Saturday, November 29, 2014

Fight the power: Do the Right Thing and the struggle between Hate and Love

A tremendous cast, including John Turturro and Michael B. Jordan, gathered for a reading of Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing on Friday at the Lincoln Center in New York as part of #BlackoutBlackFriday, organized by Blackout for Human Rights.

The climax of Spike Lee’s 1989 masterpiece Do the Right Thing features a number of the characters calling out the names of African-American victims of police brutality. In a live reading of one of Lee’s early drafts, performed Friday at the Lincoln Center in New York, only one name was called out: Eric Garner.

The name will be familiar to you if you read the news, and it will not be familiar if these are the things to which you prefer to turn a blind eye. What is certain is Lee could not have known the name when he wrote his masterful original screenplay. As a result, it may seem like an anachronism, but cleverly, Lee begins the script with the setting: Brooklyn, present. It was his world then, it is our world now, but little has changed.

Coogler (bottom right) with Turturro and Jordan.
Blackout for Human Rights, a collective of artists, activists, and citizens dedicated to exposing and correcting the myriad human rights violations that plague the U.S., organized the reading as part of its national #BlackoutBlackFriday campaign. Filmmakers Ryan Coogler and Shaka King brought together an impressive cast of actors to read the seminal civil rights film in front of a packed house on a day of protest and solidarity around the country.

In Coogler’s own words: “In the last few months or so the network has been working together, we came up with the idea of making Black Friday – which is a day that comes right after everybody is spending time with their families and it’s this huge day of consumerism and all these other ideas – we thought about making it a day of activism, where people can put their energy toward something else.”

Coogler is the director of the excellent, critically acclaimed Fruitvale Station, which tackles the shooting death of Oscar Grant and is a kind of Do the Right Thing for the new millennium. In fact, the whole evening felt like a passing of the torch as one generation of activist filmmakers led the next into the struggle. In addition to Coogler and King taking the reins behind the scenes, a number of younger and older actors were handed the film’s iconic characters and given the chance to breathe new life into Lee’s script.

Fruitvale Station star Michael B. Jordan handled the leading role of Mookie, originally played by Lee, while John Turturro returned to the material in the part of Sal, the pizzeria owner whose son Turturro portrayed 25 years ago. Frankie Faison was among the returning cast members, reprising his role as Coconut Sid, one of the men on the corner, but no actor returned to greater effect than Lee’s sister, Joie Lee. Joie Lee took over the character of Mother Sister from the recently departed Ruby Dee, providing an emotionally satisfying experience that came full circle from its original portrayal.

Also joining the cast were the excellent Mtume Gant as Buggin’ Out, Gbenga Akinnagbe as Radio Raheem, Melonie Diaz as Tina, Morgan Spector as Pino, Roger Robinson as Da Mayor, and comedian Godfrey as the disc jockey Mister Senor Love Daddy, among others. For what King described as “a cold read,” the actors did an admirable job of bringing out the beauty, poignancy, and life of Spike Lee’s words.

What stands out even now is how evocative Lee’s script is and just how well wrought the world of the story becomes. He creates a fully realized portrait of a city dealing with the demons of its past, present, and likely future. That it was nominated only for Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars is a travesty, but the film exists beyond awards and box office. It is a cultural touchstone, bringing to harsh light the brutality of the world in which we live. It never shies away from the truth; it never flinches at what it finds; and it never fails to explore the pain of honesty.

Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) tells us about Love and Hate.
Late in the script, Mookie runs into Radio Raheem on the street, and Radio Raheem tells him the story of Love and Hate:

“Let me tell you the story of Right Hand, Left Hand. It's a tale of good and evil. Hate: It was with this hand that Cane iced his brother. Love: These five fingers, they go straight to the soul of man. The right hand – the hand of love. The story of life is this: static. One hand is always fighting the other hand, and the left hand is kicking much ass. I mean, it looks like the right hand, Love, is finished. But hold on, stop the presses, the right hand is coming back. Yeah, he got the left hand on the ropes, now, that's right. Ooh, it's a devastating right, and Hate is hurt. He's down. Left Hand, Hate, KO’ed by Love.”

One need only look in the newspapers, on TV, or even out in the streets to tell what part of the story we are living right now. Hate dominates, but Love is always in the picture. It is thanks to organizations such as Blackout for Human Rights, among many others, that Love still has a chance, but it is up to each and every one of us to fight the power that is Hate.

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