“You remember Lee’s movies because you remember the songs and melodies used to tell the story.” That’s what trumpeter Rodney Block, a longtime admirer of the films of Spike Lee, says about “joints” like “Mo’ Better Blues,” “School Daze,” “Love and Basketball,” and “Malcolm X.” He and his band, the Rodney Block Collective, will perform selections from these movies for the Arkansas Sounds concerts of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, which is celebrating the African-American filmmaker with a showing of “Do the Right Thing,” at 7 p.m. Thursday, July 13.
“I’ve always admired and enjoyed Spike Lee’s movies,” Block said, “but I truly became a fan when ‘Mo’ Better Blues’ hit the scene in the early ’90s. It was the combination of traditional jazz and hip-hop music on the soundtrack that made this particular movie about a trumpet player [played by Denzel Washington] stand out to me.
“I’ve watched this movie probably 300 times over the years, and the music is still fresh like the very first time I heard it. The uniqueness about Lee is not only the movie itself, but the soundtrack, too; it has just as much depth and thoughtfulness in how it serves the story.”
“Do The Right Thing” is Lee’s 1989 portrait of an African-American neighborhood where tension is building between residents and the Italian-American and Korean families who own business there. It presents deeply flawed characters on both sides of almost every conflict, and derives its continued relevance from events that — though very much of that time — still resonate in 2017. It isn’t a musical, but it’s filled with music from beginning to end.
The film takes place on one day in Bedford-Stuyvesant, on the hottest day of summer. It opens with local DJ Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson) holding an alarm clock up to his microphone, urging the neighborhood to wake up, and while he never leaves his studio, his voice and the music he plays are connective threads that tie the film together. There’s even a good 90-second “roll call” where Love Daddy shouts out the variety of artists he plays, from Count Basie to Tracy Chapman to Run DMC. Lee’s father, jazz bassist Bill Lee, composed original music for the film as well.
Arkansas Sounds coordinator John Miller interviewed Block earlier this year for the Primary Sources podcast of the Central Arkansas Library System. “We had a nice long talk and ended up afterwards thinking about ideas for an Arkansas Sounds event with his band,” Miller said. “I asked him if there was something he’d always wanted to do but couldn’t or hadn’t yet. He spoke of his love of Spike Lee and his desire to have a concert of Spike’s film music. I had the idea of a larger tribute to include a film or films. We immediately decided to screen “Do the Right Thing,” due to its association with summer and its relevance in today’s world, and to have Rodney’s concert be a journey through the music of Spike’s films.”
Block came up with the name “40 Acres and A Block: A Spike Lee Tribute,” a reference to Lee’s production company, 40 Acres and A Mule Filmworks.
Miller remembered seeing the film in theaters when it was first released. “While the film portrayed the intense heat and heavy humidity of summer and the boiling tempers and smothering frustration of the neighborhood,” he noted, “I walked out of the theater thinking this film was amazing, refreshing and simple. Simple in the way that it was the truth; refreshing in the way that this truth existed on film at all. And amazing in the way this truth was being told in the first place. Perhaps that’s why it’s relevant today. Truth is always true, even 28 years later.”
Assuming there is a 20-year statute of limitations on soft spoilers, it bears mentioning that while the bulk of the film is comedic, it culminates in violence, the loss of a life and a subsequent riot. It’s a story that black audiences have known for years.
Miller said the film is “very relevant, complex and nuanced, and I think most real relationships are, whether between individuals or groups. Perhaps a lot of films don’t portray these relationships honestly, particularly when race and ethnicity is involved, because they’re generally just trying to make money, cover costs and not wanting to wade through the murky waters of race, injustice and social structure. And maybe the complexity of those subjects make it hard for audiences to process and for a director to tackle them in a two-hour film. Yet Spike chose to wade through those waters and made an artistic statement without being overcome by this baggage.”
Admission is $5 for the film, $10 for the concert. An after-party Friday at Zin Wine Bar, 300 River Market Ave., features a local DJ; cover is $5.