Today is the 30th anniversary of the release of Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do the Right Thing, first shown at the Cannes Film Festival in France. May 19 is also the birth date of Malcolm X, whose posthumous influence on the film Mr. Lee acknowledges with a quote from him at the end, along with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.. The quotes are about non-violent resistance to oppression (the Rev. King) and the occasional need for violence in self defense against oppressors (Malcolm X). As throughout the rest of the movie, Mr. Lee makes no judgements, but merely puts those ideas out there for the audience to consider. Do the Right Thing provokes thought; it does not provide answers, and 30 years later the state of race relations in America has hardly budged from what Mr. Lee portrayed in the film.
The film did not win the highest prize at Cannes, the Palme d’Or, though it was nominated. It was not nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, and the film that won the honor for 1989 was Driving Miss Daisy, a good film about race relations but a safe one for Hollywood, and a film that in the years since has receded in importance in the rear view mirror. Nearly 30 years later, Spike Lee’s film BlacKkKlansman was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars but lost to another safe film about race relations, Green Book. Both Driving Miss Daisy and Green Book are films produced by largely white filmmakers for consumption by a largely white audience, and are meant to comfort white liberals without unduly upsetting white conservatives. That each received Hollywood’s highest honor is a testament to the institution’s eagerness to pat itself on the back for occasionally making a social message movie without rocking too many boats.
Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X waiting for a press conference to begin in March 1964. Photo by Marion S. Trikosko for U.S. News & World Report, now in a collection at the Library of Congress.
What’s missing in that equation, of course, are African-Americans. In contrast, Spike Lee has made films for everybody, and Do the Right Thing was groundbreaking in that respect. All the characters he portrays are well rounded, with good and bad aspects to all of them. As the late film critic Roger Ebert noted, there are no heroes or villains that we can easily hang labels on. Those portrayals are more true to life than the safe, near-stereotypes portrayed in Driving Miss Daisy and Green Book. The complexity can also leave some viewers uneasy, since they desire the satisfaction of stories that follow a familiar arc leading to either a comforting conclusion or one that at least ties up some loose ends of the story. Do the Right Thing provides none of that. It is a wonder a major Hollywood studio, Universal, backed the film financially and distributed it widely. That it was popular with the public and, eventually, with most critics despite its unconventionality in style and substance is a testament to how well crafted it was by Mr. Lee and his cast and crew.
Ossie Davis as Da Mayor has a confrontation with some youths on the street in Do the Right Thing. Warning: foul language.
30 years laterDo the Right Thing stays with people who view it now for the first time as much as it did with people who saw it then, prompting the same questions in their minds. A few years before Mr. Lee made the film, there was the racially charged incident at Howard Beach in the New York City borough of Queens, an incident which informed the events in Do the Right Thing. Two years after the movie came out, there was the police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, and despite the incident being filmed by a bystander, showing the excessive use of force by the police, the cops were subsequently cleared in court, leading to riots in black neighborhoods. There has been no end of ugly, often fatal, incidents in America like those portrayed in the movie, and they just keep coming, like waves pounding the shore. The observations Spike Lee made in Do the Right Thing about race relations in America are still relevant today; the question remains – is anybody listening well enough to change things?
“I just want to say – you know – can we all get along? Can we, can we get along? Can we stop making it horrible for the older people and the kids?”
— Rodney King, speaking on television in relation to the riots in Los Angeles on May 1, 1992, after a jury acquitted the police who beat him the year before.
Amazon.com,the internet’s everything store, recently announced it will be opening two secondary headquarters, one in the New York City borough of Queens, and the other in the Arlington, Virginia, area near Washington, D.C.. City and state officials in both locations offered Amazon enormous benefits at taxpayers’ expense, though the exact amounts are unknown because officials claim they have a competitive advantage by keeping their bids secret.
Nonsense. It’s the taxpayers’ money and they have every right to know how officials spend it. The whole nationwide competition for Amazon’s secondary headquarters was a yearlong sham and circus, the kind of municipal debasement and looting that has become far too common as states and cities are pitted against each other for the dubious prize bestowed on them by corporate behemoths relocating or opening new places of business.
Caricature of “Organized Big Business Interests” illustrated by John Miller Baer (1886-1970) for part of the November 17, 1919 cover ofThe Nonpartisan Leader. Nearly one hundred years later, a caricature of a big business interest is more likely to appear trim and fit, wearing jeans and a turtleneck or other informal clothing.
Amazon is to labor practices and corporate citizenship as an internet business as Walmart is to labor practices and corporate citizenship among brick and mortar stores, which is to say they are leaders in their respective fields in abusing their lowest tier workers and siphoning funds away from local communities. Both Jeff Bezos, head of Amazon, and the Walton family at the head of Walmart are obscenely rich. They got that way because of their cleverness at exploiting the properties mentioned above, not because of their own virtuousness and hard work as they would have everyone believe. There are millions upon millions of people who are every bit as virtuous and hard working as Mr. Bezos and the Walton family, probably more so, and they are not obscenely rich, or even well off.
Buy Nothing Day demonstration in San Francisco, California, in November 2000. Photo by Lars Aronsson.
Mr. Bezos and others like him are obscenely rich because they are, among their other qualities in starting and running a business, both good and bad, obscenely greedy. Shoppers visiting the Amazon website cannot be blamed for taking advantage of the low prices and good service. That would be a kind of “blaming the victim”. Besides, it is all too easy for shoppers to forget about or remain ignorant of Amazon’s bad labor practices and exploitative corporate citizenship since it does those things mostly out of sight and therefore out of mind, a benefit it has as an internet company that Walmart does not have as a brick and mortar outfit.
Shoppers might fairly ask themselves, however, that even if they are not entirely complicit in sustaining Mr. Bezos’s greed, perhaps their own much smaller proportion of greed is something worth examining. It is a form of greed that drives most purchases from Amazon. Amazon sells some necessities such as groceries, but then so do stores at neighborhood shopping centers throughout the country. Most of what Amazon sells are not necessities. They are convenient luxuries, great or small, delivered to the shopper’s door. With the enormous emphasis on shopping around Thanksgiving all but swallowing up the holiday and its meaning, people might want to step back from the shopping cart, both real and virtual, and reflect on how their own petty greed feeds the monstrous greed of Jeff Bezos and his fellow billionaires and millionaires, while around the world millions upon millions of decent people go hungry.
The headlines in the corporate media after the Democratic primary victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York’s 14th congressional district on June 26 often omitted her name in favor of touting the loss by her opponent, establishment Democrat Joseph Crowley, whom the corporate media did name. Brushing aside the intentional or unintentional slight of the old boys’ club in the corporate media and Democratic party establishment, the victory of Ms. Ocasio-Cortez in the 14th district in New York, a district encompassing the eastern Bronx and part of the Queens boroughs of New York City, was a major step forward for the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), of which she is a member.
A panoramic view of the antennas of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) on the Chajnantor Plateau in the Chilean Andes against a starry night sky. The Moon and the Milky Way are visible across the center of the sky. Photo by Babak Tafreshi. The Democratic Party establishment keeps looking for new stars to lead it, ignoring the new leaders emerging from the grass roots and pushing them aside.
Fox News blowhard Sean Hannity posted the following list on his television show of the points in Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s platform, no doubt with the idea of horrifying his viewers with her plan for destroying America, if not all of western civilization:
Medicare for all
Housing as a human right
A federal jobs guarantee
Gun control / Assault weapons ban
Criminal justice reform / End private prisons
Immigration justice / Abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)
Solidarity with Puerto Rico
Mobilizing against climate change
Clean campaign finance
Higher education for all
Curb Wall Street gambling / Restore Glass Steagall
Actually, that all sounds pretty good! Thanks, Mr. Hannity! With that agenda, it’s no wonder Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the DSA are worrying not only the retrograde part of the electorate represented by Sean Hannity, but the Democratic Party establishment lately represented by Joseph Crowley. Let’s look forward to that agenda catching on with voters and being pushed by them across the country in areas beyond the Democratic Party stronghold of New York’s 14th congressional district.
The ending of Ron Fricke’s 1992 film Baraka, with music by Michael Stearns.