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“Fight the Powers That Be”: Race and Capital in Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” and “Inside Man”

Understanding racism, in Lee’s canon, is to look at the economic relations that propel it. His 2006 heist hit and 1989 classic do just that.
Spike Lee's Inside Man (2006) and Do the Right Thing (1989) are showing on MUBI in many countries around the world in January and February, 2019.
Forty-five minutes into Spike Lee’s 2006 Inside Man, Clive Owen’s mysterious bank robber Dalton Russell negotiates with Denzel Washington’s detective Keith Frazier a food delivery for the 50 or so people he’s holding hostage inside the fictional Wall Street-headquartered Manhattan Trust Bank. The food smuggled through the horde of cops surrounding the building is pizza, and the boxes the slices come in read: Sal’s Famous Pizzeria. I wish I could say I spotted the intertextual connection right away, but it took Lee’s DVD commentary to illuminate the link between his 2006 star-studded thriller and the family-owned Bedford-Stuyvesant restaurant that staged his 1989 Do the Right Thing. “Sal’s pizzeria,” Lee comments, somewhat sarcastically, “burned down in Brooklyn, and moved to Wall Street.”
Revisiting the overwhelmingly favorable consensus around Lee’s heist flick—and biggest commercial success to date1—I was struck by the many voices who praised Inside Man for its alleged lack of a political agenda. Lo and behold, a Spike Lee joint that appeared to steer clear from the virulent polemics of earlier entries in his career, and thrived on a twists-packed script penned by first timer Russell Gewirtz, where cops concurrently fight robbers and corrupted superiors, robbers break into banks without ostensibly stealing a single dollar, and dark secrets threaten to shatter financial empires.
“Predictably and tiresomely dogmatic” (as per Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek) in his polemical excursions into present-day U.S. racial frictions, Lee seemed finally down to meddle with good old-fashioned entertainment for its own sake—and the rupture was welcomed as a much needed and long overdue breath of fresh air. The New York TimesManohla Dargis hailed Inside Man as “an effective piece of genre showmanship” from a “maddeningly unreliable” cineaste who, “[judging] from this precision-tooled amusement, (...) may have missed his calling (...) as a studio hire;” New York Magazine’s David Edelstein savored it as a thriller by a “normally subversive director (...) that wasn’t, for a change, in my face;” and Christian Science Monitor’s Peter Rainer greeted it as a long overdue new chapter in the “overwrought and argumentative” filmography of a man who’s “a better filmmaker, if not ideologue, when he’s playing it straight.” A gritty, twists-packed thriller that self-consciously tips its hat to its illustrious Sidney Lumet-helmed ancestors (1973's Serpico and 1975's Dog Day Afternoon), the new Spike Lee Joint came to be praised for the reason that seemed to make it the least Spike Lee Joint to date.
Thirteen years later, Inside Man has aged far more graciously than the critical discourse around it. True, the racial subtext around Owen’s bank-robbery-turned-hostage-crisis may not be spelled out with the bold palette and graffiti-etched slogans of Lee’s 1980s and 1990s works, but to reduce Inside Man to a relatively politics-free, good old-fashioned entertainment (however a brainy and sophisticated rendition thereof it may be) is to overlook the connecting tissue that bridges it to the excursions into institutionalized racism Lee had ventured as early as his NYU freshman project The Answer (a 20-minute short about an unemployed African-American screenwriter hired to write a remake of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 The Birth of a Nation2). Far from the supposedly impersonal flick it was billed as, Inside Man did not put on hold the investigations into racial frictions Lee’s 1989 classic had only just begun—in fact, it expanded the discussion on a markedly different, and far more complex time and space: a post-9/11 New York seen through the prism of the world’s financial capital. The bridge between Do the Right Thing and Inside Man may pop up as a flickering shot of a pizza box, but the two—multi-character ethnographies set in New York City neighborhoods so wildly different they may as well be each other’s antipodes—both tap into Lee’s flair for large canvas examinations into the way places—and the economic forces of capitalism that rule them—shape the way people govern themselves and their relations with others.
At once historically grounded in the racial tensions that surfaced under former New York City Mayor Ed Koch’s administration3 (1978 - 1989) and trans-historical in its rekindling those frictions with a genealogy of racial strife dating back to 1960s Alabama, Do The Right Thing chronicles a blistering hot summer Saturday in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant, a predominantly black neighborhood with a solitary Italian-American outpost: Sal’s Famous Pizzeria. It’s a $1.5-a-slice joint that’s been feeding the block for generations, and for that reason alone the African-American community seems to have granted, if not universal and heartfelt acceptance, at least a degree of tolerance toward owner and sons, fifty-something Sal (Danny Aiello), cantankerous and hotheaded Pino (John Turturro) and the younger, conciliating Vito (Richard Edson).
Around it, a polyphony of accents belies a vast and multi-cultural batch of eccentrics and endearing outcasts, the unbridled and contagious energy of Lee’s script bursts with turning each one into instantly memorable charmers—never mind how flickering their time on-screen may be. There’s Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson), a local radio DJ commenting on the block’s antics from the comfort of his booth like a curious blend between an Ancient Greek choir and a near-omniscient entity à la American Graffiti’s Wolfman Jack; Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), blasting Public Enemy’s "Fight the Power" from the giant boombox dangling off his hands like an overgrown limb; Giancarlo Esposito’s Buggin’ Out, whose crusade against white cultural hegemony kickstarts a boycott against Sal’s Pizzeria and its Italian-Americans-only, black folks-free Wall of Fame; shambling block sage Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), an old man equally besotted with liquor and with the elusive Mother Sister (Ruby Dee); the cerebral palsy-riddled Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith), trying to make a living selling photos of Martin Luther King and Malcom X to fellow Bed-Stuy residents; a Korean family running a 7-Eleven opposite Sal’s joint; packs of teens and unemployed folks idling about in the shadow; and naturally, Mookie—Lee himself, who’d launched his acting career in She’s Gotta Have It purely because, as he candidly admitted in a piercing New York Magazine portrait, “we couldn’t afford to pay anyone else,” and here returns before the camera as cash-strapped delivery guy at Sal’s pizzeria, the only black employee of the block’s only white-owned business.
Racial frictions mount under a merciless, near-100° F sun—the beams shimmering over concrete like fuel a pathetic fallacy for the pressure brewing in between different ethnic groups, triggered by unresolved inter-racial tensions and by the NYPD cops patrolling the block. Decades of institutionalized racism have pushed African-Americans inside a crime- and drugs-plagued Bed-Stuy4, its denizens’ stamina immortalized in the ominous “Do or Die” graffiti towering above Sal’s pizzeria. Yet the xenophobia and violence perpetrated by police forces have also contributed to fashion a certain ghetto identity, a belligerent and resilient mode of being foraged by the memories of the community’s martyrs and African-American heroes at large. It’s a trans-historical discourse that reverberates in Samuel L. Jackson’s homage to the endless list of all-black musicians he thanks for “making our lives just a little brighter,” and gets blasted off Radio Raheem’s boombox—a call to fight that essentially translates as a need to craft and preserve an African-American identity in opposition to a hegemonic, all-white cosmogony.5
Anchored on a history of racial strife that far transcends the late-80s Brooklyn block it’s set in, Do the Right Thing thrives on Lee’s ability to grind antithetical characters onto a magnetic field that concurrently pushes and pulls them apart. Fragile interracial ententes may bind the three whites to the community surrounding them (Vito’s relationship with Mookie is the closest we come to an interracial friendship)—but they never supersede the deep-seated “powers that be” that linger above the community and shape its intramural relations. However genuine Sal may seem while waxing on his relationship toward his African-American clientele (“some don’t like us, but most of them do,” he reminds Pino in a moving father-son heart-to-heart, “they grew up on my food, and I’m very proud of that”), it’s him who sets in motion the final tragic riot, while Turturro’s racial slurs demarcate, time and again, the boundaries forbidding any non-monetary interactions with the Bed-Study denizens.
Still, Sal’s altercations with hot-tempered Pino offer a number of eye-opening insights. Bed-Stuy may well be home to the Italian Americans’ famous pizzeria, but it is not where Sal and sons actually live—or would want to work in, for that matter. Complaining that the restaurant is “like a sickness” and urging his father to sell the business and start anew in their native Bensonhurst, Turturro needles Aiello into an admission that rekindles Sal and sons to the fate of the African-American community surrounding them. “There’s too many pizzerias already there,” Aiello mutters, eyes lowered on a table during a rare mid-afternoon break. “This is all I know, and I’ve been here 25 years. Where am I going?”
To an extent, both ethnic groups—Italian-Americans on the one hand, African-Americans on the other—are condemned to a social and financial immobility dictated by much larger economic forces which neither is equipped to fight. I do not mean to overlook the history of racism and police violence Mookie’s plight is inscribed in—and which Sal, Pino and Vito are largely spared from—nor do I wish to minimize Sal’s role as the reenactor of the exploitative capitalist model which kicked him out of his home turf, and which he reproduces in Mookie’s own. Yet the two communities suffer from a push and pull logic of an economic model which has relegated both at its margins. Watching Sal telling Pino going home is not an option, minutes after a trio of longtime Bed-Stuy residents complain against a system that allows Korean newcomers to set up “a good business” but shuts its doors to African-American folks, is to witness the creation of a curious pan-racial defeatism binding the two groups together—a matter-of-fact surrender in the face of a predatory economic model that decides who gets access to its market, and how the latter shapes one’s mode of relating with one’s self and others.
There is a clear generational dimension to the conflict, too. If the older folks happily embrace the laissez-faire pessimism, neither Pino nor the younger African-American residents are willing to follow suit. Understandable as it may be, their frustration belies a dangerous naiveté Lee enjoys poking at. Take Da Mayor’s character, whom we are told started drinking because he couldn’t cope with the idea of failing to provide for his five children. Pointedly, the alcoholism he nurtures by accepting subordinate jobs at Sal’s place, sweeping his sidewalk for a few bucks readily invested in beers and liquor, is a result of the failure of American capitalism to grant him a productive place within its ranks in the first place. But the belittling scolding he receives from a few teenagers for his inability to “respect himself” (read: find a job and pull himself out of his misery) underscores a myopic failure to acknowledge one’s present plight as a result of past, deep-seated injustices.
Nor are the Bed-Stuy residents ready to grapple with the economic forces changing the neighborhood’s demographics. Wending his way through the teens frittering time away around Sal’s pizzeria, a lone Irish-American yuppie steps on Buggin’ Out’s revered Nike Air Jordan, leading to a heated discussion between the two (while conjuring, in passing, an ironic allegory for an expanding urban white class stomping its feet over what the young Bed-Stuy native clearly hails as a cultural signifier of his African-American identity). The neighborhood is changing, the alien presence of another white Caucasian—far more problematic than Sal and sons’, for the freckled proto-hipster isn’t a flickering extra: he’s had the guts (much to Buggin’ Out’s fury) to “buy a brownstone on my block, in my neighborhood, on my side of the street!”—underscores the gentrifying forces that will spell the end of Bed-Stuy as DJ Mister Señor Love Daddy has narrated it from his booth. Everything from a shiny cabriolet to an ice-cream van stealing young customers off an old man’s snow cone cart portend an encroaching modernity, and heightened economic inequalities that will eventually shatter the block’s integrity—and along with that, the “mental self-defensive fitness” Public Enemy had called for from Radio Raheem’s boombox.
Watching Lee’s canon chronologically, I wonder whether Inside Man somehow complements his Bed-Stuy ethnography. Lee’s heist flick situates the action at the heart of the economic forces that Do the Right Thing alludes to; most importantly, it gives those forces a face. Another 24-hour canvas set in another unbearably hot New York City summer day, Inside Man gravitates around a handful of places: the Manhattan Trust Bank besieged by a gang of masked thieves led by Clive Owen’s uber-smart Dalton Russell; the opulent office of the bank’s president and philanthropist Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer); the interrogation room where detective Frazier and his African-American colleague Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor) interrogate a few witnesses; and the sleek high-rise office home to Jodie Foster’s Madeleine White, an all-powerful fixer whom Case recruits to cut off Frazier and negotiate with Owen the return of some precious documents the robber is after.
If watching Do the Right Thing is to witness a long-brewing racial strife between outcasts fighting over cultural signifiers (after all, it’s Sal’s whites-only Wall of Fame and Radio Raheem’s boombox that trigger the final riot), Inside Man zooms in on the economic bases that under-gird such racially-charged tensions. Understanding racism, in Lee’s canon, is to look at the capitalist power relations that fuel it, and nowhere does the toxic codependency between xenophobia and capital come to the fore more visibly than in the way it affects Denzel Washington’s Keith Frazier. A talented African-American detective mired in a hierarchical organization that concurrently humiliates him and keeps him close with vague promises of promotions, he is a post-9/11 Mookie in disguise. Like Lee’s delivery man, Washington’s Frazier inhabits two irreconcilable worlds, occupying that liminal milieu between a predominantly white law enforcement universe, and an African-American identity against which the former has historically been pitted as anathema. Frazer’s chances to rise up the ladder are contingent on his ability to navigate both realms; much like Mookie, he’s trapped in two discursive spaces, each demanding his undivided allegiance.
Moments before he’s asked to flock to the bank and address Owen’s hostage crisis (though the job, it is crucial to stress, is only given to him because his white Caucasian superior is unable to be there himself), we are told the NYPD high cadres believe Frazier may have stolen $140,000 confiscated during a police raid—an unjust accusation he is only relieved from during the film’s closing act. In his attempt to ask Foster’s all-powerful Ms. White questions that would help him unlock new clues, he is told that some answers are above his pay-grade—a humiliating reminder that access to information is effectively determined by one’s position inside a whites-controlled hierarchical structure. And while there may be no Buggin’ Out to remind him to “stay black,” Frazier is unmistakably aware of his subaltern position, and the ossified racial history that justifies it.
In another pivotal exchange with Foster, Washington’s detective reminds her that she “doesn’t own” him, in a subtle allusion to the country’s slave economy, but it is in an earlier confrontation with bank employee-turned-hostage Vikram Walia (Waris Ahluwalia) that Frazier’s anti-colonial discourse comes to full light. Manhandled by the police as a bank robber purely on the basis of his physical appearance (a dark-skinned and turban-wearing Sikh the cops mistake for a “fucking Arab” and treat accordingly), Walia refuses to collaborate with the authorities until they return him his turban, railing against multiple violations of his civil rights until Frazier interrupts him with a wry crack: “I bet you can get a cab, though.” It’s a joke that points to the economic discrimination suffered by Manhattan’s racial minorities—where African-Americans find it difficult to hail taxis, and most Indian and Pakistani immigrants make their living as cab drivers—while also pointing to the intensification of racial profiling in post 9/11 U.S., with individuals of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent threatening to dethrone African-Americans as the country’s most targeted pariahs within.
Underpinning the hottest summer day in 1989 Bed-Stuy were two crucial and irreconcilable antinomies: the words “LOVE” and “HATE” as they shone on Radio Raheem’s gold brass-knuckle rings; and perhaps most strikingly, the duo Malcom X – Martin Luther King, which Lee crystallized in the quotes predating the end credits as two irreconcilable worldviews, King’s rejecting violence as “both impractical and immoral,” and X’s equating it as intelligence whenever used in self-defense. That Do the Right Thing concurrently shocks one into anger and compassion stems from Lee’s ability to blur these dichotomies—complicating the distinction between victims and assailants, between good and evil. Inside Man leaves us in the same state of moral dissonance.
A beguilingly straightforward cops-vs-robbers plot turns out to be a far more morally demanding exercise. Dalton and his accomplices are on a quest to uncover an abominable secret—one so heinous Plummer’s Case is right in fearing his whole life would be shattered if the world were to know it. They are to enter a bank and leave it as free men; the only way to do so, in Dalton’s “perfect robbery,” is to blur the difference between thieves and hostages. The civilians held for ransom are immediately blindfolded and forced to dress in the same uniforms worn by the assailants. By the time the cops storm into the Manhattan Trust Bank, distinguishing between victims and perpetrators, for police forces and true hostages alike, is virtually impossible. In a society high on racially-charged terrorist paranoia, the policemen surrounding a weeping and masked Walia react the only way they know: having stripped him of the disguise, they deal with him with all the might and hatred his physical appearance demands. Here’s the irony of Dalton’s erasure of difference: no mask can ever be thick enough to hide a history of deep-seated xenophobia and economic exploitation that continues to push racial minorities to society’s margins—and the joke is not lost on either Frazier or Mookie.
There’s something about Spike Lee’s canon that makes his works lodge in my memory in a way few other filmographies do. I like to think it’s the opposite reason a number of critics hailed Inside Man’s refreshingly apolitical agenda—a short-sighted understanding of what is possibly one of Lee’s most piercing political commentaries. To see a Spike Lee joint is to wake up to and problematize one’s position in a complex web of power relations, shaped by forces that feed off the toxic binary of race and capital—and the effect, as far as I am concerned, is a chilling reminder of an uninterrupted history of violence. Watching Do the Right Thing and Inside Man in 2019, the racial hysteria Lee captured in both now so ingrained in public debate and policy making, I wonder if the line that best sums up our zeitgeist is Da Mayor’s hopeful, uplifting “do the right thing,” or Sal’s own rendition of it—Sal who, facing a crowd of angry Bed-Stuy residents ready to turn against the three Italian-American aliens to avenge the death of one of their own, a 25-year-old history of interracial coexistence about to be shattered by the “powers that be” and never left, looks at the mob, and says: “you do what you gotta do.”

1. As I type these words, Inside Man’s worldwide box office is set at over $184 million; as a reference, Lee’s 2018 BlacKkKlansman lags behind at $89 million.
2. As eye-opening it may be (especially considering it in light of Lee’s 2018 KKK-themed BlacKkKlansman), like any of the films he directed as a student Lee contends The Answer is out of circulation, and the effect it had on the NYU board of directors can only be gauged from the memories of the lucky friends and acquaintances who saw it before it nearly got Lee expelled from university. For an insightful account of the proverbial hornet’s nest Lee stirred up in 1980, refer to The New Yorker’s John Colapinto’s brilliant profile, “Outside Man: Spike Lee’s celluloid struggles”.
3. I am referring here in particular to the fate of the three African-American youths who, in December 1986, entered a pizza parlor in the Italian-American neighborhood of Howard Beach, Queens, where they were assaulted by a mob of white men—an act of unspeakable violence which culminated with the death of one of the three African-Americans, run over by a car as he escaped his assailants, and which prompted Lee to begin writing Do The Right Thing.
4. On the subject of drugs, Lee’s crew spent several weeks cleaning up crack houses in and around the Bed-Stuy area where, in the summer of 1988, Do the Right Thing was shot. Curiously, however, no drugs are featured in the film—a decision for which Lee was heavily criticized, and which prompted him to accuse his detractors of racial stereotyping.
5. Lee had commissioned Public Enemy to write “Fight the Power” for Do the Right Thing. Reading them as a wake-up call to rebel against the pantheon of white cultural models and fashion an alternative African-American discourse in their place, the lyrics are illuminating. Consider this passage: “Elvis was a hero to most / But he never meant shit to me you see / straight up racist that sucker was / simple and plain / mother fuck him and John Wayne / Cause I’m Black and I’m proud (…) / Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps / Sample a look back you look and find / Nothing but redneck for 400 years if you check.”

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