It’s a moment I think about, a lot, one that taught me as much about myself as it did a subject as important as race and a quarter century later, it’s still a defining moment in my life.
Spike Lee’s best movie, Do The Right Thing, turns 25 this week, released June 30, 1989 and it may be more important now than it was during that sweltering summer.
I was college freshman when the film came out but didn’t see it until 11 months later. I grew up in a sheltered suburban section of Atlanta, Georgia with little interaction with people who didn’t look like or act like me. College changed that. By May 1990, I’d finished two years of school, made new friends from different backgrounds, become entrenched in the student radio and television stations and a regular in the local Tuscaloosa, Alabama music scene, too. I was still clueless about race relations. I had no close friends of color. My politics were almost identical to what they are today, liberal, but I wasn’t walking the walk, because my life was as lilywhite as dunking powdered doughnuts in whole milk.
My alma mater, the University of Alabama, offered an interim session where you could take a six-week class, covering three credit hours. There was a sports casting course I was convinced would turn me into Bob Costas so I stuck around after everyone went home for the summer, took my chances the dorm Lords would match me with someone I’d never met, and braced for my not so golden throat being transformed into Vin Scully.
When Kevin arrived an hour after me in our temporary home, his shoulder shrug and eye roll met my uncomfortable swallow. He was black. I was not. For some reason, maybe it was my naiveté or something I hadn’t figured out yet, I decided this was going to be awesome. I extended my hand. He summoned every once of class he had and shook it.
The first couple of nights were mostly full of silence and brief exchanges of politeness, “no, you go ahead and use the shower” or “whatever you want to watch on TV is cool”. The TV was mine but the VCR was his.
The third day together was weird. Kevin wore his emotions on his sleeve, pants leg, and shoe tops. He stomped into the room several times. Like me, he was a voracious reader but I hadn’t seen him pick up a book. He mentioned his interim class was African American studies but I’d been too stupid or self-absorbed to ask about it. Then he brought in a movie.
What makes Do The Right Thing work is its fearlessness as a result of its African-American point of view. Spike Lee’s characters are loud, drenched in sweat, and have something to say. The scene I’ll never forget, besides watching the Radio Raheem character get killed police officers using a chokehold, was Giancarlo Esposito’s character Buggin Out making a big deal about Sal’s pizzeria not having any people of color on their “wall of fame” despite the fact the business was located in a mostly black neighborhood. It’s the kind of arguments we have today, where white people act like racism doesn’t exist and black people are incredulous at the lack of respect they’re given in the smallest of circumstances.
Public Enemy was huge among everyone I knew back then and their soundtrack, featuring one of the greatest anthems of any genre, Fight The Power, drives the film. By the time the dust settles and fires die down, literally and figuratively, Do The Right Thing changes you, well, it changed me.
Kevin and I watched without saying much. I think he was digging my reaction, mostly shock and a lot of awe. When he got up and turned off the tape, he turned to me and asked.
“You want to get a pizza.”
I got on my shoes, followed him to the pub across the street and we talked about Malcolm X.
Later I learned he’d been so hostile the day we watched the movie because his cousin has been arrested the night before after a fight with a white guy, who was let go.
Do The Right Thing needs to be shown to mixed audiences, today. It’s message of finding middle ground, somehow, someway, before more people get hurt is powerful.
Kevin and I had a good six weeks together. We stayed friends, including being in fantasy baseball leagues together, and going to a De La Soul concert. I’m glad I didn’t leave the room and go the pizza pub by myself while he watched the movie. The way it all turned out, I decided to just do the right thing.
Here’s PE, motherblank Elvis and John Wayne.
I wrote two books. They got good reviews. The third one, a sequel to the first, Woman Of Troy, is on the way, very soon.
The Ballad of Helene Troy, an underdog story about a female musician in New York City, and Soul To Body, about an ex-1990s guitar player trying to raise his teenage daughter after the death of his wife, her mother, are available, digitally, on Amazon.com for your kindles, and in paperback from Lulu.com