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Top Ten Politically Effective Films: #1

by Anthony Kaufman
August 18, 2011 11:51 AM
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With all my recent cantankerous posts attacking "The Help," "Crash," "Captain America," and other mainstream pap, I thought it was about time I offered some positive energy, and write about some films that I actually appreciate.

When I first stated this blog, someone asked me to elaborate on my support for "a cinema that artfully opens people’s eyes to issues, ideas, history, culture and humanity in a profound way." "Which films?" asked the commenter. "How do you define profound? How do we measure the impact? Give us a list of your top ten profoundly impactful films that address important issues…"

I think it's a good exercise, and while I don't have the time or brain power to list all 10 (or more) in one post, I'm going to dole these out as they come to me over the weeks and months to come. So for starters, I thought I'd start with a film that's been buzzing in my mind recently, particularly with all the racial issues in the air, considering our first black president, Republican efforts to cater to black voters, and, of course, "The Help," as it heads its way past $100 million at the box office.

It's no revelation, rather obvious, of course, but no list of politically transformative films could be taken seriously without mentioning Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing." (I might add the director's entire oeuvre, starting with "She's Gotta Have It," with its unprecedented story of regular Brooklyn black folks in love and engaging in seductive sexual exploits--a groundbreaker in its own way).

But 1989's "Do the Right Thing" is that kind of landmark film, where form, content and political urgency all work together in perfect harmony to create something explosive and long-lasting.

Lee is not a subtle filmmaker, and the film may be famous for hitting the viewer over the head--most notably in that famous direct-address sequence, in which characters hurl insults at the viewer--but it's a complete film, in every sense of the word. Lee is a consummate filmmaker, and every element, from the multilayered sound design, mixing old-school jazz riffs with revolutionary hip-hip, to the evocative overtly stylized colors and costumes, delivers an exacting punch with a potent message: Racism persists, and America's long lasting legacy of oppression continues to this day, whether hidden under people's breath or ready to break out into the open and destroy our fragile communities.

When I wrote about the film for its 20th anniversary for indieWIRE ("Fighting the Power: 20 Years Later"), those involved in the film's making told me how struck they were by its bold political stance and style, and its immediacy, evoking very current instances of racial injustice (unlike the raft of Hollywood race-based films like "The Help"), such as the police killing of Eleanor Bumpurs, a black woman being evicted from her home, and the murder of an African American man in Howard Beach by local teenagers.

New York producer Ted Hope, who at the time was producing his first feature, said, “Here was a movie that felt right of the moment, about the world that we lived in, that was infused with a level of energy that very few movies were, and had ever been. It was on fire,” he continued. “You’ve got to wonder, how do we follow from that? How did we lose our way? Wouldn’t it be nice to see something that fresh today?”

I couldn't agree more.

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