Spike Lee: Do the Right Thing (1989) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Spike Lee: Do the Right Thing (1989)

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For decades, Sal's Famous Pizzeria has been a cornerstone of this Brooklyn neighborhood.  Radio Raheem has grown up with Famous Sal's, blasting his tunes throughout the neighborhood and telling the story of LOVE and HATE to anyone who asks.  Over the course of the hottest day of the year, both will have their place in the neighborhood question through growing frustrations and anger fueled by racism.  Will they shrivel in the heat, or will the gathering tension explode?  Do the Right Thing is Spike Lee's third feature-film with a sprawling cast featuring Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Samuel L. Jackson, Giancarlo Esposito and many more.

A happy homeAndrewCommentaryBannerI watched Do the Right Thing for the first time about six years ago, and I knew very little about Spike Lee.  The only other film of his I had watched was The 25th Hour and my decision to watch that had little to do with its critical praise, and everything to do with my brief but intense infatuation with Edward Norton.  That ended shortly after, but Do the Right Thing froze me.  Everything I started to feel about civil rights, why I argue so hard with people I love, and why I donate what time and money I can to people who can fight better than me, came from that movie.  I feel ashamed that it took a movie to get my eyes to open up, and in the last few weeks got another reminder that I'm not seeing as well as I should.

See, I've been reading a lot about Spike Lee.  I've finished his biography, am going through an academic reader of his films alongside our viewing, and perusing his journals and production notes of these early films.  For years, Do the Right Thing has been the perfect American movie.  Full stop.  No Westerns.  No war films.  Nothing else comes close to capturing what makes America special and scrutinizes our problems like Do the Right Thing.

With all this reading it started to become problematized for me, especially with the way Lee handles women.  The scene with Rosie Perez getting a romantic rub down with ice from Spike always read like an innocent way to show tenderness and combat the heat.  Then I found out Perez was having panic attacks, did not want to do the scene, and Spike's response was a cold, "Ok, what's your deal?"  There's other aspects brought up by these readings I hadn't considered - is it really helpful that Spike's philosophy is that black people won't get a fair shake until they own businesses?  Doesn't that absolve some of the other partners in this circle of hate of responsibility?  And where's the nuance in these characters?  We barely get to see any character of any skin color in a state other than angry - how can he claim to speak for race relations when it can't all be that one-dimensional?No equals hereThen on July 17th of this year, the NYPD put Eric Garner in a choke-hold because he refused to be cuffed as he was "under suspicion of selling untaxed cigarettes".  The choke-hold is illegal for the NYPD to use, and Garner died for alleged untaxed cigarettes.  I watched Radio Raheem die, again, just as the police brutalized another black man in real life for even less of a threat than the fictional one that set off the riot.  The riot that some critics, who aren't worth mentioning, thought this film was going to cause and never came.  Just like the riots that were "supposed to happen" when Trayvon Martin was killed, and have not happened for Garner.

I'll get into the technical aspects moving forward, and why Bill Nunn's performance is so critical to the film, but it's important to establish that even with the problems I have I've ended up right back where I've started.  Do the Right Thing is still a perfect and sadly necessary American film, and still captures racism in America better than the insulting Crash or Driving Miss Daisy ever could.My pizzeriaKyle Commentary BannerI actually think he says something a bit more nuanced, albeit in a form that’s almost always aggressively in-your-face and stagey. I’m glad you mentioned Crash, because I thought of that while watching Do the Right Thing this time around as well. That was a movie I couldn’t stand because underneath its noble posturing it was doing nothing but spewing one-dimensional examples of racism that seemed taken from a race relations workshop manual. Do the Right Thing, on the other hand—and this is one of the things in addition to the unstoppable and brilliant pacing that gives the movie such a kick-in-the-teeth impact—never presumes an air of total reality, even as it reflects reality in incredibly painful ways.

From the very start, Lee presents his characters at drastic angles, against bright splashes of color, loud and vibrant with almost impossibly sustained momentum. Conversations often sound like reality filtered through theater. This isn't a movie trying to convince the audience that they're quietly dropping in and observing lives with a documentary quality—Lee's amping up the message to almost mythic proportions, which may be why it still packs such a punch 25 years later. The issues here haven't been resolved, and by stripping so much of the racial conflict in the film to base emotional reactions, Do the Right Thing presents a more honest experience than many other movies trying to achieve the same effect.

For me that effect isn't one-dimensional, even as the characters' constant anger and verbal assaults often are, because in creating what is essentially an emotional echo chamber, Lee illustrates really well just how much of the hatred we're seeing is rooted in cultural and personal pain. That's not to say there aren't problematic elements, of course, but there is so much here that's effective.The targetsNewer Andrew cutout commentaryLet's start with its use of color then.  The color contrasts in the opening dance number by Rosie Perez set the tone as a direct, loud expression of emotion.  Her performance looks downright painful at times, and I love how she goes into an almost rapturous state at one part of the dance.  Her costumes scream out against the backdrop in sometimes surprising ways, like when her silver costume causes her to blend into the background just for a moment and then come bursting back with gloves when the stage goes red.  The stage, her emotion, and costumes make the point clear that we're dealing with a morality play that isn't going to slink down any time soon.

Now for that use of red, one of my favorite tidbits is when cinematographer Ernest Dickerson was brought in to look at a DVD transfer for the film.  The color techs thought that they had gone too far and it was too red.  As soon as Dickerson saw their work he said it was not nearly red enough.  It's a funny story, but also shows just how many ways the same color can be used to underline the gradual tension building in the neighborhood to the specific sensations of each character.  The three corner boys keep a running set of jokes and commentary, and are the most direct targets of the gaze from the police, so they stand out against a bright red wall.  Contrast this to the mix of frustration and eroticism between Mookie and Tina in her bedroom, with the red dulled to an almost chlorine mist around the two of them.We're going to fight for this brownstoneBy far my favorite use of color comes again from the costumes.  Buggin' Out, which is another unique performance from Esposito, has that bright yellow shirt with the strap running around his waist.  This combined with his hilariously thick glasses makes him look exactly like his namesake, a little bumblebee buzzin' around and getting everyone just a bit more agitated than they already are.  It also leads to my favorite visual gag in the film, where there's an argument taking place in the pizzeria with Sal and Mookie and Buggin' Out is mimicking Sal's anger in mockery.

There is a lot of nuance in this film, and I was surprised that some of the academic writing I encountered didn't keep the varying emotions and tones in mind.  That's what sets this film apart too that it's not afraid to be damn funny sometimes, especially during those moments of tension.  It's not screaming messages at the audience the whole time, or underlying anyone's potential sainthood.Imitiation is not always flatteryTiny Kyle CommentaryThe structure contributes to that variety as well, literally in that it jumps from character to character very quickly, never letting a particular scene or conflict or attitude settle in and become monotonous. But this also causes the different—sometimes jarringly so—voices of the film to create a kind of unique texture for the neighborhood. There is common discord, with the stage set early on for constant agitation from the heat, and within this discord we get the different dialects, music, and values of the various groups that make up the community. The community isn't defined by cultural fear and anger, but rather united by it, which is a more fertile, honest starting point to start exploring the question of “why?”

Newer Andrew cutout commentaryDo the Right Thing's structure has irritations build into micro-aggressions, micro-aggressions into outright provocation, and from provocation into violence and destruction - all brought out by everyone's hate and mistrust of each other by way of race.  By shifting between the various lines of conflict, Lee keeps the tension ratcheting up in multiple ways, and ensures that the film is anything but predictable.  Editor Barry Alexander Brown cuts emotionally between the conflicts, so even if there isn't a direct visual or logistical correlation between the shots, we are approaching each scene as the characters are feeling a similar level of rising frustration.

We have Mookie's economic frustration that's explained because Sal straight-up hasn't paid Mookie for his work for the week, which means that the various cries of Mookie being lazy are only half-understood by everyone dogging him.  Then there's the hatred of miscegenation, with Pino and Mookie both glaring daggers into Sal and Jade for flirting at all.  There's frustration with the law, as the corner boys have a glare-off with the police.  The cultural differences are key too, like in the great music-off between Radio Raheem and the Puerto Ricans that ends in mutual respect.She's still watchingIt's that moment that helps answer the question of, "How did this happen?"  We know how it happened, and the key is when Radio Raheem goes into Sal's for the very first time.  Radio blasts his box because that's what he does, Sal already shows that he has no respect for his customers wishes and just screams at Raheem.  Yes, it's reasonable for Sal to ask Raheem to turn it down, but that's not what happens.  Which is why Bill Nunn's line reading of, "He didn't even say please," is one of the pivotal moment in the film.  When Mookie asks him what he's about before the LOVE and HATE scene, they're framed as equals in the road.  In every other shot in the film he towers and threatens because they fear him as he's a large black man blasting Public Enemy, when he just wants someone to talk to him so that they can level with each other.

Do the Right Thing centers around Radio Raheem's life and death in a way that reminds me of a passage in Howard Zinn's book The People's History of the United States, which I'll need to paraphrase.  Black men who resisted the draft were given harsher sentences than the whites who did the same.  Zinn interviews one, a Rastafarian man with long dreadlocks and colorful clothing, and asks him if he thinks the sentence would have been lessened if he wasn't sticking out as much.  The man replied that this is America, man, and I can't be anyone else but me.  There are other factors, but it doesn't change that Raheem was afforded no respect and died because he was a black man who liked to listen to Public Enemy loudly, and just wanted someone to say please.Thats all it isTiny Kyle CommentarySal’s ignorance to his own role in the community rather than Pino's outright resentment is definitely key there. We constantly get scenes of him correcting Pino’s blatant racism, but often what he’s doing amounts to acts of charity extending from his status. He never seems overtly pleased with himself for giving Da Mayor some money for sweeping up the restaurant, or for giving Smiley a few dollars to quell the conflict Pino starts out front—but he also doesn’t seem to understand that in doing these things he’s not actually helping anyone equal-to-equal (as you mentioned with Radio Raheem), he’s positioning himself as a kind of benefactor who’s status enables him to shower goodwill on those beneath him.

One of the reasons the confrontation between Mookie and Sal at the end of the movie works so well is that Sal is finally forced to confront that he's not a part of this community. As Mookie points out, he'll get enough insurance money from the destruction of his restaurant to open a new one, so despite the fact that Sal claims the most distress from having lost something he “built with his own two hands,” he's still in a position to build more. He (still) has the social and economic privilege to actualize this Americana cliché, without realizing that the other characters' distress comes from smaller-scale conflicts that illustrate their respective positions. Mookie needs his week's pay, living paycheck to paycheck; Buggin' Out just wants some of his neighborhood's heritage represented in Sal's restaurant; and Radio Raheem simply wants respect.

So by the time of this scene, we've got on one end of the spectrum a man dying for something as basic as a need for respect, and on the other a man who's lost his life's work—both situations are terrible, both are unnecessary, but Sal can't seem to understand that both are also very different. The only thing he can fall back on is literally throwing money at Mookie from a huge stack of $100 bills, and nearly losing it when he realizes (as Mookie refuses to take any more than he's owed) what his status in the community has really been based on all this time.Epiphany on equalityNewer Andrew cutout commentaryThe underlying economic pressure that is going on through the film is one of the unsung strengths.  In the many times I've watched this before, I did not notice the moment that Sal gives that bit of change for sweeping up in front of the store.  The other exchanges, yes, but that one sets the tone for the rest because that money has one of two probable ending points - more drinks for Da Mayor, or more pizza from Sal.  It's another means of control for the population of the neighborhood by keeping him either sedated or feeding the money back into his pizzeria.

That economic line is also what makes Mookie's decision at the end so painful.  Ultimately, he redirected the potential violence away from Sal and toward the store, screaming, "Hate" as he clarifies what the target should be.  He kept the crowd from hurting or killing Sal and his sons.  But when the debris has settled down and the insurance claim is in, it's Mookie who the insurance company is going to go after.  Sal will be made whole through insurance and litigation, Mookie will still be unable to provide for his family, and Radio Raheem's death will serve as a temporary lesson to the neighborhood.

What's so remarkable about all this is how much Lee implicates the audience in everything that happens.  It's not so much that he has the characters frequently addressing the camera directly, but the way the camera gets to them.  In the montage of racist insults that's become this film's calling card, the camera rushes up to listen to Mookie, Pino, the cop, and the other neighborhood residents as they insult the other's religion, cultural status, social victories, and appearance.  We literally are caught up in the flow of racism, which is literalized at the end as the mob is sprayed down by the fire hoses.  Señor Love Daddy is always rushing in to try and get everyone to cool off, but to no avail.  But even the Love Daddy doesn't understand that just telling people to calm down doesn't address the core problem, and it's nice that expressed his love for the departed Raheem at the end, but doesn't mean that he, or anyone else, has learned anything from his death.Time outTiny Kyle CommentaryOne of the images that sticks with me the hardest is toward the end—Smiley walks into the still-burning restaurant and pins one of his pictures of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X up on the wall, and we get a reverse shot of him beaming at his chance to distribute one of his photos on Sal’s exclusively Italian-American wall, while the landscape literally burns behind him. It’s a terrifying how the literal realization of Buggin’ Out’s goal through the whole movie ends not just in destruction, but destruction here recognized as a joyful victory.

It's a dissonant moment, and that dissonance speaks volumes to what we've seen up until that point.

*One note: The fact that Smiley, the only mentally disabled (for lack of a more accurate term) character in the movie is the vehicle for this image—which relies on a lack of a more comprehensive understanding of the situation—is a bit bothersome.Trying to get people to listenNewer Andrew cutout commentaryA bit of background information that may help make that a bit more palatable.  Smiley is mute, not mentally retarded exactly, and his stutters and general awkward movements are him trying to overcome that limitation to tell everyone about King and X.  I understand how it could be read as a message so easy to understand even a simpleton could get it across.  But even from my first viewing on I always read it as a man who was trying to overcome his limitations because the message is so important, a lesson that X goes on at length in his autobiography, and he struggles to get the exact meaning to other people.  Note that when Smiley is pushed, like when Pino comes after him, he is able to return the hate just as easily, albeit in a yelled "Fuck you" instead of in Pino's elaborate slurs.

Lee's decision to continue the film after that image is what's so important.  Smiley spends the entire day trying to tell people about King and X, then it seems no one learned anything at the end of the day.  The decision to finally end the film on those two quotes continues the direct challenge that the into presented.  Here it is, race relations in America and they aren't looking to change anytime soon.  Are you going to learn something from this story?Two prophetsWhich is why it's also crucial that the only two people who really seem affected by the riot are Mother Sister and Da Mayor.  They both took part in the earlier struggle that led to civil rights, and became more entrenched in outright antagonism or placation as they grew older.  When we see them together at the end they finally share the frame together, and not tilted at different angles away from one another.  They were finally as equals earlier but it's not in hate and fear as Da Mayor pulls the angry Mother Sister away from the riot, but in sad, mutual understanding of how far they've come and how far they have to go, alone in that sweltering heat, with that beautiful jazz score leading us back out into the dark.

I hope that the time comes that Do the Right Thing is no longer a necessary reminder of both how much progress we still have to make.  I want it to be a respected historical artifact, something that's quoted in visual art like a saxophone or piano line is quoted in jazz.  It's a perfect American film, utilizing all of our hopeful economic and multicultural strengths, while not forgetting the means of control that economy leans on to keep us from really becoming a melting pot.  It'll be all downhill from here for me and Lee, but considering how rare it is for any director to hit perfection so soon in his career I have little to be wary of.Where do we go nowTiny Kyle CommentaryThat’s a good point regarding Smiley, and an equally good observation that it would have been the wrong note to end the movie on. I also don't know how I went this long without praising the living shit out of Ossie Davis here, who is outstanding. The whole cast is just about perfect, but his ability to suggest a complicated and tormented personal history, the endpoint of which is an alcoholic haze, is a great way to root some of the overall turmoil and discontent in a single character. It's a good look at another issue on which the country still today seems to be taking equal steps backward and forward on, especially that great scene where he's confronted by the younger generation on the steps outside of a building. He tells them not to judge him until they know what it's like to stand in the doorway knowing you can't provide food for your wife and children—their response basically amounts to “well just be able to provide for them then.” The entire context of his life and problems are swept aside with a lack of any sort of empathy.

Last thought—you mentioned last time wanting to look at connections between Lee's films and intertextuality. Here we've got that famous montage of racial attacks and epithets, something echoed directly in 25th Hour. I've seen that movie a few times and (I think) can recall pretty well how that factors into the overall narrative, but I'll be curious once we get there to see what resonance it may or may not have with the rest of his filmography between here and there.

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Next time, Mo' Better Blues.Spike Film Selection

Posted by Andrew

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