Friday, February 08, 2013

Saturday at MFAH: Do the Right Thing -- still a hot topic

Believe it or not, there actually were intelligent people -- well, OK, reasonably intelligent people -- who feared back in the day that Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing was so incendiary, it might spark riots during its theatrical release in the summer of 1989.

But wait, there's more: As early as May that year, when Do the Right Thing had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, some journalists actually were questioning whether Lee had acted irresponsibly by making a movie with such a such a "hopeless" view of then-contemporary race relations in America.

Not surprisingly, Lee begged to differ with that characterization of his masterwork.

''I don't think this is a pessimistic film,'' Lee said during a Cannes press conference. ''I think that, at the end, there is hope.

''But, look, I wouldn't go to any movie expecting it to have an answer to AIDS, to cancer -- or to racism. What makes you think that filmmakers are gods, or Jesus Christ? What makes you think I'm a savior, that I'm gonna have an answer to racism?

 ''What I feel I have to do as a filmmaker is present a problem, so that discussion can start. Because you still have a lot of people in America who say that racism ended when Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, and black people have the vote . . . So black people have arrived, and everything is all right.

 ''But it's not. The black underclass in America now is larger than it's ever been. So you can't be lulled to sleep, into thinking that just because Eddie Murphy is huge, and Arsenio Hall has a great TV show, that we're living in a world where everything is right, and righteous and humane.''

Twenty-three years later, Do the Right Thing remains a powerful and provocative film. And part of the reason for that is, 23 years later, even after the re-election of our first African-American vice-president, we're still having heated discussions about the things that divide us -- and the things that unite us. I'll be introducing a retrospective screening of this remarkable "Spike Lee Joint" at 7 pm Saturday at the Museum of Fie Arts, Houston. Like Lee, I don't claim to have all the answers. But I do have one or two stories to tell about this movie and the man who made it.

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