Last week, I had the rare pleasure of seeing Spike Lee speak to a sold-out room of people in Hartford, Connecticut at the Bushnell Theatre.
Listening to him speak about a variety of topics from the state of our politics to the art of film making, I realized that some things don’t change — he was still the fast speaking Brooklyn boy who told enticing and flashy stories; he was still the innovative movie director, who mixed profoundly human stories with cinematic expertise (see his signature double dolly shot); but most importantly, I realized that the America he captured on film in the 80’s and 90’s is still the America we live in today.
One of Spike Lee’s most famous movies Do The Right Thing tells the story of a neighborhood at odds with itself. An Italian family owns a diner in a rapidly changing neighborhood in Brooklyn. Pino, the father, and the owner of the diner is intent on staying in the location, while his son Sal, intensely dislikes black people and hopes to leave.
The movie reaches its pinnacle when Buggin’ Out and Raheem, two black characters, enter the restaurant and demand that Pino adds black people to the wall of fame in his establishment. The conflict escalates when Pino bashes Raheem’s radio with a baseball bat, and the bedlam spills outside for the whole neighborhood to see.
The conflict ends with Raheem dead in a police choke hold as he and the entire neighborhood watch the police drive to the station with his body in the back seat.
Watching this scene, I was struck by what seemed like Lee’s prophetic ability.
In July of 2014, bystanders watched as police used an illegal chokehold on a defenseless Eric Garner, who was accused of selling cigarettes without a license. He was pronounced dead at the hospital. Garner’s death took place in Queens, New York — a stone’s throw from Bedford-Stuyvesant, where Raheem’s fictional death took place.
Garner’s last words were chanted at protests across the country. “I can’t breathe” was a hymn.
Lee is adamant about one thing; he didn’t find film — it found him. It was the summer of 1975 when he came back to New York City from Morehouse College in Atlanta, desperate for direction.
He’d spent the last two years taking general educations courses to fill his requirements and get credits, but hadn’t yet picked a major. That summer, New York was facing dire straits. There were no jobs, and tensions were high. Having refused a bail-out that would ease some of the fiscal pressures the city was facing, President Gerald Ford notoriously told the metropolis to “drop dead”.
Weary of a summer that might not hold much more than Strat-O-Matic baseball games on the stoop and block parties, Lee decided to visit a friend across town, Vietta, who studied at the elite Stuyvesant High School. On her desk sat a Super 8 film camera, for which she had no need — she was studying to be a doctor. She gave it to Lee, who took it back to Brooklyn, and began to record aspects of daily life.
That summer, armed with a new camera and box of film cartridges, Lee had a front row seat tp what he refers to as “the craziest summer ever”. In the following months, he witnessed not only the despair caused by the economic downturn, but also a heatwave, blackouts, looting, the fear that serial killer David “son of Sam” Berkowitz instilled in the city, and the birth of disco music.
Upon returning to school, he declared a major in Film, and sought to turn the footage he shot that summer into a documentary called Last Hustle in Brooklyn.
Reclining in his chair on the stage of the Bushnell in Hartford, he recalled these moments fondly. “I didn’t find film… Film found me…”
Fast forward nearly a half century, to another summer which many describe as crazy; in August of 2017, Charlottesville, Virginia made headlines as protestors gathered for the Unite the Right rally. Thousands descended upon the city, echoing Neo-fascist and Neo-nazi sentiments. Swastikas, iron crosses and Confederate flags flew proudly as protestors donning tiki torches chanted violent and menacing slogans. Later, a driver plowed through a crowd of counter protestors, killing 1 person and injuring 19 others.
In August of 2018, Lee released BlackKklansman, based on the true story of Ron Stallworth, a black man who infiltrated a Ku Klux Klan chapter by pretending to be a white man in the 1970's. With only a telephone and the guise of a false persona, Stalworth went on to expose the Klan’s scheme to bomb a civil rights rally.
The thing that seamlessly unites a Spike Lee film with real life is that after seeing both, you’re left with a sense of disbelief, thinking, “Wow, what did I just see?”
When I was 16 years old and I woke up to news that Garner had been killed by police, I was shocked, and began to comprehend the depth of racial injustice that permeates the communities in which we live. When I watched Raheem die in Do The Right Thing, I was just as shocked. But, in both cases, I understood that these were not entirely impossible scenarios.
Similarly, Stallworth’s chilling discovery of a violently racist KKK chapter that was active and thriving in Colorado Springs, Colorado, left us just as bewildered as when we watched men and women flock to Charlottesville, chanting racially divisive rallying cries nearly five decades later.
Lee has built his career on good storytelling. In his 1992 biopic of Malcolm X, he documents his rise from a black man in the Omaha Nebraska, to one of the nation’s storied black civil rights activists.
The emotional weight of each scene mirrors reality. In May of 1965, Malcom X single-handedly stared down the NYPD in protest of the brutal and unfair arrest of Reece Poe. With the support of thousands of protestors from the Nation of Islam, X marched up to the NYPD 28th Precinct, demanding the release of Poe.
Watching Lee’s dramatic rendition of Malcolm’s fearless confrontation with a racist and corrupt NYPD made me feel as if I was there, experiencing the moment myself on West 123rd ST in Harlem that summer.
According to Spike Lee, Denzel Washington’s performance of Malcolm X was so inspirited that at times, he would completely blank out while filming, and not remember a single line he said. Lee was convinced that he was seeing Malcolm X’s spirit through the actor.
Storytelling is beautiful in this way.
The movies that brought Lee to the forefront of American cinema are but more advanced and complex versions of the videos he shot in the summer of 1975. They maintain the same spirit. Essential is the raw essence, longing and vitality of Brooklyn— the world. DJ’s on stoops with turntables hooked up to street lamps; fire hydrants pried open as kids dance in streams of water for hope of relief from the summer sun; two lovers sharing a tender moment in the night.
The most enticing narratives are not just the ones that are imaginative or fantastical — they are the ones that are so close to reality that they augment the world in which we live, forcing us to appreciate and question our true narratives.