In case you haven’t heard, this summer marks the 20th anniversary of Spike Lee’s classic and enduringly controversial film Do the Right Thing. The movie first hit theaters on June 30, 1989.
Those of you who have seen the film will recall that it takes place on one of the longest and hottest days of the summer in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyevesant neighborhood. Lee begins the film slowly and deliberately, painting a picture of a predominantly black neighborhood made up of a diversity of people, characters, and races that each bring something unique to the urban landscape. It’s not Norman Rockwell harmony, but it’s a real-life community where disparate parts manage to get along. But, as is usually the case when it comes to race relations in America, tension and unrest are simmering beneath the surface.
If you haven’t seen the film yet, please forgive (or avoid) the spoilers that follow the original 1989 trailer below.
Lee plays Mookie, a pizza delivery man for Sal (Danny Aiello), an Italian-American whose restaurant has been on the same corner since old days (i.e., before the neighborhood became mostly black). The blacks in Bed-Stuy have a sort of love-hate relationship with Sal’s Pizzeria. While it’s nice to have a spot for tasty pizza in the ‘hood, there’s an ambivalence about the fact that one of the community’s primary businesses is owned by a white man. During the film’s climax, Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) and Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) confront Sal to demand he put a black face among his all-white wall of fame. A fight ensues, and when the police show up, Raheem is choked to death by an NYPD officer, which sets off a horrible riot.
This 1989 review by critic Roger Ebert offers a good overview of the movie. Suffice it to say, Spike Lee’s film, like any good piece of art, is open to a variety of interpretations. He doesn’t tell you what to think, though it’s easy for some to come away with the sense that, ultimately, the film is a call for some degree of black nationalism and militancy — or for black folk to at least keep the option available.
An obvious question for us today is, how does Do the Right Thing play in this so-called “age of Obama”? Is it still relevant? I’ll resist calling this era “post-racial,” for I’m sure many of you could quickly tick off a thousand reasons why it’s not. But we’ve clearly moved into a different and better era of racial understanding from what we faced in America 20 years ago, right? (Let the debate begin.) We’ve survived Rodney King, the O.J. trial, Clarence Thomas’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, and the first couple seasons of Tyler Perry’s House of Payne. What’s more, we elected an African American president.
Ironically, it turns out that Do the Right Thing was the film that Barack and Michelle Obama saw on their first date, and it consequently holds a special place in their personal history. Newsweekwonders why this seemingly minor but potentially significant fact didn’t get played up more by the media during the presidential race last year, when Obama’s opponents were looking for any and all evidence of his racial and political militancy. And TheRoot.com thinks it’s odd, though not surprising, that Obama himself rarely mentions that aspect of he and Michelle’s first date. (Though, when one listens to Obama’s ruminations on race in America today, you can hear his desire to acknowledge the multiple points of view that usually exist on the different sides of the color and class line in our nation.)
Also at TheRoot.com, journalist Natalie Hopkinson offers a fascinating reassessment of the film’s message and legacy. While she concedes the film’s cultural importance—and confesses that she reveled in the righteous indignation that the film inspired in blacks who had felt oppressed and wrongly profiled for much too long, in retrospect Hopkinson questions the film’s underlying message of angry black nationalism. She suggests that what will be needed for true racial uplift today is not a spirit of racial separation but one of multiracial cooperation. She writes:
In 1989, Do the Right Thing rightly railed against police brutality and institutional racism that reduced the life chances and quality of life of many black people in urban areas. If combating those conditions, which still exist, is what we mean by fighting the power, I will be the first to put on boxing gloves.
But 20 years on, Buggin Out’s kind of fight feels futile. Symbolically and literally speaking, we are the Power. We need Sal’s Famous Pizzerias in the neighborhood, and we need the Mookies of the world to open their own businesses, too. It’s messy. It’s sometimes tense, often uncomfortable. We won’t always understand each other. But come on back. We need that slice.
Hopkinson’s essay, I believe, rightly calls us to “do a new thing” — that is, to allow forgiveness and solidarity to trump our lingering racial resentment, bitterness, and fear. But I don’t think her change of heart about Do the Right Thing necessarily diminishes what the film was trying to do those two decades ago.
Ultimately, Spike Lee was challenging his viewers to wrestle with their prejudices and misconceptions about the American condition. To his credit, Lee understood that this would mean different things to different people, and provoke different responses based on each person’s life experience. In that way, Do the Right Thing was — and is — a bold piece of filmmaking and a disturbing, sometimes vulgar, but always thought-provoking tool for an honest discussion of racial reconciliation in America.
In this Juneteenth edition of Pop & Circumstance, we consider the U.S. Senate’s late-but-official apology for slavery and Jim Crow, Tweets from a revolution, Jazz at the White House, ‘Speidi’ and the problem with reality TV religion, and what will Mary Mary sing at the BET Awards?
Senate Apologizes for Slavery — and Spartacus Wins
This week in “Current Events You Thought Shoulda Happened 40 Years Ago,” the United States has officially given its “my bad” on slavery. On Thursday, led by Iowa lawmaker Tom Harkin, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution apologizing for the “enslavement and segregation of African-Americans” and recognizing the “fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery and Jim Crow laws.” Though the apology is official, there was concern among some senators that the language in the resolution would leave the door open for lawsuits or a demand for reparations.
While African Americans are certainly delighted with the apology, presumably 92-year-old Spartacus film icon Kirk Douglas is also happy. The actor had been petitioning Congress for an apology for slavery for years. Just this past April, Douglas wrote on his MySpace page: “As I told you quite some time ago, in my last book Let’s Face It, I wrote about the importance of our country showing the world that we are capable of humility by making an apology for our behavior towards African Americans before and after the Civil War.” The veteran actor also collected signatures in support of the apology on MySpace. Isn’t it interesting that a resolution like this hadn’t happened already? Well, better late than never.
The Revolution in 140 Characters or Less
Lest we think Twitter is just another useless digital platform to share a constant stream of the minutiae of our lives, the social networking site that asks members to share what they’re doing in 140-characters or less just got more interesting. Following the controversial election in Iran, protesters who were blocked from using other forms of online communication by government officials took to the Twitterverse to share their discontent. Sympathetic Twitter users from all across the world joined in the protest, spreading word about the election and even encouraging greater mainstream news media coverage of the events. Some even helped protect Iranian protesters from being tracked by changing their Twitter location and time zone to act as “proxy or ghost Iranians.”
The viral nature of Twitter allowed those of us who may not be politically savvy or aware to instantly participate on the front lines of a massive international protest against a Middle Eastern government from the convenience of our laptops or mobile phones. I had no idea about the Iranian election, but found out about the protest from my friend Kyle Westaway who is an attorney in New York City. He sent out the following Twitter update to all of his followers: “Twitter Friends: Change your location and time zone to Tehran and +3.30 to help the protesting Iranians from being tracked. #iranelection”. Since his Twitter account links to his Facebook profile, he alone spread word of the event to hundreds of people with just one click.
The implications of this kind of mass mobilization are great, particularly for people of faith who are called to bring the needs and concerns of society’s marginalized people to the forefront of our culture.
Jazz at the White House
As much as I’m trying not to be all Obama all the time, I can’t help it. The First Family just keeps getting cooler. On June 15th, the White House hosted a Jazz Studio, featuring musicians from the Marsalis family, the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival and the Thelonius Monk Jazz Institute. In her remarks to the 150 high school students who attended the event, First Lady Michelle Obama referred to jazz as “America’s indigenous art form” and the best example of American democracy with its emphasis on “individual freedom, but with responsibility to the group.” UrbanFaith’s resident Jazz Theologian, Robert Gelinas, calls jazz more than music. He says, “[Jazz] is a way of thinking and a way of viewing the world. It is about freedom within community. It is a culture, that is, a set of values and norms by which we can experience life in general and faith in particular.” We couldn’t agree more, and it’s a pleasure to see the Obama White House encouraging creativity and re-imparting value on artistic expression.
Reality TV Piety
When Stephen Baldwin baptized Spencer Pratt a couple of weeks ago on television’s I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here, we let it slide. It didn’t seem right to comment on such a clearly misguided publicity stunt, despite the Christian relevance. Besides, the rest of the media was already making a mockery of the incident. NBC, the network that produces the show, titled video clips of the baptism as “Stephen Baldwin shoves the devil out of Spencer” or “Saved by Stephen.” The whole thing was ridiculous, but this kind of behavior is par for the course when it comes to the former MTV Hills reality show star Spencer Pratt and his wife Heidi Montag. The couple has been injecting itself into tabloid headlines for months with self-generated drama. For a while they bought a few extra minutes of reality star fame by selling the story of a feud between Montag and Hills co-star Lauren Conrad. Then it was plastic surgery and a botched music career for Heidi that culminated in a Pratt-directed beach video. Most recently the couple invited paparazzi to their rushed wedding in Mexico.
But now things have gone too far. Montag, a self-proclaimed Christian who often “tweets” about her faith, is posing for Playboy, and she’s justifying the decision by calling herself a “modern day Mother Teresa.” As my mother would say, if she thinks she’s Mother Theresa, then she’s got another think coming. And though we’re not in the business of judging anyone’s faith here at UrbanFaith, we can express our disappointment over how “Speidi” is portraying Christianity in popular culture. We wish they would keep quiet about their faith until they figure out what they really believe. In the meantime, they’re probably doing more damage to the Church’s reputation. What do you think?
The Word on BET
A couple of weeks ago we shared with you the gospel nominees for the upcoming 2009 BET Awards. Now we have more information on the performers. Set your DVRs for 8pm ET/PT on June 28th because Mary Mary will take the stage. We hope the gospel gals sing something deep from their recent album, and perhaps bypass the secular-friendly “God In Me” single. It’s a toe-tapper, but with this kind of platform, they might want to deliver a message with a little more gospel truth. Also scheduled to perform are Beyoncé, Kanye West, Maxwell, Ne-Yo, Fabolous, Young Jeezy, and Soulja Boy.
You’ve got to wonder if Disney is starting to have second thoughts about producing a film with an African American princess. A few weeks ago we told you about the drama surrounding the upcoming release of The Princess and the Frog, a new animated film featuring Disney’s first black princess. Well, people still aren’t quite sure what to do with Princess Tiana.
First there was a bit of hubbub over her name and occupation, which were ultimately changed from the supposedly slave-sounding “Maddy” the maid to “Tiana” the chef. Then, as The New York Times reports, there’s the controversy over setting the fairy tale against the backdrop of New Orleans and the fact that the story finds Tiana (spoiler alert) spending ample screen time as an amphibian. Now TheRoot.com has raised the conversation to a whole new level, questioning whether we need another princess in the first place. Writer Monique Fields muses, “Whatever in the world do princesses do? More importantly, how do they get paid? Real life is not a fairy tale, and few folks live happily ever after. So just what are we telling our girls when we dress them up in frilly dresses, dust them with makeup, and put glitter in their hair before they really know who they are?”
While we can grant that some girls do get stuck in the princess narrative, spending their lives searching for Prince Charming, doesn’t it feel a bit like Fields is missing the point? The fantastic nature of these stories quite intentionally inspires a sense of whimsy in young women. Girls are supposed to be left asking what if a pumpkin wasn’t just a pumpkin? And what if people weren’t always what they seem? In that world, a frog might be a prince. Candlesticks might actually dance. Perhaps something good we can’t see or touch or hear is moving all around us all the time. Besides, Disney has never pretended to peddle realism.
Whose House? Run’s House
Just when it felt like the only black family on television lived in the White House, Rev Run and the rest of the Simmons family are back for a sixth season of Run’s House on MTV. Catch the premiere episode on Monday night (10 p.m. ET/PT) when the family takes us on their Hawaiian vacation. We’re curious to see if this will be the episode where Rev Run and his wife Justine deal with their son’s recent arrest or if we’ll have to wait until later in the season to see how JoJo is punished. The oldest son from Rev Run’s first marriage and aspiring rapper, Joseph “Jo Jo” Simmons, was arrested last month for drug possession and resisting arrest but was quickly released on his own recognizance. Guess we’ll have to wait and see. Until Monday, check out the following preview for the new season:
It looks like the Carrie Prejean saga may finally come to an end. On Thursday, Donald Trump and Miss California USA pageant officials officially fired the Miss USA contestantciting failure to uphold her contractual duties. Despite Prejean’s insinuation that the decision was made because of the political controversy surrounding her stance on same-sex marriage, Keith Lewis, the executive director of Miss California USA, tried to remain clear that Prejean’s termination had nothing to do with her beliefs. “This was a decision based solely on contract violations including Ms. Prejean’s unwillingness to make appearances on behalf of the Miss California USA organization,” he stated. Prejean told TMZ.com she was “shocked,” which left us wondering if she’s the only person who didn’t see this coming. The entire state of California is embroiled in a heated debate over gay marriage with the passing of Proposition 8 last November and the recent decision of the California Supreme Court to uphold the ban on same-sex marriage. After publicly taking such an unpopular position on the gay marriage issue, and further aggravating the situation by joining forces with the National Organization for Marriage, was she really surprised that pageant officials leaped at the chance to let her go? It’s a shame she may not have carried out her responsibilities faithfully, at least for the sake of being above reproach. Did all the attention from traditional marriage supporters go to her head? In any event, this now gives us time to get reacquainted with that other statuesque blond. You know, the one who actually won the Miss USA pageant. If only we could remember her name.
Obama’s Gospel Tribute
When President Barack Obama starts jonesing for a little musical entertainment, all he has to do is say the word and the line of A-list singers ready to serenade him stretches from the White House to the Washington Monument. But as of Tuesday, President Obama’s access to instant personal entertainment just got even easier. On Tuesday, Central South Distributors released a special tribute CD to honor the first African-American POTUS called A Gospel Tribute to President Obama. The album features Israel Houghton, Juanita Bynum, and Donnie McClurkin, among others. In a tribute to First Lady Michelle Obama, Kelly Price and Shirley Murdock also appear, singing “The Curtain’s Raised.” Check out the CD at Amazon or ilovegospelmusic.com.
Facebook’s Taking Names
For all the Facebook addicts out there, get your fingers ready. On Saturday at 12:01 a.m. the popular social networking site will allow users to claim their own personal Facebook usernames and URLs. With a potential 200 million people competing simultaneously to stake a claim in cyberspace by snatching up their own name, you’re going to need to type fast if you want to be able to “own” www.facebook.com/YourNameHere. We’re not exactly tech savvy enough to know what all this means, but we’ve heard that The Daily Beast is comparing this massive domain grab to the Oklahoma Territory land run of 1889, minus the horses and dust. If you are on Facebook, be sure to become a fan of UrbanFaith. We promise we won’t poke.
When I was growing up as a little black girl in California, the closest thing I had to an African American Disney princess was Cinderella. She seemed like a girl from around the way. You know what I mean — her daddy wasn’t in the picture, and she had a crazy godmother, or “Big Mama,” who always made somethin’ out of nothin’, turning rags into a flawless gown just in time for the ball. So when I heard Disney was releasing The Princess and the Frog, starring Anika Noni Rose (Dreamgirls) as Princess Tiana, I was thrilled. Finally, little black girls will grow up seeing themselves as princesses, without having to superimpose their culture onto someone else’s fairy tale. But my excitement over the film was diminished when I heard about the controversy over Disney’s decision to cast Brazilian actor Bruno Campos as the prince (instead of an African American actor). I’m not sure whether to be discouraged over the casting or to just be grateful the movie is being made at all. I’ve found some comfort from Keith Josef Adkins, over at The Root, who is telling people to relax — Disney had to make the film appealing to everyone in order to make it profitable. What do you think? Is the casting a commentary on America’s receptiveness to black women versus black men, or am I being hyper sensitive?
Smearing Miss California
We may need to start an official UrbanFaith Pageant Patrol to keep track of the crazy scandal around Miss USA loser Carrie Prejean. Every time we turn around, there’s a new bit of drama with Prejean’s name front and center. It all started a couple of weeks ago when we were moved by the story of the young Christian woman’s courage to stand up for her beliefs on the nature of marriage, despite the fact that doing so likely cost her the crown and won her the ire of an entire movement of people. Then last week the story took a turn for the worse when pageant officials started throwing slanderous blows at Prejean, exposing her cosmetic surgery and publicly decrying her involvement in the National Organization for Marriage’s television campaign. Now the situation has gotten completely out of hand as photos have been leaked to the press showing Prejean, the reigning Miss California, posing partially nude. Even though she’s owned the fact that taking the photos was a bad move on her part, the old photos, taken when she was a naive 17-year-old trying to land a modeling gig, are potentially a violation of the contract she signed when entering the Miss USA pageant. She currently awaits a ruling from the Miss California pageant authorities as to whether she’ll get to keep that crown. Though I think it would behoove Carrie to lay low for a while, isn’t it interesting how certain folks from the usually open-minded progressive community have gone after Prejean? One of the more interesting commentaries on the subject this week came from the left-leaning political site Talking Points Memo, where blogger Eric Wattree posed the question, “Are Progressives Becoming As Intolerant As Conservatives?”
Mormons Baptize Obama’s (Dead) Mother
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) just found one more way to give America the heebie-jeebies. Rumors were confirmed on Tuesday afternoon that the Mormon Church did indeed baptize President Barack Obama’s mother last June 2008, thirteen years after her death. The church just can’t catch a break with the bad publicity. Who could forget last year’s media frenzy when polygamist compounds of a fundamentalist sect of the church were raided in Texas? A spokeswoman for the church claims there will be an investigation into how the baptism happened, as it’s against Church policy to submit the name of a non-relative for the sacrament. However, baptizing the dead without the consent of the deceased person’s family has long been a controversial practice of the church. The White House has no official comment on the matter. However, we can assume President Obama knew nothing of his mother having any unusual sympathy toward the Mormon faith. Throughout his campaign, he often shared stories of his mother’s religious skepticism. We just wish there was more noise being made about the living Presidential family’s faith. We know they profess to be Christian, but we’d love to see them finally settle in at a solid Washington, D.C., church.
Michelle the Influential
Michelle Obama ditched her duds from J. Crew on Tuesday night to slip into a stunning gown by Azzedine Alaia for Time magazine’s event honoring 100 of the World’s Most Influential People. Last week, we mentioned that the First Lady had been named one of People magazine’s Most Beautiful People of 2009. And though we fully stand behind her beautiful biceps and recession-chic style, “influencer” is a much more appropriate title for this Princeton University graduate. I can’t get enough of Barack’s sweetheart. As eager as I am for President Obama to lead America successfully through the next four years, I’m more excited to see the impact Michelle Obama will have on the United States. Whether she is planting a garden on the White House grounds or inspiring American women to pay renewed attention to their families, Mrs. Obama is reinventing our society’s concept of what it means to be a black Christian woman.
Idol’s Got Competition
Has anyone actually been watching American Idol this season? I haven’t watched the show steadily since Fantasia won season three years ago, but I hear we’re down to the final three: Danny Gokey, Kris Allen, and Adam Lambert. And though it seems like the men are running things over at Idol, it’s a ladies’ game on BET’s Sunday Best. After a sing-off of “Jesus Loves Me” between the three finalists last Sunday, the judges narrowed it down to Y’Anna Crawley and Jessica Reedy. We’ll see what goes down this Sunday when viewers decide the winner.
It’s rare that I mention a movie twice, but I would be a total fraud if I didn’t encourage you to at least think about seeing The Soloist. Last week, after getting caught up in Jamie Foxx’s drama with Miley Cyrus, I almost skipped one of the best films released this year. Based on a true story, The Soloist is about Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.), who develops an unlikely friendship with a homeless man on Skid Row named Nathaniel Ayers (Foxx). While walking through the park, Lopez discovers Ayers and eventually learns that the musician is a former student of Juilliard who dropped out due to mental illness. I wouldn’t say the film is Oscar-worthy. Having spent time hanging with the homeless in Los Angeles, I was a bit put off by the film’s one-sided depiction of the people on Skid Row as drugged-out, crazy, and violent characters. However, the movie does spark an interesting question of what it means to unconditionally love a friend and the lengths we must go to help someone in need. Check it out, if only to watch a moving recitation of “The Lord’s Prayer” and sweeping shots of life on the streets.
‘Godfather of Gospel’ Passes
The Reverend Timothy Wright passed away on Thursday, April 24th at the age of 61, due to injuries sustained during a devastating car crash last July. That crash killed his 58-year-old wife Betty, as well as his 14-year-old grandson. Known to many as the “Godfather of Gospel,” Wright founded Grace Tabernacle Christian Center in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY. The Grammy-nominated singer most recently recorded the live album Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, featuring a song (the title track) written by his late wife. His son David Wright told the New York Daily News he is “glad his suffering is over. He was a great man of God and a great father.” Reverend Al Sharpton, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Governor David Paterson all expressed kind sentiments, calling Reverend Wright a monument and pillar to the community.
Queen of Soul, Ph.D.
She’s been called a living legend, an original diva, and the Queen of Soul. But now Aretha Franklin can add “Doctor” to her long list of titles. On May 24th, Brown University will present her with an honorary doctorate of music for the phenomenal contributions she has made to the music industry. For nearly 50 years and over 40 albums she has been the sound of soul music, and whether she’s singing “Respect,” “Amazing Grace,” or humming “Happy Birthday” while doing the dishes, her voice is the definition of gospel. Of course this isn’t the first time Franklin’s been recognized. In 2005, Franklin was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. And who could forget her hat … I mean, her rendition of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” at President Barack Obama’s inauguration?
And We Still Can’t Remember the Real Winner’s Name
The Carrie Prejean Watch continues. The tall blond who didn’t win the Miss USA Pageant, but who impressed lots of folks — and infuriated others — when she gave a respectful but politically incorrect answer to a question about gay marriage, is featured in a new television campaign launched this week by the National Organization for Marriage. Pageant officials for the Miss USA competition were quick to express their disappointment over her decision to lend her voice to such a “divisive and polarizing issue” while abandoning her platform of the Special Olympics. If their public disapproval wasn’t bad enough, now pageant directors are selling Prejean out by exposing the cosmetic surgery she had six weeks before the Miss USA competition. It’s getting ugly. Actually, out of all the press about Prejean, I found this post at Christianity Today‘s Her.meneutics blog last week to be particularly thought-provoking. The gist of writer Katelyn Beaty’s argument: With the evangelical media’s rush to celebrate Prejean’s defense of traditional marriage, have they conveniently forgotten that the Miss USA competition (unlike Miss America) is primarily driven by how sexy the contestants’ bodies look in their two-piece bathing suits?
The Clark Sisters Keep Bringing It
After serenading comedian Sherri Shepherd on The View last week for her birthday, the Clark Sisters are coming back to the small screen. The Grammy-winning gospel quartet is set to perform “Higher Ground” on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, airing May 5th. The song appears on the new Oh Happy Day: An All-Star Music Celebration album, an interesting project from EMI Gospel records honoring the impact gospel rhythms have made on all forms of music, from hip-hop to country. The project pairs contemporary artists with popular gospel singers to remake gospel standards like “This Little Light of Mine” and popular radio hits like “A Change is Gonna Come.” Also contributing to the album are Mavis Staples, with singer-songwriter Patty Griffin, and Jon Bon Jovi, who collaborates with the Washington Youth Choir.
The Really Beautiful People
People magazine has released its “Most Beautiful People” list for 2009, and it’s no surprise that Halle Berry is back on the list at #2. Can someone just remove her from the running entirely or give her a lifetime beauty award? She should bow out of every future competition, like when Oprah decided to withdraw her talk show from Emmy consideration after winning every year. Other notable beauties on People‘s list this year are singer Ciara (#4), Slumdog Millionaire star Frieda Pinto (#7), 90210 actor Tristan Wilds (#14), and First Lady Michelle Obama (#12). I’ve always viewed People‘s “Most Beautiful” list as a chance to gauge the world’s current standard of “who’s hot.” But what if the list recognized a higher standard of beauty? Just think, we might get a special issue full of food pantry volunteers or women like sweet Mrs. Winslow from across the street who faithfully prayed for you every day when she saw you jumping rope in your front yard. Ah, but that would be horrible for magazine sales. Anyway, if you were compiling the “Most Beautiful” list, whom would you include?