Advocacy filmmaking is sorely missing from the first-tier directors out there. Even a film like INSIDE MAN, on the surface a heist thriller, shows the difficulties and clashes of races and creeds who have to live together and understand each other, through all their differences. I still think 25TH HOUR is the best movie about post-9/11 America ever made.
Even Spike Lee's documentaries, like FOUR LITTLE GIRLS and the sheer fucking amazing WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE, are not only informative, but tremendously powerful. In those docs Lee gave a mike to the voiceless, those just skipped over on national television, and whether or not you agree with them, they deserve to be heard. In the world Spike Lee envisions, everyone deserves to be heard. Everyone. Lee knows, like too many people today don't, that it's great to speak, but it's more important to listen. To listen to the rage, the crying, the screaming, the laughter, the camaraderie, and the joy. That it's all there. It's all America. It'a who we are. That a simple conversation, or even a screaming, yelling, knock-down-drag-out hateful conversation is always better than the killing, the fighting, the shooting. Even if, like Mookie and Pino in DO THE RIGHT THING, they still can't come close to any kind of solution, both sides know where they stand. It's not the solution, but it's a good start. And good starts are everything. They are hope. A good start can prohibit a lousy ending. All of Spike Lee's best movies end with good starts.
I know Lee is frustrated with the state of Hollywood filmmaking these days. Every director worth a damn is. Money isn't going to the movies that need to be made, and while I love popcorn entertainment as much as anyone, that's not why I'm a movie lover. I'm a movie lover because I'm a human being, and because for a young white kid in Texas, movies were the only exposure to the larger world that I had. When I first saw DO THE RIGHT THING, it shocked me. It wounded me. And it led me to asking questions, the way all our greatest movies do. I'm excited to see what voice Lee brings to OLDBOY, and even though it's a remake, I'm happy that a quintessential American director is remaking it, because I don't think that Spike Lee would have made it had he not seen something in the material that he could make his own, that would give him something to say. And anything Spike Lee has to say is something worth paying attention to.
Sure, I don't agree with everything that Lee says or does. I don't 100% agree with anything anyone says or does. It's a dialogue, not a fight. I don't agree with what Lee said about DJANGO UNCHAINED but so what? He's earned the right to be heard on the subject. Should Lee have posted George Zimmerman's address? Of course not. But he was angry, frustrated, and upset. I've done stupid things when I'm like that. We all have. Granted most of us don't have the level of attention Lee has. He apologized for his actions, and he should have known better. But I understand why he did it. You don't have discussions with people you completely agree with. The point of dialogue is to come to an understanding, and to hear or see things that you might not like. You have to, if you're going to work through it. Again, you don't have to agree. But you have to understand.
I could be utterly wrong, and I'll be happy to be wrong. Lee may be just making a move away from film to television, for example, and if he is, I'll happily follow him and watch whatever he wants to make. But if Lee abandons filmmaking altogether, I hate to think what that means for cinema. When the voices are silenced, due to money or censorship, and all we get is simple base entertainment, we all suffer. Art is meant to provoke. To make you angry. To make you question and think. And there are no better American advocate filmmakers, with the access to the budgets and the tools that he has, than Spike Lee. And now, more than ever, we need his voice. What does it mean to do the right thing? It means pain. It means struggle. It means that people will hate you. But in the end, the world's just that much better. That's something worth fighting for.