I was pretty young when 9/11 happened. I was in eighth grade and remember vividly the crash and watching the news in every class before being let go early. I was a sensitive child and at the time I thought I understood what the impact this event had on everybody, but I had no idea. I mean hell I was a privileged brat going to a private school in the middle of america thousands of miles away from New York City. I knew one person who had a relative that almost got caught in the towers, but she was running late to work and therefore her life was saved. But that was it. I was not aware what an impact this event was going to have on everyone around me in the long run. I was not aware of the fear this event was going to have on everyone. However not everyone was my age when it happened and therefore knew what was going to happen, the destruction that was going to result from such an angry event and they decided to make art to help deal with this knowledge. One of these people was Spike Lee. Spike Lee took the story of this man who is about to go to jail for a very long time and set against the backdrop of 9/11 and he did it so well that I now think he is one of the best directors of all time. He can make the Miracle at St. Anna ten times over and I will still think him great because of this film.
What I think is different about this film from other post 9/11 films is the acceptance of the situation. Lee is saying “yeah it happened, yeah it impacted this city in ways that are overtly noticeable (like the absence of two very large structures, thousands of dead people including firefighters and police officers) and ways that are less so, but life still goes on.” New York City can no longer go back to the time before this awful event happened, so why deny it, but also why make everyone in New York City a saint just for living through it? People are still racist, stupid, and mean. He doesn’t want people to not care about 9/11 but at the same time he doesn’t want it to be the most defining thing about New York City. This philosophy produced some very moving shots of the two pillars of light that were erected as a memorial, the many walls of remembrance of people who have fallen and the constant construction site that is now the Two Towers. This is juxtaposed with very angry people barely talking about what happened, but it always being in the back of their minds. For instance there is one character who is a stock broker and a very successful one. He lives right next to the Two Towers and when he is asked if he would move, he rattles off some obscenities and say that he paid way too much for the apartment to move. He says that the terrorists can come and bomb the building next door and he would still stay in that apartment. A beautiful example of the denial and yet acceptance of this horrid event.
This story is and is not about 9/11. Following one man the day before he goes to jail for seven years for trafficking drugs, he walks around his city one more time. He visits his father, spends time with his girlfriend, goes to a party with this two best friends and goes through the emotions of only have a certain amount of time to breathe the air of a free man. He is angry, paranoid, and dejected. But it isn’t just about him, but about how this prison sentence affects his friends and family around him. They are just as lost as him about dealing with it. While everyone represents a stereotype each character transcends that stereotype within moments of knowing them. There is the insanely successful stock broker who makes his money on other people’s misfortunes (you see high in the first scene gambling millions of dollars on how big the unemployment rate will be), a trust fund Jew who is sad about being privileged and makes up for it by being a high school teacher at his old school, a father who was a firefighter, but turned into an alcoholic when his wife died and owns the bar that every firefighter and cop comes to in the area, and then there is the girlfriend who is Puerto Rican and it defines who she is but she has never actually been there before her insanely rich boyfriend (the drug dealer) takes her there. These stereotypes are there but they aren’t at the same time just like 9/11 is a part of the story and yet it is not.
I know I am going long on this post, but I feel like I have to talk about Monty’s speech in the middle of the film. Spike Lee is so very good at portraying racism as just a fact in his character’s psyche that I love him for it. In Do the Right Thing there is the infamous speech where he takes several different races and types of people and have them call everyone that is different from them slurs. It was a way of acknowledging the ridiculousness of hating someone purely based on their race or station in life. This speech works in a similar way. Monty goes to the bathroom to get away from his father for just a second. As he looks in the mirror he notices someone has written “fuck you” on it. This launches him into a tirade against Muslim taxi drivers, Asian grocers, Puerto Ricans, black basketball players, homosexuals, and Russian gangsters. It comes from a place of intense frustration and jealousy. These people inconvence him but at the same time they still have their freedom and he does not. It is also a comment on the ridiculous amount of racism that came out of 9/11 that we as a nation are still dealing with. Every Muslim became a terrorist. Every Middle Eastern became a target for abuse by people who were just ignorant of the country they actually came from, the religion they adhere to and the differences between radicalism and normal adherents. He was showcasing the faults every race, of every demcaration that you belong to and saying that hell we are not any better than those people that flew those planes into the towers… okay we may be a little better, but not by much. It is very powerful stuff for me, because of my personal experiences and because of my constant work against this kind of outlook in my own mind and in the minds of others.
This film was great. I guess that is the best way to sum up this post. I suggest that you should watch it, not just for the great dialogue, the amazing performances (I mean Rosario Dawson where did this performance come from and why can’t you do more work like this?), and the beautiful cinematography, but for the themes and the history of our recent past.