President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address to over 500 college graduates at Morehouse College on Sunday, May 19, 2013 (Photo credit: David Tulls, Newscom).
Last Sunday, President Barack Obama delivered the commencement address at Morehouse College. This marks the second time that Obama is delivering an address at an Historically Black College and University.
Obama spoke movingly about the power of setting examples – particularly in identifying and correcting the injustices within the world. He charged the graduating class to connect maximizing career opportunities while serving their respective communities: to practice law that defends the rich and powerful but also the powerless; to practice medicine and provide healing in well-served and underserved areas; and to run small business that create personal wealth while brings jobs to the economy and great products/services to the nation at large.
In speaking at the distinguished male-only college, the President situated himself within the legacy of luminaries: Ralph Abernathy, Ralph Bunche, Spike Lee, and Thurgood Marshall, and of course, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
With the facility of expression for which he is celebrated, President Obama used his life story – as well as the narratives of Drs. Benjamin E. Mays and Martin Luther King – to challenge the class of 2013 to exemplify excellence within their careers, communities, and families. If Morehouse Men could succeed during 1940’s and 1950’s, then so can you. If a skinny kid with a funny name can grow up to become President of the United States, then upward mobility is a dream within the reach of all black men. We’ve heard the refrains before, of course, but Obama delivered them with a noted vigor and vibrancy.
Still, President Obama delivered a rather safe speech – avoiding mention of what is often called the New Jim Crow; skipping over the massive loss of wealth among black families due to the Great Recession and mortgage crisis; and minimizing the role of structural discrimination within American labor markets by emphasizing the dog-eat-dog nature of a globalized labor market. A safe speech, but a strong one just the same. As the saying goes. You can tell a Morehouse Man – even an honorary one – but you can’t tell him much.
HE STILL GOT GAME?: Spike Lee’s new film, ‘Red Hook Summer,’ which explores religion and urban life in a Brooklyn neighborhood, is his first movie to be released during Barack Obama’s presidency. (Photo: David Lee/Newscom)
Director Spike Lee had not released a film during the Obama presidency until this week’s release of Red Hook Summer, just a couple months before the next presidential election.
Remember Spike Lee? This was the man who helmed groundbreaking, commercially successful films on race like Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, and Do the Right Thing. When he arrived on the scene with 1986’s She’s Gotta Have It, he was hailed as a brave new voice in American filmmaking and the chronicler of the late 20th century black experience. As time has gone by, his films have become less urgent and far less racial. His only hit in this century was 2006’s Inside Man, a heist movie that happened to star Denzel Washington but was in no way a serious work on race. And in the last four years — since Obama has been president — he has not released a movie, period.
During his presidential campaign, Obama positioned himself as the first post-racial candidate. He made us believe that by voting for him we would usher in a new era in which labels like “black” and “white” would grow increasingly irrelevant. He was, of course, uniquely positioned to make this argument, given his background; the effect of his personal story and his rhetoric on this topic was intoxicating. He made affluent whites feel that by simply voting for him they were accomplishing more for black people than we had as a nation since the Civil Rights Act. With their vote, they would cleanse America of its original sin.
But despite that unspoken promise, many Americans remain in a state of de facto segregation. Most whites don’t know the black experience, and what they do know, they learn from the media. Electing a black president has not changed that. In some ways, it has made things worse, since the issue of race is barely discussed in public forums. When black issues are discussed, it is usually in a historically comparative sense. The civil rights era is used today as a point of comparison to discuss immigration issues or the rights of the LGBT community.
Despite the lack of conversation on the subject, there is no doubt that Obama’s election changed the way we look at and talk about race in America. Obama himself said it best in his 2004 keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention:
[T]here’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.
In retrospect, that moment was the beginning of Obama’s ascendance to the presidency. It was also the first time he explicitly defined himself as a post-racial candidate. And lastly, it was the end of director Spike Lee’s career. For if there is no black America, what happens to the filmmaker whose job it has been to chronicle it?
The Mainstreaming of Racial Transcendence
Lee’s first true masterpiece was 1989’s Do the Right Thing, a drama that took place over the course of one sweltering summer day in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, a predominantly black neighborhood. In a key scene, our black protagonist, Mookie, argues with a white colleague, Pino, about race. Mookie questions how Pino can admire some African Americans — like Prince, Eddie Murphy, and Magic Johnson — but disdain those that live in his community. Listen to his response:
The 1980s, when Prince, Eddie, and Magic reigned supreme, was the era in which the idea of racial transcendence was mainstreamed. And they were not alone. In that decade, black stars Michael Jordan and Bill Cosby were welcomed into the homes of middle-class, white Americans on a regular basis. Cosby eschewed serious discussion of race on his hit television show for fear of losing his audience. The problems that the Huxtables faced were those common in upper-middle class American families. Never did the show discuss poverty, HIV/AIDS, or serious drug use, each of them an epidemic in 1980s black America.
Jordan, the NBA icon, similarly protected his brand by staying mum on racial politics. When asked why he did not weigh in on a close Senate race in his home state of North Carolina that involved former KKK-member Jesse Helms, he responded, “Republicans buy shoes, too.”
The generation that grew up on The Cosby Show and Michael Jordan is the same one that elevated Barack Obama to the White House, and there is much evidence to suggest that they were subconsciously linked in the minds of voters. Obama, like Jordan, made his name in Chicago and exhibited in his campaign the same calm under pressure that made Jordan the best to play the game of basketball. Of course Obama, a big sports fan, never hesitated to bring up his fandom of the Bulls. As for the Cosby connection, many newspapers wrote, when describing Obama’s high polling numbers with white, suburban voters, of the “Huxtable effect.”
Even his future running mate, Joe Biden, said of Obama that he was the first African American candidate who was “articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” In other words, he was not what Joe Biden usually thought of when he thought of “black.” The fact that Biden’s remark did not prevent him from becoming Obama’s vice-president should be evidence enough that Obama is more concerned with appealing to white than black audiences.
Ultimately, there is no industry that has been more eager to accept the notion of racial transcendence than Hollywood; it’s an idea that is useful to filmmakers who are increasingly pressured to make films with crossover demographic appeal. But this quest for widespread popularity has a dark side.
Lord, Help Our Blind Sides
The films of Obama’s first term portray racial disharmony in an antiquated, conclusory fashion, making everyone feel good about race without asking audiences to lift a finger or even have an uncomfortable thought. Two such films, The Blind Side and The Help, were not only massive box-office hits but also were nominated for Best Picture by the mostly white Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
The Blind Side and The Help connect to white Americans because they reflect the feeling Obama created during the campaign — that America had done something important to help African Americans. Exposed in these films to the problems of black America, audiences leave the theater feeling that the drama in the film has been resolved — in each case by a white, affluent character.
In The Help, that character is Skeeter (Emma Stone), a young, ambitious Southern woman who breaks convention by writing a book that compiles the horrible, sometimes hilarious stories of local black housekeepers. Skeeter is, for all intents and purposes, a modern woman and seems completely out of place in early 1960s Mississippi. She wants to work, not marry. She despises any form of prejudice, which is odd because most of her friends are unbashed racists. Skeeter is an accessible and sympathetic entry point into the story for a modern, white audience, but the implication in her characterization is troubling. She helps an entire community of oppressed African Americans housekeepers by giving them a voice. She is, in a small way, freeing them. The implication is that the politics of today — represented in this modern woman — have rectified the politics of the past, and in this way, “The Help” asks us to believe that race is no longer an issue in America, as long as there are millions of young Skeeters out there.
It is a similar story in The Blind Side, which was based on true events. Sandra Bullock won an Oscar for her portrayal of Leigh Anne Tuohy, a strong, willful Southern housewife who takes Michael Oher, a poor black young man, into her home and teaches him to assimilate into white society, represented by a large football program at a southern state university.
We share Leigh’s sadness when we hear of Michael’s poor upbringing. But we are also asked to be thrilled when she takes the “street” out of him. A pivotal moment comes when he tells her that he hates being called “Big Mike,” the nickname he has been saddled with since childhood. He prefers being called “Michael.” In this moment, he transcends his previous existence in a poor, African American community. It is almost as if he is casting off his slave name.
In both films, the central African American characters are rescued from the bonds of the black experience, yet there is little care taken to relay what happens to them afterwards. The real Michael went on to play in the NFL, a profession in which ex-players are increasingly suffering from mental illness and suicide — due to the high number of concussions they suffer during their career. Given the opportunities afforded to him by living with Leigh Anne and her rich husband, perhaps a career as a modern-day gladiator was not the finest choice, but it is in reality the best choice for some who grow up in inner cities without education.
In the final scene of The Help, Aibeleen, the middle-aged housekeeper whose story we have been following, is fired by her boss. As she walks away from her home, she tells us that she feels free for the first time and that she never took a similar job again. But she never shares with us how she earned a living. It is as if not working for an oppressive white boss is enough; but what will she do with her newfound freedom? What other jobs exist for a middle-aged black woman with no education or experience? These are the questions that are not asked in a post-racial film, and they are questions that have not been asked enough by our current post-racial president.
Blacks continue to suffer from the highest rates of poverty, unemployment, obesity, death from cancer, and infant mortality. But Obama has done little to improve federal nutrition programs. He has stood idly by while Republicans cut food stamp benefits. He has extended the Bush tax cuts that favor the wealthy and refused to tackle a tax reform plan that does not continue to burden the poor. He has been nearly invisible on education. And he has been worse than that on “the War on Drugs.”
Of course most of these are not racial issues, per se. They are class and economic issues. And this is the problem with a post-racial president. Because of how he framed his candidacy, Obama allowed middle and upper-class whites to bump the issue of racism far down their list of urgent American problems and, in doing so, gave them the liberty to ignore the class issues that so disproportionately affect minorities.
Where Art Thou, Spike?
And so with the black experience so far from our minds these days, the skills of Spike Lee have just not been called for. In fairness, his problems getting funding for his films have not solely been the result of a post-racial environment. His most recent feature films about the black experience (She Hate Me and Bamboozled) have been wildly uneven and even more controversial than normal.
So instead, Lee took his talents to cable. In 2008, the year Obama was elected, Lee produced and directed When the Levees Broke, a powerful and urgent two-part documentary on Hurricane Katrina that focused specifically on how the disaster affected poor, black communities in New Orleans. It was an important film that exposed suffering that had been glossed over by the mainstream media. But he had to make it at HBO, which is not beholden to ratings or ticket sales, and it’s doubtful that a major studio would ever have sponsored such a project or that most of American has even heard of it.
That brings us to Lee’s latest film, Red Hook Summer, in which he reprises his role of Mookie from Do the Right Thing. But interestingly, the film is not about race. Its subject is religion, which may have replaced race as the divisive American institution of the day. Even Red Hook Summer has obtained only a miniscule distribution. You will have to live in a major urban area to see it.
And so Lee appears to be a casualty of post-racialism, albeit one that no one will cry any tears for. He has made his millions. But as a reflection of white perception of the black experience, his disappearance is a real loss. We have lost a powerful voice for the poor and a filmmaker who made visible that which society tries to hide. He could have been Obama’s counterpoint from the left, someone who pushed him away from his comfortable spot in the center. Instead, next year Lee is remaking Oldboy, a hyper-violent Japanese thriller. If it does well enough, maybe someone will give him a chance to make a serious movie again. In the meantime, we will wait patiently and simply hope that our original sin is not just hidden or dormant but truly redeemed by a single election.
This article originally appeared at Noah Gittell’s Reel Change blog.
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.