Twice now I have seen the film Selma, and twice now I’ve been moved to my core by the disturbing imagery depicting the even more disturbing truth of its subject, the invidious and virulent nature of American racism. The film is an unequivocal, uncompromising, and unfettered retelling of the events of Selma, Alabama 1965; and still, as riveting as this film is, it is anchored (purposely) in the past. Thus, some may see this as an opportunity to consider the very relevant matters addressed in this period piece as, likewise, left in the past. Racism is over may very well be the proclamation of these seemingly optimistic viewers.
While this claim earns a rebuttal when considering the film in itself, I purport that there is another film that when viewed and analyzed side-by-side with Selma offers a different sort of retort to this post-racial determination. The film in question serves almost as a natural sequel to this film: the great Spike Lee’s 1989 Do The Right Thing.
Now, of the best lines of dialogue in Selma there exists almost prophetic proclamations on contemporary race issues as instantiated differently from the more direct and visceral racism of the age. This is obviously in part due to the film’s 21st century creation; however, upon listening to the original ponderings of King and other civil rights leaders of the era, they likewise made similar premonitions about the workings of racism after their time ended. There is little question that the main stay of this movie is in its portrayal of this country’s not so distant racial past, but the film also foreshadows in these lines the progression of America’s racial dynamic from overt Jim Crow oppression to a more complex and subdued racial paradigm: the so called ‘post’ racial society that is not so post-racial.
The lyrics found in the finale song “Glory”, as well as the words of Alabama Governor George Wallace in his meeting with President Lyndon B. Johnson are the best examples of this implicit statement of reference to a modern, racial America. The clues are subtle, yet present. The power of Lee’s Do The Right Thing is how it as a sister film exposes the fact that a subdued racist America is just as if not more invidious than historical overt American examples of racism. His film is a 2 and a half hour allegory for Malcolm X’s powder keg bursting, the subtle race-motivated tensions and stereotypes so ‘eloquently’ foreshadowed by the dialogue of George Wallace bubbling to a racial explosion.
Spike Lee’s 1989 masterpiece Do The Right Thing is genius in its juxtaposition of Jim Crow America and so called ‘post-racial’ America, but Lee’s priorities are reversed here. The film’s main stay is in its portrayal of the present. He compares the contemporary prospect of racial progress with what is often considered ‘past’ racial tensions that undergird these moderns conflicts. The clues are vibrant and ever-present in the film.
Do The Right Thing premiered in 1989, but is still a relevant depiction of the racial, social and economic hardships present today. It does not force feed you any one particular message, but rather allows the viewer to exam for themselves the unraveling of this gunpowder keg of a community. Certainly there are overtures proclaiming that there is still a race problem in America, but it does not tell you what it is or how it should be handled. In short, it shows but does not tell, the hallmark of a great film.
The double quote at the end of the movie coupled with the character Mookie’s presence throughout the film only corroborates this view. Violence is not the answer as it is certainly ugly. But Do The Right Things asks a vital question: under what conditions can or ought a community “defend” itself, and from what should it protect itself and how might it execute this protection? The edgy and yet morally upright protagonist Mookie being the one to exacerbate the riot during the climax of the film (as opposed to some stereotypical “revolutionary” character like Radio Raheem) is an example of no one in the film living up the prescription of the title, ‘Do The Right Thing’. Different forms of tension bubble over, and everyone’s subdued emotions by a false post-raciality come to a head.
So again, this question of under what conditions can a community defend itself is at the fore of Lee’s piece. Defend itself from, what? I submit that Lee’s climax holds the answer. The death of Radio Raheem by the hands of NYPD while controversial hails back to an all too similar devaluation of black lives as portrayed in Selma. Both climatic events in both films have underpinning them the issues of race and racism. In the era of the civil rights movement, the response of non-violence on the part of the oppressed was clear to the public, but no so much behind closed doors. From the laymen protester that yearned for his rifle to King himself, the movement struggled with the notion of non-violent protest and civil disobedience in the face of physical harm. The resulting critiques by the likes of Malcolm X and the young Black Panther Party founders would make way for the notion of self-defense and equality by any means necessary. In this way, the oppressed group can defend itself against the manifestations of racial oppression. Radio Raheem’s heated nature, large physique, confrontational demeanor is Lee’s representation of what might happen in a ‘post-racial’ world if the oppressed group faces very real racial problems. Malcolm’s keg will burst.
As I interpret it, this is Lee’s recognition of the shift of racially intolerant viewpoints from the refugee of an openly white supreme 1960s America to a subtly white dominated modern era. I argue that the Occupy Wall Street and the Black Lives Matter movements of the 21st century are real life, modern instantiations of this powder keg blowing.
This article is by no means a qualitative comparison between the two films, but rather a retrospective on race relations in America as seen through the analytic lens of these two films side by side. If one is a reminder of our not so distant past, then the other is certainly a reminder of our all too familiar present. They are not adversarial, but rather complementary with one being the natural flow to the other.
If Selma is a time capsule that predicts what is to come for America social landscape, then Do The Right Thing is kid that pulls out the capsule from the dirt some 20-30 years later to reveal a mirror. This mirror displays the validity of Selma’s prediction of our current social condition through its reflection of modern racial and socioeconomic affairs bringing to light its complexities, relevance and presence. That is the beauty of Selma. That is the brilliance of Do The Right Thing.
(Any an all photo materials used in this post unless otherwise noted are the full and exclusive right under trademark and copyright laws to their respective owners. These images were used under the Fair Use laws under which blogging is a permissible use of content within bounds. We submit our use here meets these legal bounds).