As many institutions and corporations celebrate Black History month I am reminded of the importance of celebrating people when they are still around to receive it. Shelton Jackson "Spike" Lee has a career spanning over 40 years. While Spike has received many awards in that time it is interesting to see his films now featured prominently on platforms like Netflix. The current push to amplify black stories in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd is a positive step even if the catalyst is tragedy. Spike spent much of his career as an almost singular black voice in an industry not interested in the stories he wanted to tell. While many black directors have now joined Lee it is worth taking some time to look at Spike's classic films and how they are still relevant today.
In 1989's 'Do the Right Thing' Spike tackles police brutality and the unrest it can cause in a way that feels too similar to the events of the summer of 2020. Radio Raheem's death is shocking in its suddenness even as the story seems inevitable to end in tragedy. All these years later I am still struck by the choking of Radio Raheem. While Spike was influenced by real events of police brutality such as the deaths of Michael Stewart and Yvonne Smallwood from the late 80s, it is hard to not connect the death with every new example of police killing an unarmed black person. Every time I discuss the film with a new group of students it shows the power and impact of Spike's work. I continue to feel the shock and sadness as it reflected from the eyes of my students experiencing the death for the first time. A recurring theme of the film is 'fight the power' as comes blasting out of Radio Raheem's boombox but the conclusion of the film shows that power typically wins.
The riot that follows Radio Raheem's death shows how a community explodes when no other option is available to handle these circumstances. This should be informative to all observers of our current landscape. It is difficult for some to understand how so many can take to the streets, but Spike knew if we can't do the right thing it leads to chaos. Spike's fearless storytelling may not always resonate with all audiences, but his voice has been invaluable in covering topics others have shied away from.
So, as this month of Black History celebrations comes to an end, and while he is still creating films unlike anyone else, give Spike his flowers.
Dr. Christopher Ortega is an Assistant Professor of Communication and Media Studies at the State University of New York, College at Cortland where he teaches courses in Africana Studies, Media Literacy and Representations of Race in Film & Television.