Art is a weird thing. Art is very much against the grain of an instant gratification society. When art is created, it is not always clear what will stand the test of time. This is true of art in all its forms – painting, sculpture, music, dance, literature, film, and so forth. I read an article today on CNN that got me thinking of a film that was released 20 years ago. CNN wrote about the release of Do the Right Thing. I remember the controversy surrounding the film’s release, but it was not until probably 5-6 years later that I saw it for the first time. As I read the article, I looked back at some of the other films released in 1989 – Batman, Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade, Lethal Weapon 2, Look Who’s Talking, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Back to the Future 2, Ghostbusters 2, The Little Mermaid, Driving Miss Daisy, and Parenthood were the top 10 movies financially for the year. Other memorable films released that year were Dead Poets Society, Major League, Bill & Ted’s, When Harry Met Sally, Born on the 4th of July, Glory, Christmas Vacation, and many more listed here. Truly it was a great year for films.
Of all those movies, however, few if any match Do the Right Thing for the sheer challenge contained within the film, in my opinion. Many of those films were inspiring, encouraging, funny, exciting, dynamic, strange, beautiful, and much more. But Do the Right Thing pushes me in a way that few other films have done for me. It is by no means an easy film to watch – from the content to the message to even the visual style of the film. But it is a film that speaks strongly to the dynamics of racism from many different angles. Its not a film that simply portrays racism from one perspective, but it shows many different facets. It lifts it up and asks questions from one direction, then another, and then another. Crash did a similar thing a few years ago, but in a much less dynamic manner in my opinion.
We worked our way through Do the Right Thing in one of our Theology @ the Movies groups a few years ago when we were talking about social topics and it was a very deep discussion about the experiences of racism in our city, in our personal lives, and in our world.
If you have not seen the film, I encourage you to do so, while fully lifting up the fact that this movie will push you in ways that might be uncomfortable and potentially convicting. But it gives a strong word about the realities that divide us still today.
The film ends (not spoiling the ending though) with two quotes that show the tension that exists in this vital topic in our world – one from Martin Luther King and one from Malcolm X:
Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys a community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends by defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.
– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I think there are plenty of good people in America, but there are also plenty of bad people in America and the bad ones are the ones who seem to have all the power and be in these positions to block things that you and I need. Because this is the situation, you and I have to preserve the right to do what is necessary to bring an end to that situation, and it doesn’t mean that I advocate violence, but at the same time I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don’t even call it violence when it’s self-defense, I call it intelligence.
– Malcolm X
These two quotes capture the challenge and the messages of Do the Right Thing, still speaking twenty years later…
If you do see the film, you can check out the study guide that my wife and I put together for the film.