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Writer-director Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing opened in theaters on June 30, 1989. “White people still ask me why Mookie threw the [trash] can through the window” at the film’s climax, he recently told the Associated Press. “Twenty years later, they’re still asking me that. No black person ever, in 20 years, no person of color has ever asked me why.”

Perhaps the white people who’ve asked Lee that question also wondered why blacks across the nation celebrated the 1995 acquittal of O.J. Simpson, a famous black football player accused of murdering his white wife. As Todd Boyd, a professor of popular culture at the University of Southern California, noted in the HBO documentary O.J.: A Study in Black and White (2002), the gut reaction boiled down to psychological payback. In other words, for every black man in this country who’s been beaten, lynched, shot, or thrown behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit, you didn’t get this one.

It didn’t have to be O.J., of course, who wasn’t exactly a shining beacon of black pride. And it wasn’t that every black person in America thought he was innocent. But, as Boyd said on ESPN.com two years ago when discussing Barry Bonds’s home-run record, “acquittal in a court of law was trumped by conviction in the court of public opinion” in the following decade. Now Simpson is behind bars, for armed robbery and kidnapping — the verdict in that case was handed down exactly 13 years after he was acquitted for the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman — and it’d be difficult to believe that the jury wasn’t influenced by the general perception that Simpson had gotten off scot-free in 1995.

The black community had a similar, though more muted, reaction when Michael Jackson was found innocent of child molestation in 2005: “the powers that be” had failed to bring down another rich and famous black man who had risen to the top of his profession. (R&B star R. Kelly, who wrote Jackson’s 1995 hit “You Are Not Alone,” was acquitted of 14 counts of child pornography last year. So far, his career hasn’t been affected the way Jackson’s was.)

But the biggest musical star of his generation wasn’t a symbol of black pride, either, at least not on the outside: since the mid-’80s his skin color had become increasingly lighter, his hair straighter, and his nose smaller due to an overabundance of plastic surgery. In 2002 when he accused his record label, Sony Music, of not supporting its black artists, the standard joke was “Who is this white woman and why is she calling Tommy Mottola a racist?”

“The second phase of his career was where it became much murkier,” Los Angeles community activist Earl Ofari Hutchinson told the AP. “He became much more ambivalent in the minds of many African-Americans. His music, his whole change in appearance, his fan base became much more eclectic. You just didn’t see African-Americans identifying with him.” Jackson even seemed to foreshadow his troubles in his 1982 song “Billie Jean”: “Be careful of what you do ’cause the lie becomes the truth.”

However, when the news of his death quickly spread across the globe last Thursday, the reaction from black Americans was no longer muted. At the Sweet Holy Spirit Church on Chicago’s south side three days later, church elder Sandra Rowe told the Chicago Sun-Times, “Even though I didn’t have any of his music, I still feel like I’ve lost a son.” And in Sunday’s New York Times Marcus Mabry wrote, “In scores of interviews across the country over the weekend, few [African-Americans] expressed the kind of resentment some once had for his strangeness, his changing appearance, his distance from the cherubic Michael of the Jackson 5.

“Darrell Smith, 40, a filmmaker in Brooklyn, recalled that ‘when his skin started getting lighter,’ many black people said Mr. Jackson did not want to be black.

“Now, he said: ‘I honestly feel like I lost a brother. It’s a pain inside me.'”

(I found out Jackson had died when I received an e-mail from my girlfriend, who was on public transportation here in Chicago when she found out. “Dumbfounded: on the TRAIN the conductor just announced m jackson’s heart attack and death,” she wrote. The conductor was black.)

The gut reaction to Jackson’s death was, in a sense, summed up by actor-singer Jamie Foxx at Sunday’s BET Awards ceremony, which was quickly overhauled to include a tribute to Jackson. As he told the audience, “No need to be sad. We want to celebrate this black man. He belongs to us and we shared him with everybody else.”

In other words, you didn’t get this one — we let you have him. And those of us who got to share him were grateful for it.

As many commentators have pointed out, Jackson is best remembered through his work, especially from 1969 to 1982, when he was creating some of the best pop and R&B songs of all time with his brothers and as a solo performer. By the time his friend Elizabeth Taylor nicknamed him “the King of Pop” in 1989 he was past his creative prime, but from ’82 to ’84, when Thriller ruled the radio and MTV, there was no bigger star — for blacks, for whites, for anybody. We all agreed on Michael Jackson.

And then the moment passed.

Barack Obama’s historic ascent from first-term senator to president of the United States last year has been compared to Jackson’s crossover popularity in the ’80s, but he’s a politician — you’ll never get everyone to agree on him. (Plus his voice is deep, so he’s automatically more threatening than Jackson ever was at his peak.) Or Supreme Court Justice nominee Sonia Sotomayor, for that matter, because eight years ago she said, “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”

Rush Limbaugh — who’s never ever never said a remotely bigoted thing in his life — was outraged! Was Judge Sotomayor suggesting he could never become a Latina no matter how much Mexican food he eats? (For the record, I, Robert Cass, am not a racist. One of my best friends is Mexican food.)

The talk-radio host called Sotomayor a racist, and though Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) doesn’t agree, he does think she should apologize for her 2001 statement, which suggests that “all the hardships she has gone through makes her better than me.”

So this is what Capitol Hill politics has boiled down to: “You think you’re better ‘n me? Huh? You think you’re better ‘n me?!” Nothing more than drunks at a dive bar challenging newcomers to a fight, or insecure rappers (influenced by Michael Jackson’s pop-soul innovations, no less) defending their sonic turf.

Luckily, Senator Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) came to Judge Sotomayor’s defense, saying, “As long as you put rule of law first, of course, it’s quite natural to understand that our experiences affect us. I don’t think anybody wants nine justices on the Supreme Court who have ice water in their veins.”

“Ice water”? What does he mean by that? Wait a second — is this Schumer’s way of saying Sotomayor is a hot-blooded Latina?

Oh my god, that’s so racist!

But we can all be happy that she’s much more qualified than Justice Clarence Thomas was when he was nominated for the bench in ’91.

Hey, that’s racist too! He’s black!

No, it’s not, it’s a fact.

Okay, youre right!

Yep, there’s still plenty to get riled up about. Race is an incredibly sensitive subject, after all. Which is why comedians are still having trouble ripping a new one in President Obama. It’s not that he’s “perfect,” as was alleged last summer by late-night talk-show comedy writers — most of whom are white — which is a polite way of saying “Black presidential candidate equals ‘no touchy with ten-foot pole.'” The Daily Show‘s “senior black correspondent,” Larry Wilmore, who also created The Bernie Mac Show, said in January, in a Gannett News Service wire story, that it “is a challenge … Everything is so put together. Maybe it’ll be making fun of how humorless he is.”

But he’s not humorless. He may not be a trained comedian, but he delivers a joke better than George W. Bush ever could. However, Wilmore did add, “People just can’t be afraid of offending because he is black; he is half white, and you can always make fun of that.”

Or, if you’re black comedian Wanda Sykes, you just make fun of Obama’s detractors, including Rush Limbaugh, as she did at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner in May, even though every previous guest comedian at the event has taken the opportunity to roast the president. It’s pretty much expected. Wanda, you’re black and gay — at least shred him to pieces for not speeding along gay-rights legislation!

You’d better watch how you draw the president, too. In February, the AP’s Jesse Washington wrote about how political cartoonists are nubbing up lots of erasers these days, going out of their way to avoid making Obama look like a stereotype in their drawings. Cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz (La Cucaracha) was showing a classroom of black and Latino students how he draws the presidents, and when he got to Obama, who he voted for, a black girl said, “Hey, those lips are big.” He told Washington he was jarred by the incident: “I try to bend over backwards not to make him look like a cartoon stereotype.”

The AP story was prompted by an infamous New York Post cartoon published in February that made people of all colors do a double take: In Sean Delonas’s one-panel drawing, two police officers are seen standing over a dead chimpanzee. One cop says to the other, “They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill.”

Get it?

Yeah, me neither.

A runaway chimpanzee was shot dead by police in Stamford, Connecticut, in February, but what does that have to do with President Obama’s stimulus package? Col Allan, editor-in-chief of the Post, said in a statement, “The cartoon is a clear parody of a current news event, to wit the shooting of a violent chimpanzee in Connecticut. It broadly mocks Washington’s efforts to revive the economy.”

Do you get it now?

Yeah, me neither.

But how about Michael Bay’s sense of humor? He’s the director of box-office bonanzas like Bad Boys, The Rock, Armageddon, Bad Boys II, Transformers, and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, which opened last Wednesday and made more than $200 million in its first five days of release despite scathing reviews.

Some of those reviews pointed out the comic relief in the film, twin robots named Skids and Mudflap, who “constantly brawl and bicker in rap-inspired street slang,” according to the AP. “They’re forced to acknowledge that they can’t read. One has a gold tooth.” They’ve been compared to Jar Jar Binks, the universally-despised-unless-you’re-two-years-old alien sidekick in George Lucas’s Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace, the number-one movie of 1999. Jar Jar spoke with a Rastafarian patois and in turn was compared by many critics and viewers to Stepin Fetchit, a character played by black actor Lincoln Perry in Depression-era films who reinforced negative stereotypes.

Jar Jar was, for the most part, a digital creation, inserted into The Phantom Menace alongside actors like Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor, but his voice was provided by Ahmed Best, who’s black. Similarly, Reno Wilson, who voices Mudflap in the Transformers sequel, is black, but Skids is voiced by Tom Kenny, a white stand-up and sketch comic who also voices SpongeBob SquarePants on TV.

“We’re just putting more personality in,” Bay said about the characters. “I don’t know if it’s stereotypes — they are robots, by the way. These are the voice actors. This is kind of the direction they were taking the characters and we went with it.”

Yeah, way to pass the buck, Mike. (Steven Spielberg, the director of 1985’s The Color Purple and 1997’s Amistad, is an executive producer of both Transformers films. One of his next directing projects is rumored to be a Martin Luther King Jr. biopic. So, way to drop the ball, Steve!)

However, one viewer of the Transformers sequel told the AP, “It’s one thing when robot cars are racial stereotypes, but the movie also had a bucktoothed black guy who is briefly in one scene who’s also a stereotype.”

It’s not the first time Bay has used black caricatures in his films. In The Rock (1996), during Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery’s car chase through the streets of San Francisco, the black conductor of a trolley car loses control of his vehicle and loudly whimpers, “Earthquake! Save yourselves!” and “Oh, my baby!”

You can see part of that scene at Time Out New York‘s website, where “the top five Michael Bay explosions” are counted down and The Rock is commended for expressing right-wing politics through stunts: Connery drives a Humvee that “plows through a peace-sign-laden VW Beetle, totals a truck of bottled water and, finally, derails the ultimate symbol of socialist conveyance: the trolley car.” In his next film, Armageddon (1998), Bay destroyed Paris, home of those white-flag-wavin’ culture snobs, while comedians Eddie Griffin and Mark Curry fulfilled the duties of Loud Black Men who say things like “We at war! Saddam Hussein is bombin’ us!” near the beginning of the film when Manhattan gets hit by asteroid fragments.

Griffin paved the way for Law & Order‘s Anthony Anderson in Transformers (2007), who’s supposed to be funny because not only is he a screaming coward, he’s also fat. In addition, the movie features black actor Darius McCrary as the voice of an Autobot named Jazz, who uses lots of hip-hop slang in his speech; like many black supporting characters in action and horror films (metallic or otherwise) who aren’t the comic relief, he dies before the movie’s over. Last but not least, Indian call-center employees are exposed as the nose pickers we’ve always suspected them to be.

Who’s up next in the Michael Bay film festival of positive black role models? Why, it’s Martin Lawrence, star of Bad Boys (1995) and Bad Boys II (2003). Lawrence plays one of the two leads in these buddy-cop films, unlike Griffin or Anderson in their Bay movies, but Will Smith gets to be the “cool” protagonist — Lawrence’s primary objective is to bug his eyes out at his partner and contort his face. Yes, Jim Carrey does the same thing in his comedies, but he’s never forced to play second banana, not even in Batman Forever (1995), where the villains were treated with more respect than the title character.

As for the right-wing quotient of Bad Boys II, Smith and Lawrence destroy a Cuban shantytown during a car chase. (Have fun picking up the pieces of your shattered lives, dirt-poor commies!) Bay pretends he’s Hollywood-liberal by having his bad boys bust up a Ku Klux Klan rally at the beginning of the film, just as he tries to have his cake and eat it too in Transformers by making Anthony Anderson an overweight wuss who’s also a brilliant computer hacker, but he ain’t foolin’ me.

The trailer for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen did deliver one good laugh — the film’s giant robots are seen destroying a library. Make sure you smash that copy of Bay’s Pearl Harbor (2001) in the video section if it hasn’t already been checked out, okay, Decepticons? No one needs to learn about American history via Ben Affleck’s frosted tips. (Time Out Chicago‘s Ben Kenigsberg calls Bay’s style “a type of filmmaking that rises above guilty pleasure but also falls short of what we might call defensible.”)

Clearly, Bay could use some racial-sensitivity training, though he’s managed to evade the disapproving glares of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson so far. And it’s not as if black audiences have stayed away from the Bad Boys and Transformers movies in droves.

Maybe he should just be spanked for his ass-backward sense of humor. But since he’s white, his mom probably doesn’t condone that sort of punishment the way many black families do. (Besides, he’s 44 years old. She’s got better things to do.) Some say it’s abuse, others say it’s necessary discipline. Back in March, Mary Mitchell, a black columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, wrote about Cathleen Schandelmeier-Bartels, a white woman who alleged she was fired from her job at Chicago’s South Shore Cultural Center in 2006 because she reported the “bathroom whupping” of a six-year-old black boy by his aunt to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services; when she told a black coworker about the incident, she says she was told, “It’s a black thing — we beat our children.”

Schandelmeier-Bartels sued for discrimination and was awarded $200,000 by a federal jury, but as Mitchell wrote, “While all blacks don’t beat their children, and all whites don’t view spankings as abuse, we do seem to be divided … Obviously, spanking is not a ‘black thing,’ although it is perceived as such by many … [but there] is a difference between physically disciplining a child and abusing one.”

Michael Jackson accused his father, Joseph, of physical abuse, but his older brother Jermaine defended their father’s actions in a 2005 interview with Larry King. “We grew up like any other black family. You did something, you got your butt tore up … you got a spanking,” he said, and added, “He kept us off of the streets.”

When Spike Lee, who directed the minstrel-show satire Bamboozled in 2000, was asked by the AP’s Jesse Washington how he felt about race in America now that we have a (half) black president, he replied, “I’ll tell you one statement I don’t agree with: Post-racial society. What does that mean? That we’re past it? We’re not there, we’re definitely not there. Those are people wishing upon a star. It’s not like it’s gonna be presto change-o, abracadabra, Obama Obama — it doesn’t work like that.” On June 18 the U.S. Senate passed a resolution apologizing for slavery, which is nice in theory, but it sounds like it may amount to nothing more than a letter from the government sent to every black citizen that says, “Our bad, y’all.”

Do the Right Thing was financed and distributed by Universal Pictures. Paramount had offered Lee a bigger budget, but the studio wanted a different ending. “They just couldn’t understand why Mookie throws the trash can through Sal’s window,” said Tom Pollock, the former Universal executive who green-lit the film. “Quite honestly, I didn’t understand either, until it was explained to me by Spike.” (He was trying to hit Michael Bay?) Pollock, as you can probably guess, is white. And Paramount distributed both Transformers movies.

The opening credits of Do the Right Thing are scored to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” which contains the following lyrics: “Elvis was a hero to most / But he never meant shit to me, you see / Straight-out racist, the sucker was simple and plain / Motherfuck him and John Wayne.”

I wasn’t even two years old when Elvis Presley, “the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” died, but I don’t believe he was a racist. I’m not black, of course, but these things are rarely black and white, so to speak. But as Little Richard, another rock ‘n’ roll original, said in his cameo on Living Colour’s “Elvis Is Dead” (1990): “Presley was a good performer / Onstage he was electrifying / When he was ill his fans got sick / And moaned when he had died / To all you pimps makin’ money on his name / How do you sleep? Don’t you feel ashamed? / He went through the test, he’s out of this mess / Be my guest and let him rest.”

I was too young for Elvis, but I was there during the King of Pop’s reign. Michael Jackson didn’t transcend race, but for a while his music did, and that will always be worth celebrating.

Now let him rest.

The Jackson 5, “ABC” (from 1994’s Crooklyn: Volume 1 soundtrack)
Public Enemy, “Fight the Power” (from 1995’s Def Jam: 10th Year Anniversary)
Living Colour, “Elvis Is Dead” (from 1990’s Time’s Up)
The Jacksons, “Heartbreak Hotel” (a.k.a. “This Place Hotel”) (from 1980’s Triumph)
Michael Jackson, “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough [1978 Demo]” (from 2001’s Off the Wall: Special Edition)