I’ve had a VHS copy of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing sitting next to my TV, in my family’s living room, for as long as I can remember.
Its particular relevance struck me this morning, on the heels of protests in response to the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis. The fate of the film’s character Radio Rahim is as vivid as ever, just over 30 years later.
It was 1989, and my (now wife, then girlfriend) Jeannie and I – having met in the Los Angeles area – not necessarily knowing WHAT we wanted to do, but knowing we wanted out of where we were, sought a dramatic change. Both children of immigrants (which might explain our wanderlust), having attended very diverse public schools that reflected our own diverse backgrounds, we knew we needed somewhere that would reflect that…not just any place would do.
So, we packed three suitcases between us, and – with the help of Jeannie’s friend Carl (his Guyanese family still resided in Brooklyn), we headed to that borough of NYC, two young people with little money, but lots of spirit…and naivete.
We managed to move into an apartment on President Street, just off Flatbush Ave. As it turns out, it would be just a few blocks from Spike’s Joint, Spike Lee’s “pop up” shop, his having experienced some success with his recently released third film, Do the Right Thing.
Jeannie and I both respected that film, and as budding high school teachers, recognized how its message affected the community, and young people, that we were just beginning to prepare ourselves for. Its “anthem” (Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”) had resonated with anyone who recognized systemic racism, especially as directed at Black Americans.
It would be less than a year later that another race-related conflict (Crown Heights riots) would occur on our street, only blocks away. It was an early taste of what Lee was getting at (and many before him – and many after); that systemic racism plagues our country – and if not dealt with, will continue to cripple us.
After finishing programs at Brooklyn College (she even obtaining her MA), we were excited at starting our teaching careers with Brooklyn’s pubic high school students – she, at Brooklyn Tech; I, at Brooklyn’s Midwood High.
But it wasn’t to be, as (then NYC mayor) Rudolph Giuliani’s Draconian (I didn’t even know that word existed until then) cuts to public education forced both schools to rescind their job offers to us. Just out of college, with no job or prospects, we packed our things, fit them into a car we bought in Queens, and drove cross country…having heard of a new “promised land” (the Silicon Valley, in California’s Bay Area) that was growing rapidly…and needed teachers.
We spent part of the summer driving and exploring (14 states!) before resettling into the East Bay, where we would both teach public high school English for nearly a decade.
We’d find out later (when we provided job references) that our Brooklyn schools had been trying to track us down, to re-offer us our positions. Though that wasn’t to be I believe NYC, and it’s profound and dynamic influence, is inescapable.
Now, both of us teach in East Portland, working with (a growing population of) immigrants, students of color, and Black students…we find ourselves (once again) viewing a world that fails to recognize historic injustices directed at them, and also fails to support them disproportionately…as they suffer the most due to subpar health care, and other services.
The same can be said about Spike Lee’s work, in its continuing recognition of injustice, specifically directed at Black people.
I am not sure how Do the Right Thing holds up stylistically; I am going to try to get my teenage children to watch it. Though the film had many messages, the one I choose to come away with (based on the title, and on reflection), is that awareness is key, apathy is unacceptable…IF love is to triumph.
One thing is certain; its message is more relevant than ever.