Monday, July 06, 2009

fighting the power 20 years ago today with Spike Lee

While reminiscing about previous July 4ths, Kristi and I found huge holes in our memories regarding the holiday. Not being particularly patriotic people and not having a great love of fireworks, we have had so many quiet Independence Days that we have forgotten most. Sure, I remember the Esplanade in Boston or the crappy Tomb Raider flick, even Mexican food with friends and a couple of parties, but that is about it, except for a couple of distinct memories, one from exactly 10 years ago and another from exactly 20.

I mentioned our July 4th plans for 1999 in my last blog, spending time in Boston both in the city and in Schaumberg with our Arab friends. However, 20 years ago I remember the music I was listening to and the movie I saw on July 4. Why? Because this week they released the 20th anniversary DVD of a life changing movie moment for me.

On July 4, 1989 I was a 20 year old college Junior living in the Theta Chi fraternity house in Tallahassee, FL. I had plans for later in the day to watch fireworks with my old roommate (shout out to Mike Houghton) and his friends and I had just bought Don Henley’s End of the Innocence (89 was a good music year with Tom Petty, Jackson Browne, The Replacements, Depeche Mode, De la Soul, King’s X and The Pixies releasing great albums). In fact, I would be attending a seminal show in 3 days, on my 21st birthday.* Henley's (along with Browne's and Niel Young's) album was a late 80s Liberal college student dream work.

But, on this day before heading out to a patriotic event, I journeyed to the local cinema by my lonesome for a matinee showing of the 2nd most controversial movie of the year** which had just opened in Tallahassee, Do the Right Thing. As became a common occurrence, I found no friends to watch a Spike Lee movie with me and was the only or near only white guy in the theater. Watching that movie is probably the single most patriotic thing I have ever done on July 4.

It blew my mind, re-oriented my world view, cemented my ideas about race and disturbed the peace-nick in me. I had always walked in between 2 worlds… frat guy but tee totaling Jesus freak that danced til 2 AM and got up early for church, Southern Baptist/ Campus Crusader but political Liberal (by the day’s standard) that sucked at packaged evangelism, member of a closeted racist organization (my fraternity) advocating racial equality in the Greek system, a poor kid masquerading as something else. This film shook up both of those worlds.

From the opening bombast of Public Enemy’s Fight The Power to the uncomfortable hilarity of the racist stereotyping scene from every ethnicity to the closing moments of racial tensions setting off a powder keg of riots and the ending quotes by Malcom X and MLK, I sat there in stunned silence, tears in my eyes and stomach churning. I remember being noticeably downbeat at the fireworks presentation that evening.

The DVD has just been released on its 20th anniversary. Bush I has given way to Obama, but I think the power of the film has not wavered. It is simply one of the best films ever made and the gutsiest I can think of. All of my white friends judged it when it came out, but none saw it. Of course, life imitated art a few years later with the Rodney King verdict in LA, with much defamation of Spike Lee and his film. It was blamed for the riots with no understanding of what the film was trying to say (honestly, it reminds me of Fight Club in the total misunderstanding people have of the movie). See it again or for the first time on its 20th birthday… and remember to Fight the Power.

*I saw The Replacements, one of the greatest bands to ever grace a stage in America. I was given backstage passes, sharing words and food with a noticeably drunk Paul Westerberg, strangely turning down his offer of a beer opting instead for a signed drumstick, backstage pass and t-shirt (proclaiming “I was ripped off for $18 bucks by The Replacements”).

**#1 most controversial? The Last Temptation of Christ. Proving that talking about race is only trumped by talking about religion for controversy. Looking back, that movie was pretty lame.

1 comment:

kristi said...

ok, can you believe i have not seen this movie? i guess i have an excuse the first time around, since i was only 16. add it to our netflix queue, please, honey.

oh, and VERY powerful essay!