In an October 21st editorial, The New York Times recommended ticker tape parades for a number of lesser luminaries, including filmmaker Spike Lee. Their quote: “Granted, not everyone’s favorite. But he may be the best maker of New York-themed films since Sidney Lumet.”
Last week, the Times also carried an obituary for Jon Lester. It was Lester who partly inspired Spike Lee’s breakout film Do the Right Thing in 1989. It was Lee’s third film but one that brought him to national attention as it was his first with white characters and a race riot. Of course, I wouldn’t be writing about these two men if there weren’t an Italian connection.
In 1986, Lester was an English immigrant living in Howard Beach, Queens, New York. Only 17 years old at the time, standing a mere 5’4” tall, Lester managed to assemble a multi-ethnic White lynch mob to torment some African American customers in a neighborhood pizzeria. The mob chased one victim to his death on the Belt Parkway and clubbed another into critical condition. The incident became a sensational tale of racism.
Jon Lester was convicted of second-degree murder along with friends Scott Kern and Robert Riley. A number of Italian American teens were convicted on lesser charges. Nevertheless, it was only Italian Americans who were featured in Do the Right Thing. The pizzeria that served the real Black victims of Howard Beach instead became the seat of racism in the film. As The Godfather trilogy and GoodFellas locked in the stereotype of Italian American gangsters, Do the Right Thing became emblematic of Italian American racism.
Spike Lee has been selective in his approach to white racism. When he cast actors John and Nick Turturro as Jewish night club owners in Mo’ Better Blues in 1990 he reaped a whirlwind of charges by film critics and the Anti-Defamation League of being an anti-Semite. Reviewers condemned the characters of Josh and Moe Flatbush as “craven,” “Shylocks,” “anti-Semitic,” and “ugly stereotypes.” Clearly on the defensive, Lee dug his hole deeper by claiming the film couldn’t be anti-Semitic because Jews run Hollywood and even produced his film.
Nevertheless, the blowback got to him. Italians, not Jews, became his preferred representatives of white racism. Another opportunity presented itself in 1989 when 18-year old Joseph Fama gunned down Yusuf Hawkins, a 16-year old Black who was in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn to inspect a used car for sale. That incident led to Lee’s 1991 film Jungle Fever featuring a coterie of Neanderthal Italian Americans, led by veteran actor Anthony Quinn.
But 1991 also saw the real life racial rumble in Crown Heights, Brooklyn between Hasidic Jews and their Black neighbors. A Black child had been run over by a Hasid causing four days of rock and bottle throwing that led to the stabbing to death of a Hasidic man. Unlike Italian American neighborhoods with their ad hoc hotheads, this one was policed by the Jewish Defense League which promised to “violate physically” anyone who violated Jewish property. This weeklong confrontation between Blacks and Jews, which brought in both Al Sharpton and Mayor David Dinkins, was not inspiring enough for a Spike Lee film.
Instead, in 1999, Spike Lee deftly avoided a run-in with Jewish critics in making Summer of Sam, based on the harrowing days when serial killer David Berkowitz roamed the streets. Instead of following Berkowitz, the movie focused on Lee’s obsession with Italian American losers as they persecuted innocents in paranoid fear of Berkowitz.
Italian American stereotypes have never been a problem for Spike Lee, nor for the NY Times Editorial Board. Not surprisingly, some of Lee’s best collaborators are paesan actors who participate in his handiwork. But it was an English kid who showed him the way. -JLM