Brooklyn Is Burning
DO THE RIGHT THING | 25 Years Later at BAM. 1989. Summer. Bronx, NY.
I saw DO THE RIGHT THING at the Whitestone Cinemas with my college roommate, Ismael, who grew up not too far away. I grew up not too far away. I had a kitchen knife pulled on me as a teenager not too far away in Co-Op City. I might have been one of three white people in the audience at that time. I don't say this out of pride or some desire to earn your respect by way of street credibility in seeing a film about race relations in NYC with a mostly African-American audience. I say it to set a tone. Brooklyn and the city, were very different places 25 years ago. People related to each other in a very different way. This was mostly pre-available internet, pre-iPhone New York. People actually picked up newspapers to find out what was going on in the world. So when I see this film with an audience 25 years after the fact I have to give pause and recognize how instrumental both this film and Spike were to me and my growth and understanding of film and film culture.
I was already in a frenzied state over Spike's work before the film came out. I saw SHE'S GOTTA HAVE IT and SCHOOL DAZE on cable and I watched them both every chance I got. I couldn't get enough of these two films. They were alive. Cinema was alive. It was the closest things to a punk rock moment in film in a long time. It set the city and the film world on fire but more importantly it set me on fire with regards to any hopes of being part of the film community. If a "black man trying to keep his dick hard in a cruel and harsh world" could get films made, shit, I better get my ass in gear and learn my craft because let's face it, Spike's arrival marked the so called "renaissance" of black film in America, not an easy feat. That translates to: for a brief moment in time young, black filmmakers got the keys to the castle. John Singleton, The Hughes Brothers, The Hudlin Brothers and, and, a black female director, Kasi Lemmons. It didn't last very long. Ask Matty Rich. Spike had fire in his belly and was on a mission. That fueled my own mission.
2014. Summer. Brooklyn, NY.
The film left its mark beyond 1989. At the Academy of Arts and Sciences anniversary screening at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this past Sunday the house was packed to recognize the films importance. Except this time around the audience was filled with faces that represented a new Brooklyn, a gentrified Brooklyn. A lot of whom never lived in New York in 1989, who never felt that heat of the racial tension and never saw an artisanal-free Brooklyn set up to cater to deep pockets. Yeah, it was different to say the least. This is why I love the film so deeply. It's forever a time capsule for what was, in my mind, a truer essence of what New York represented. One of the actors (Luis Ramos?) from the film said it best at the screening. He said, living in New York you were forced to learn about each other's backgrounds just because you had no choice. Puerto Ricans learned about what it meant to live in Alabama. African Americans learned about the difference between Sicilians and Neapolitans. I'm paraphrasing but he said, "You get along until you don't. Until you have to choose sides." It's one way of looking at life in New York. I don't think it's the only way but I think it was the consensus at the time and still rings true today.
On a final note, I would like to add how much love and respect the cast and crew had for each other on what is considered by Danny Aiello to be a "political thriller" that has polarized critics and caused some to predict riots when the film was initially released. For such a ferociously singular vision there was much humor and admiration on hand when recalling making one of the great films in American cinema.
Love and respect. No riots.