It Was Mother

It was Radio

It Was Radio
Wayras Olivier
MARCH 2016


Radio Raheem would've respected Lloyd Dobler's single mindedness although Dobler had a little man's box—he certainly knew how to get his message across. Not to mention Lloyd was dropping Peter Gabriel, the musician behind protest anthem Biko (Stephen Bantu), activist and founder of The Black Consciousness Movement and mantra "Black is Beautiful," who in 1977 was murdered by Afrikaner police.

It was 1989 and Radio needed an anthem to mark his territory, and although Gabriel's call to action in "In Your Eyes" could be interpreted as a need for agape between man and his brothers, a more vigorous message suited to the streets of Brooklyn was needed.

L.L. Cool J's "Radio" had been out for four years, Run D.M.C's "Raising Hell" for three, Dana Dane's "With Fame" for two, EPMD's "Strictly Business" for one but—no bell-ringer could be found for a philosopher who preached LOVE and HATE as verbs on his knuckles, even with Boogie Down Productions, N.W.A and Ice-T on the airwaves. Yet somehow Pre Napster and MP3s, Radio managed to procure a song unavailable to anyone else on the planet.

"Fight The Power."

In this case, the power that encroaches or suppresses territory—Radio's territory—all 2+ square miles of Bedford-Stuyvesant inoculated from attack by Radio's peregrinations and thumping song.

A perfect recruit for Buggin' Out, neighbourhood thought leader whose failure to expand ideological territory on Sal's Pizzeria's Wall Of Fame enlists Radio's company to initiate a march to the eatery to contest its Italian-American dècor before threatening boycott.

The police are called and the dispute ends.

In murder.

"The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." F. Scott Fitzgerald. Spike Lee may have had the aforementioned quote in mind when he ended DTRT with two incommensurable quotes on violence by Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, moreover deliberately framing the film on the denotative August 5th.

Mookie (Spike Lee) wears a number 23 Chicago Bulls jersey in the opening to signify 23 years to the day—August 5th, 1989—August 5th, 1966, past since Martin Luther King was assaulted by a protester's jutting rock while marching through Chicago's Marquette Park (not Gage Park). King, the pacifist did not retaliate. When it came to self-defence, King and civil rights activist Malcolm X—gunned down a year earlier—took diverging positions.

First-hand accounts of the civil rights movement available to the relatively young inhabitants of the neighbourhood are limited; two residents old enough to have lived through the movement are the invariably fermented Mayor and an embittered woman known as Mother Sister. Both uniquely articulate although tongued to the pain of their past. Who's left—Smiley? Sure, but his stammer would test the most patient seeker.

Mother Sister chides Mayor for being "a drunk fool"—as an elder he's falling short of his archetypal duty of being a wisdom keeper and storyteller. Mayor's only mention of history comes when he recruits a young boy for a beer run by cryptically asking, "What Makes Sammy Run?" An irrelevant history reference to Hollywood, not to mention a fictional one, the question goes over the boy's head.

And then there's T'Challa, the first black superhero from Wakanda, the African country with a rich deposit of vibranium, the arcane element used to build Captain America's shield. The day King led the seminal Freedom Movement Rally in Chicago is the same day T'Challa made his debut in Fantastic Four comics—July 10, 1966.

T'Challa goes by another name—he will also go on to earn his own comic book, a comic a teen carries around the neighbourhood—The Black Panther. Did Buggin' Out sense a vacuum in the neighbourhood, an urgent need for material historical figures to be recognized, displayed and celebrated ... somewhere?

Amessage simultaneously subversive and protective in tone can be found on Sal's Wall of Fame. All the PR headshots are of entertainers not in character, except for one: Al Pacino as Michael Corleone. In many ways the headshot is emblematic of how the residents prefer to run their block. Neighbourhood disharmony caused by arguments, slights and misunderstandings succeeded by order without police intervention. In Mezzogiorno this is called Omertà.

Keep police out of it.

In action when Mayor mum's the word when asked for a statement by Officer Ponte and Long after witnessing the hydro-destruction of an antique roadster. Alternatively, at high noon, neighbourhood "delegates" spit racial animus to the camera, disquieted not by the police but rather local DJ Mister Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson).

"... Time out, ya'll take a chill, you need to chill ..." he arbitrates.

Police being called if and only if the "sequence" threatened to become physical, even homicidal is unlikely as Officer Long contributed to the racist montage. Not that he'd be held to account by his partner, The Blue Code, a form of Omertà for police, an unwritten vow of silence protects fellow officers who break the law.

With silent residents and silent police who's left to bring the noise?

Bill Lee's DTRT hymn—optimistic and romantic—is non-diegetic thus audible only to the audience, while Public Enemy's Fight The Power—prudent and confrontational—is diegetic furthermore almost by necessity deafening to the residents and audience by means of Radio's boom box. Sal (Danny Aiello) welcomes and feeds both residents and police on one condizione: his establishment must be entered quietly.

Daedalus built a labyrinth on the island of Crete with such dexterity he nearly trapped himself in his own creation. After 25 years, Sal feels proud, not cornered in his pizzeria; it's worth noting, however, that Daedalus built the labyrinth to imprison the Minotaur and although the creature—half bull, half man—was not Daedalus's son, Sal must contend with his son Pino, who behaves like a Minotaur.

Come daybreak Sal sits with Pino (John Turturro) and asks, "Why you got so much anger in you?" Unlike Sal—who's proud to do business in a black neighbourhood, to give Mayor a dollar for sweeping outside, to offer Smiley money for King and Malcolm photographs—Pino's lost face, ridiculed by friends for not working in an Italian neighbourhood, Pino requires an environment that complements his hubris. Daedalus did have a son. His name was Icarus.

There's nothing to suggest Pino couldn't go at it alone. Daedalus, after all, built a pair of wings for his son out of feathers and wax. Sal ostensibly did the same for both Pino and Vito—his other much more level-headed son—to fly but it's Pino's rage, not lack of resources, that keeps him imprisoned. Pino would, if he could, blame the sweltering hot New York day as reason why he's unable to test the resilience of his father's wax.

Buggin Out doesn't need feathered appendages for height. Look at his Air Jordans, the ubiquitous brand mark is of a (black) man in flight without the aid of wings: furthermore, is the dot really a basketball—or is the small disc in the man's hand the unattainable Sun. Naturally he'd ask Sal " ... how come you ain't got no brothers on the wall?"

Blackwhite is a mechanism of Doublethink whereupon characters not only believe black is white, they at no time in the past knew any different. This makes for a past that's vague, difficult to recall and easy for Big Brother to revise. George Orwell created Doublethink—two contradictory ideas held in mind without detecting a dissonance—for his novel 1984. Whereas Fitzgerald's quote "the test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function," Orwell's characters with their inability to even detect two opposed ideas operating in their consciousness leave them incapable of operating with critical awareness. When the past isn't remembered correctly and clearly, "Big Brother" is free to do as he pleases.

Point in case when Mookie attempts to control his younger sister Jade (Joie Lee) who is well aware of Doublethink: it's no coincidence she tells Mookie "...to quite playing Big Brother to me [Her] ..." As far as Jade is concerned Sal's just being warm and cordial. Mookie contrarily smells a whiff of racial fetishism forming and tells Sal in a less than indirect way not to hold his breath.

Gaspers are folks who during intercourse deprive their brain of oxygen to trigger a state called hypoxia with their orgasm: the merger is described by sexual psychonautics as the ultimate rush. Induced by choking the prized state when practised alone can expose the participant to another not-so-prized state called death. If so, police have no choice other than to rule cause of death as accidental strangulation.

Big Brother, well aware that accidents don't merely just happen, brilliantly although rather sneakily, uses a non-diegetic insert to show a picture of a brother on Sal's Wall Of Fame—erroneously believed by some viewers to have been present all along, positioning Buggin Out in error—when violence in the pizzeria cascades out of control, to remind us of where it all began.

The picture is of a brother in a boxing ring with another brother—a white brother—and they're both fighting for their lives. Neither one with an advantage, their arms both perfectly squared, however, it's clear the black brother has just received a blow to the head from the white brother's right hand—Love—consequently, the black boxer's left hand—Hate—is up in defence.

Two hands at war, though it must be observed hands, like branches grow not from two but one tree. Radio's allegory of two forces, namely the hand of God and the hand of Devil, is one force—Man—battling for or against himself. Said another way, struggling for dominion over self or dominion over others. Love allies with only one of the told power grabs.

Mayor's message to Big Brother—Do The Right Thing—was transmitted as an unfinished antimetabole, its obligatory hook—and Do The Thing Right, left to be discovered and unscrambled. Like a homeless radio wave in search of a boombox, it finds volume in Big Brother's head only after Radio is dead. Big Brother, holding a can, believes he can and sends the signal back into the air.

W.