In the first episode of Ava DuVernay’s Netflix drama When They See Us, a couple of dozen black teenagers pour into Central Park on the night of 19 April, 1989. Five of them will end up spending years in jail for a rape they didn’t commit, but for now they’re having fun. They walk to the beat of Public Enemy’s unstoppable rebel song Fight the Power.
The choice of song may be anachronistic (it wasn’t released until June) but it’s perfect for a story about outrageous racial injustice in 1980s New York. That was a volatile decade for the city, with high-profile cases of African-Americans dying at the hands of racist mobs (Michael Griffith, Willie Turks) and police officers (Eleanor Bumpurs, Michael Stewart), all of which were on director Spike Lee’s mind when he wrote his third movie, Do the Right Thing. DuVernay’s selection doubles as a nod to Lee’s movie, which opens with Rosie Perez dancing and shadowboxing to Fight the Power in front of a row of Brooklyn brownstones with an expression midway between agony and defiance. Unusually, the song plays to the very end, when it is replaced by the strident blare of an alarm clock. Both Lee’s movie and Public Enemy’s song were designed to wake people up. [READ MORE]