Monday, February 25, 2019

Hollywood Gives Oscar to Director who Pushed Tawana Brawley Hoax

Clockwise from left: Movie poster from Do the Right Thing (director and actor Spike Lee is holding the pizza), 1989 - Tawana Brawley and Al Sharpton, 1988 - The S1W "security team" from the music video "Fight the Power", 1989.

The director is Spike Lee, of course.

He shared the Best Adapted Screenplay award (for BlacKkKlansman, which he directed) with three others.

Though he wasn't exactly happy about winning only that award, feeling that there was some sort of plot or conspiracy to foil him with interracial driving movies. Classy as always, when Green Book won Best Picture (beating out Klansman), he stormed out of his seat, only to return and sulk with his back to the stage.

But in this era of Covington and Jussie Smollett I thought it only fair to point out that Lee was an enthusiastic backer of the Tawana Brawley hoax, I'm not talking about when the accusations were first made (when most people believed them) but more than a year later, after a New York grand jury had found it to be a fraud.

"Tawana Told the Truth", says the graffiti message appearing by surprise as Lee's character walks by. It's one of the most iconic clips from Lee's third film Do the Right Thing.

I'm not saying that that in itself involves pushing the Brawley hoax (but see below). It's just a scene from a movie, after all, in which all the different characters, including blacks, whites and hispanics, famously have their own point of views. Most seem to be racist against other groups, to at least some degree, and there's even a large dollop of racial stereotyping - blacks like to blast music, have a fixation for high-end basketball sneakers and burn down things when they're angry. Whites are insensitive to the diversity requirements of pizza parlor wall decorations and occasionally choke-hold to death black teens. Hispanics like to argue. And so on. On one level, Do the Right Thing is a moral Rashomon. Is there a fair or neutral perspective or are we all just locked in to outlooks that go with our racial identities? Can't we all just not be racist or is that now (in 1989) simply a naive dream? What is the right thing?

This intentional ambiguity and obvious (though odd and in the end depressing) shout out to a certain skewed kind of diversity was largely the reason for the film's success among critics if not audiences. It was different, honest (so they said) and frank. It catapulted Lee into the ranks of major American directors.

But there was another level to the film and its marketing - the effort to bring full-on black militancy into the mainstream. Lee wanted an "anthem" as the movie's theme. Notably, he first imagined using a modern version of the unobjectionably optimistic "Lift Every Voice and Sing". But he soon felt that something stronger was needed. So he turned to Public Enemy, a still somewhat niche band in a still somewhat niche category - black "hip hop" - that had cut its teeth as the opening act for the Beastie Boys, a white band playing to largely white audiences.

The song Public Enemy created as the theme for the film wasn't a Stevie Wonderish hymn to everyone coming together or the worth and excellence of all races but a full-on broadside against Whitey and "accommodation" in general:

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
I'm ready and hyped plus I'm amped
Most of my heroes don't appear on no stamps
Sample a look back you look and find
Nothing but rednecks for four hundred years if you check

Fight the Power!
You gotta fight the powers that be!

The song "Fight the Power" even dissed the then recent mega-hit "Don't Worry be Happy".

Worry and don't be happy. Especially you, Whitey.

Today, thirty years later, take a bus through the black ghettos of Chicago - Austin, Englewood, West Garfield - and listen to the music blaring from headphones. Or for that matter, note the music playing on the speakers at white hipster gyms.

Stevie Wonder lost.

But I'm digressing a bit. Spike Lee also directed the music video of "Fight the Power". It features Public Enemy performing the song at an outdoor concert/march/rally in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn for what appears to be an almost entirely black audience (most of the few whites are cops). All the tropes are there: the righteous but serious Chuck D, his clownish side-kick Flavor Flav, the Marcus Garvey/Nation of Islam-like soldier dancers, often angry spectators pumping their fists. Jesse Jackson appears in it, as does Al Sharpton who had hitched his star to the Tawana Brawley case.

And there is Miss Brawley herself, appearing a number of times jiggling to the beat in front of the locked-step Marcus Garveyites. She smiles knowingly. They get it, she seems to be thinking while jiggling. We get it. Fight the Power!

This was well-after virtually all of white America and most of black America knew she was a fraud and had attempted to frame, by name, a number of innocent men.

Well, maybe Lee was saying, you know, we all have different perspectives.

Brawley and most other principles of the hoax, including Sharpton, would later be sued and forced to pay damages.

What did Spike Lee explicitly say about the case? Years later in 2001 he would comment:
No one is ever going to find out what the true story is, but I still find it hard to believe that Tawana Brawley, at that age, would have covered herself with feces and thrown herself in a garbage bag.
Actually, according to numerous official and unofficial sources, now accepted by almost everyone, that's exactly what she did.

But here is Lee again, this time in a 2014 interview with Rolling Stone:
Do you still believe Tawana told the truth?
Well, I don’t think the story has really come out. One day we’ll find out what really happened.
One is pretty sure that Lee does indeed "know" what happened, but saying it would not be to fight the power.

Stoking grievance, anger and racial hatred is hip. And it also makes money. Truth or even peace be damned.

Thirty years later, where has it gotten us?

What does Spike Lee care? He doesn't have to live in Austin.


Watch the music video to "Fight the Power". Or watch it again if you've already seen it. By the way, the featured "ghetto" is now gentrified with renovated multi-million dollar brownstones inhabited by white lawyers and hedge-fund managers.

The video is a bit of a Rorschach test, I think. It will either inspire you to fight the power (or pump some iron at your hipster gym), or it will make you sad.


  1. The music is infectious, as always. But these guys peddle in nothing but racial hatred and it's always going to be that way I guess. Liberals are at the point where the truth matters not at all but it did a bit back in the day when this farce happened. We are still being surprised by hoaxsters ala Jessie Smollett and can't believe anyone would fake something so incredibly sacred to so many as a hate crime. All this stuff is big business and dramatic and for a nation raised on 8x10 glossies of civil rights scenes it never loses it's impact. America was so ready to leave it all behind and just get along. There are a kazillion mixed people in the USA, white parent/black parent, etc., but you'd never know it, you'd think we still have water fountains for whites only. Those days were gone, blacks have moved right into everywhere and are often just as yuppie as the white folks but to these race-baiters it's always Selma Alabama 1935. They can't afford to let it go, it's money. Anyway then Obama was elected and all the white folks who voted for him (lots) found out they were just a bunch of bible thumping, gun toatin crackers, in his mind, even if they did vote for him it bought them nothing. And race relations have gone absolutely backward since he cursed the Oval Office with his divisive presence.
    There are hard truths for both sides in this conversation, things neither one wants to hear. Until those truths are openly stated and faced, not much will change. Some truths will never be faced and there's a whole industry designed to cover it up. People can't handle the truth.
    Spike Lee made a good movie you didn't mention, one that I always felt captured the era I know, Crooklyn.

    1. Chuck D is an extremely talented composer, performer and producer. Yes, his music is infectious.

      Spike Lee is also obviously very talented, and the movies I have seen have been quite entertaining (even if the politics of some have been annoying). Unfortunately, I haven't seen Crooklyn. Perhaps now I will.

      I think you're absolutely right about race-relations in the Obama years, though I wouldn't completely blame Obama for it. In many ways we have been and are moving backwards.