by Brian Bergen-Aurand
“Always do the right thing.” ~Da Mayor
For Black History Month 2017, I am writing on a black film each day. The expressions will be personal and critical. The scope will be limited to what I have seen and remember seeing. I will not be going into great detail about each film, nor do I expect to exhaust much analytical inquiry through this venture. However, I hope the catalog of 28 titles (or perhaps a few more by the end) will raise a few issues and provoke a few folks to see one or two they may have missed over the years.
I begin with Spike Lee’s 1989 Do the Right Thing, the first black film I remember seeing as a black film. I might cite the miniseries Roots (1977), which I watched with my family or the film Flashdance (1983), with its mixed-race and mix-ethnicity leading actors, which was the first R-rated film I saw in a theater. But, I had little critical race awareness at the age of 9 or even 15, and I do not remember experiencing these films as black films. I had grown up on television series such as Good Times (1974-79), What’s Happening! (1976-79) and The Jeffersons (1975-85), and I had an uncle who listened to endless amounts of MoTown and watched Soul Train (1971-2006), but those are stories for another time. Do the Right Thing introduced me to black cinema and a critical idea of what it meant for cinema to be black. I think it was the right film at the right time in my education.
I have taught this film almost every year of my life since then. Three years later, I would begin my career teaching cinema at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore–a historically black college located in the town of Princess Anne–with courses on “The Image of African-American Males in Vietnam Combat Films” and “The History of Black Filmmaking.” Both courses frequently referenced Do the Right Thing, and both courses stressed what Do the Right Thing had taught me about black film, about the burden of this cinema.
The line comes when Da Mayor gives his one piece of advice to Mookie: Always do the right thing. Over the years, I have read and thought a good deal about the film and about specific moments in it. I have looked at the opening sequence so many times and have argued over the racial slurs scene and riot scene–Why does Mookie throw the garbage can through the window? Of late, I have spent a good deal of time teaching the moments in the film when the elders speak to one another.
Yet, of all these important moments in Do the Right Thing, I still think the lesson for me, the lesson about black film here, is in the doing. Like Mookie and so many of the other characters in the movie, black film seems burdened with always having to do something, whether the right something or not. Black film is rarely allowed to be something, to just be there. Rather–and I have contributed to this paradigm in my own courses and discussions from time to time–black film is asked to do something, to be the first film to do this or do that, to be the first films to break this barrier, confront that stereotype, or address that problem. I think this might be one of “the powers that be” black film has been fighting for some time now.
And, as the conversation unfolds in the film–
Mookie: That’s it?
Da Mayor: That’s it.
Mookie: I got it, I’m gone.