Songs in the Key of Cinema is a bi-weekly look at the use of songs in film and how that music fits within the context of the film as a whole and a place where we’ll cover the moments in cinema that were music to our eyes and ears.
Twenty-five years ago, Bedstuy erupted in animosity, the kinds that had been quietly building up without much fanfare. All it took was for a trashcan to be thrown into the window of a pizza parlor for much larger issues, one that transcended even the characters in the situation, to be brought to light when they had been largely ignored. Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” opens Spike Lee’s seminal film Do the Right Things, a track whose lyrics demand that these issues of racism and inequality in contemporary America be addressed. As it reverberates around the room when one watches it, one can feel that the track, indelible in music and film history, is a call to arms.
Public Enemy’s track “Fight the Power” was written by Carlton Ridenhour, Eric Sadler, Hank Boxley, and Keith Boxley for Do the Right Thing at the request of the film’s director, Spike Lee. (Another version of the track exists on their 1990 album Fear of a Black Planet.) Immediately as the song begins, it’s an entrancing assault of various studio techniques (disk scratching, beats being laid down, etc.) and as the verses are being performed with assurance and a daunting kind of confidence, the kind that flares, it’s obvious that the track has no intention of lagging behind for the benefit of its listeners. The song is electric, fueled with as much power and energy as the film itself. But the lyrical content of the film doesn’t point to a kind of belligerence that may be easily misconstrued in the force within the music, but a mindset that’s based in activism. “What we need is awareness, we can’t get careless” stands out as something necessary and important; that behind this ostensibly furious song is a deep seeded desire for fraternity regarding the issue at hand: race.
“Fight the Power” is featured in the film as part of its main title sequence, with actress Rosie Perez performing various dances in various sets and backgrounds. It rotates between Perez doing these dances in regular clothing (red dress and black belt, blue outfit with leather jacket) and doing the dances wearing boxing gloves and a robe. Occasionally Lee will intercut these two dances together so that they cut into one another perfectly in a synchronized manner.
While part of Do the Right Thing’s greatness has to do with the ambiguity of characters’ actions in the film, it may hold its primary place in film history because it’s a film whose primary theme (what race means in contemporary America) is painfully relevant today. The characters that we follow throughout the film, on a single sweltering summer day, Mookie (Spike Lee) and his friends and Sal (Danny Aiello), essentially have their own narrative trajectories which intertwine with one another. But it’s Mookie and his friends that matter most within the context of the track.
There are micro aggressions tossed casually, and “Fight the Power” speaks to these micro aggressions, and the larger ones that ensue, in a larger context. Because it’s the casualness, from Sal’s disdain to Pino’s aggressiveness, which reveals a larger, underlining problem within the community. “Fight the Power” is thus an answer to those concerns and issues, a carefully executed rant against systematic racism and a long standing history of oppression in all forms. Its lyrics contains that history of unrest, no longer willing to tolerate inequality.
The title sequence plays a crucial role in informing the audience of these ideas. Lee doesn’t bother allowing his audience to ease into the fact that they’ll be seeing a nearly revolutionary piece of cinematic history; he gets at them right from the start, with reason. Rosie Perez, who also plays Mookie’s girlfriend Tina, dances on camera, sometimes looking into the camera and sometimes not. But what’s incredibly noticeable about her performance is the combination of determination and flawlessness. Regardless of how thoroughly it was rehearsed, there’s an improvised quality to Perez’s movement.
Its mix of dance and boxing moves is integral to how the film handles it politics: activism is a full time job, one that combines elegance and down and dirty confrontation. Lee thus cuts from outfit to outfit, as if to show these nuance in activism but also to show the versatility of the activists themselves. Bathed in red light and wearing a variety of outfits, Perez becomes a representative of the activist that must live their everyday life but also challenge the kyriarchy. Its outrage is unapologetic. It still rings with power.
Public Enemy’s track is one that demands attention. Though “Fight the Power” calls for a dismantling of the racist ideology that permeates nearly every facet of society and behavior, a “power” that infiltrates language and action, its anger also demands solidarity and fraternity. “Fight the Power” is a call to arms and, sadly, one that is still needed today.