Juneteenth and Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing” celebrate 25 years

Arts / Article

By Adrienne Kenton, Blackstar Fest 

What do Juneteenth and the 25th Anniversary of Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing” have in common? The obvious answer is that both events occur this month, with national celebrations of Juneteenth and month long bi-coastal celebrations of Lee’s groundbreaking film at Brooklyn Academy of Music and Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Looking more deeply, Juneteenth and Lee’s film address the dichotomy between property and humanity: the first as a celebration; the second as a cultural critique.

Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration of the ending of the economic system of chattel slavery in the United States. On June 19th, 1965, Major General Gordon Granger led Union soldiers to Galveston, Texas, bringing news that the Civil War had ended and that the enslaved men and women were now free. General Granger read the General Order Number 3:

“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer”.

Although the Emancipation Proclamation had become official on January 1, 1963, the decree had little impact on Texans due to limited Union troops to enforce the Executive Order. There are several theories as to why it took so long for this life altering news to reach the enslaved Texans. An often told story is the information was deliberately withheld by enslavers to keep the plantation labor force intact. Another implicates federal troops who may have waited for the plantation owners to benefit economically from one last cotton harvest before going to Texas with the news of freedom for the enslaved people. Whether true or not, these stories speak to the economic power of chattel slavery in this country. Upon hearing the news, the newly freed men and women rejoiced in the streets. No longer property, these newly freed and empowered black men and women used their agency to buy land of their own, search for family sold away during slavery, and build lives for themselves as legally acknowledged human beings.

The 25th anniversary of Do The Right Thing, considered by many to be Spike Lee’s masterpiece and an American film classic, will be commemorated with month long celebrations, including screenings of a new 35mm film produced by the Academy Film Archive. A controversial film at the time of its release in 1989, this film challenges viewers to ask themselves what do they value – property or humanity. Set in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn on the hottest day of the year, a seemingly ordinary pizzeria becomes the venue for community racial tensions to come to a head.

Lee’s film is masterful in that it encourages viewers to grapple with our notions of empathy and morality. The questions posed in Do the Right Thing resonate today and led to a cinematic conversation that the independent film, Fruitvale Station, continues. Moreover, in the wake of the Trayvon Martin case, where a town watch volunteer argued that he was protecting his community and their property from harm, the issue of racial profiling and its effect on Americans is still relevant these 25 years since the release of Lee’s film.

From July 31-August 3, International House Philadelphia will be the epicenter of cinematic storytelling that pushes us to think more broadly about our shared humanity. BlackStar Film Festival will feature films that will immerse filmgoers in stories that challenge us to expand our empathy through the art of cinema. By indie means necessary. See you there.