The Return of Spike Lee?

In the April 14, 2008, issue of New York, there is something called the New York Canon celebrating 40 years of New York culture on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the publication. In the movie section, written by the ever-incomparable David Edelstein, there is a list of movies that reflect New York-ness in some way. (A note about David Edelstein: You can keep Anthony Lane and David Denby, both of the New Yorker, Edelstein is up there -- and maybe even bests -- AO Scott and Manhola Dargis of the New York Times as the premier New York film critic.)

Movies like "Annie Hall," "The French Connection," "Taxi Driver," "Wall Street," and "Kids" are all reflective of different periods in New York's recent history and are found on the list. There are some things missing -- "The Warriors" is most notable to my mind -- but quibbling over something called "The New York Canon" in a magazine as painfully self-aware as New York is an exercise in futility, even if a writer as excellent as Edelstein is the one whose name is slapped above the list. The movie canon is merely a reflection, mostly, of Edelstein's good taste and understanding and appreciation of cinema history with some New York magazine institutional influence peppered around ("El Topo"? Really?).

One of the movies in the canon -- a movie that needed, no demanded, to be canonized -- is Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing." Lee made the movie in 1989 as a way of reflecting the inequities and harsh truths of what life in Bed-Stuy -- in New York -- in the late '80s meant for an entire range of peoples in the city. Lee's New York isn't the coked up, awash-in-other-people's-cash New York of Gordon Gecko in "Wall Street." It is an angry, seething powder keg of racial distrust, class conflict, and ideological stalemates that needed only the hint of a spark to explode. And it does, in the movie, on the hottest day of the year.

So incendiary was the movie and it's climax -- a riot erupting in response to the beating death of a popular black youth at the hands of aggressive, overzealous white city cops -- that Hollywood and some critics (Denby among them, reviewing the movie for New York) thought that a whole bunch of stuff was about to be stirred up in the summer of '89 thanks to Lee. The nerve of that young, angry black guy to say things in New York City pretty much sucked for everyone that wasn't white and didn't work on Wall Street.

"Do the Right Thing" is still as immediate today, nearly 20 years later, as it was then. This is partly a sad reflection of the state of our culture and how far we haven't gone -- in fact, we've probably regressed -- in race and class issues, but it's also a reflection on how great a filmmaker Spike Lee was in 1989. The movie brims with the confidence of a writer-director (Lee also stars in the movie) who has at last found his voice. (Prior to "Do the Right Thing," Lee directed two other films, "She's Gotta Have It" and "School Daze.")

Unfortunately, as is prone to happen to filmmakers from time to time, Lee kind of wavered as his career picked up steam. For every "Malcolm X," there was a "Bamboozled;" for every "25th Hour," there was a "She Hate Me." But with "25th Hour," it seemed like Lee found what had been missing in many of his mid-1990's work: the fire of someone just pissed off at the state of things around him. He parlayed that ire into the harrowing documentary "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts." It was the return of the Spike Lee of old. He just needed a little prodding.

This fiery resurrection is on full display in the Q&A with Lee in the April 14 New York. Logan Hill talks to Lee about the making of "Do the Right Thing." While there is some talk about what went into the making of the movie, a lot of Lee's opinions are laced with a familiar, unmistakable ascerbicism.

Take, for example, the following exchange, found roughly in the middle of the interview:

Do the Right Thing never won an Oscar. Remember what Kim Basinger did? Onstage she said, “The best film of the year is not even nominated, and it’s Do the Right Thing.” I didn’t even know her. But when Driving Miss Motherfucking Daisy won Best Picture, that hurt … No one’s talking about Driving Miss Daisy now.

He's right. "Driving Miss Daisy" is just another Best Picture mistake today. But there is more to it than an undeserving movie winning Best Picture. When you compare the genteel "Driving Miss Daisy" to the inciteful "Do the Right Thing," 20 years later, it's fairly obvious that there are some interesting racial politics at work. The Old South versus Modern NYC. A middle-aged black valet for an older white woman versus a young black man standing up to the white establishment. A wrapped-in-southern-comfort happy ending versus an off-putting difficult ending of dystopia.

Yes, "Driving Miss Daisy" is the Academy Awards version of how to solve racial politics, whereas "Do the Right Thing" is the street-level realization that things are bad and they'll get worse before they get better, if they ever do. (The Academy would make a similar mistake in 2005 when it awarded "Crash" the Best Picture award for a similar oversimplification of racial politics.)

The issue of racial politics provides Lee with his most biting criticism -- and his best "fuck you" -- in the New York Q&A. The last two questions are reserved for Lee's thoughts on Barack Obama and his historic run for President:

What do you think of Obama? I’m riding my man Obama. I think he’s a visionary. Actually, Barack told me the first date he took Michelle to was Do the Right Thing. I said, “Thank God I made it. Otherwise you would have taken her to Soul Man. Michelle would have been like, ‘What’s wrong with this brother?’ ”

Does this mean you’re down on the Clintons? The Clintons, man, they would lie on a stack of Bibles. Snipers? That’s not misspeaking; that’s some pure bullshit. I voted for Clinton twice, but that’s over with. These old black politicians say, “Ooh, Massuh Clinton was good to us, massuh hired a lot of us, massuh was good!” Hoo! Charlie Rangel, David Dinkins—they have to understand this is a new day. People ain’t feelin’ that stuff. It’s like a tide, and the people who get in the way are just gonna get swept out into the ocean.

Once again, Lee is right on. His comments are borne from the frustration of being told what to do by an establishment trying to say, "Look how much good we did for you before!" Past good deeds rarely translate into future benefits -- that's one of the endearing messages of "Do the Right Thing" and one of the reasons it remains relevant while the utopia espoused by "Driving Miss Daisy" is now merely a statistic in some book of Academy Awards facts.

The last time Spike Lee was really angry, he gave the world "Do the Right Thing." Perhaps his remarks in New York are the beginnings of another moment of disgust that will translate into a renaissance for the Spike Lee Joint.