For a long time, I primarily made sense of the world through the movies. I read books and newspapers, too, but in those endeavors I mostly hovered above the surface of what might be uncomfortable, what might challenge my conceptions about how society worked. I wasn’t blind to injustice and bigotry, but I also didn’t understand how deeply in bore into the lives of people who were oppressed, especially it it was the color of their skin that was the prime motivating factor behind they bigotry they endlessly endured. I grew up in a time and place when there was little official impetus in my schooling to expand my understanding beyond the canon of white, mostly male writers. They defined the human experience. Any other perspective was counterargument.
I think it’s accurate to say that the first work of fiction that forced me to properly understand the vast difference between my experiences and those of African-Americans was Do the Right Thing, written and directed by Spike Lee. Released in the summer of 1989, Lee’s third film depicted one day in a Brooklyn neighborhood filled with people growing tense and weary on an oppressively hot day. The narrative reaches its devastating turning point when police officers murder a resident known as Radio Raheem (played by Bill Nunn), choking the life out of him in a supposed attempt to keep the peace. A riot ensues, ravaging the neighborhood in an expression of pent-up frustration, the voiceless striving to be heard, noticed, respected, valued, safe. It’s been over thirty years since that Lee joint hit, and the wounds on the nation it depicts have only deepened and grown more clear. The garbage can hurled through a window makes more sense with every passing day.
Especially through the remainder of the nineteen-nineties, Lee’s words continued to command attention. He wrote about what he experience and what he saw inflicted on those around him, who needed to remain guarded around police and other authority figures. Choices scrutinized and behaviors instinctively condemned, even as the same choices and behaviors were quickly excused when they were made and done by white people. Lee depicted prejudice unblinkingly and met rash, ill-illformed challenges to his integrity with appropriate fire. More than any other filmmaker of the era, Lee was in a constant dialogue with society. If he didn’t have all the answers, he was damn well certain to keep asking questions. Through his films — especially through his pointed, passionate words — he taught many, myself included, the importance of listening.
Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “My Writers” tag.