Thursday, August 2, 2018

The Films of Spike Lee: Do the Right Thing (1989)

Do the Right Thing (1989) 
Directed by: Spike Lee.
Written by: Spike Lee.
Starring: Spike Lee (Mookie), Danny Aiello (Sal), Ossie Davis (Da Mayor), Ruby Dee (Mother Sister), Giancarlo Esposito (Buggin' Out), Bill Nunn (Radio Raheem), John Turturro (Pino), Richard Edson (Vito), Roger Guenveur Smith (Smiley), Rosie Perez (Tina), Joie Lee (Jade), Steve White (Ahmad), Martin Lawrence (Cee), Leonard L. Thomas (Punchy), Christa Rivers (Ella), Robin Harris (Sweet Dick Willie), Paul Benjamin (ML), Frankie Faison (Coconut Sid), Samuel L. Jackson (Mister Señor Love Daddy), Steve Park (Sonny), Rick Aiello (Officer Gary Long), Miguel Sandoval (Officer Mark Ponte), Luis Antonio Ramos (Stevie), John Savage (Clifton), Frank Vincent (Charlie), Richard Parnell Habersham (Eddie), Ginny Yang (Kim).
Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing is the best film about race in America ever made, and I don’t think that any movie will ever really take its place. It was made 29 years ago, and with the exception of the clothes and the music, it hasn’t aged a second in all those years. It is the film I think about every time I see demonstrations and protests in the wake of another killing of a young black man at the hands of the police. The last half hour of the film is painful and angry and sad – and all too real.
The reason those final scenes hit so hard though is because of all the groundwork Lee has laid for them in the first 90 minutes of the film. My wife, who had never seen the film before, asked me what the plot of it was and I said simply “A really hot day in Brooklyn” – because that, after all, is what the film is about. It’s about one block in Bed Stuy, and what happens on the hottest day of the year that leads to the violence we see at the end. We meet Mookie (Lee himself), who works a Pizza Delivery guy for Sal (Danny Aiello), who runs the local pizzeria with his sons Pino and Vito (John Turturro and Richard Edson) – and has for 25 years now. Lee lives with his sister Jade (Joie Lee) and has a young sister with his girlfriend Tina (Rosie Perez). There’s Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), an old man, who just wants enough money to buy his beer – but is also known and loved by everyone on the block, and tries to simmer everything down. Mother Superior (Ruby Dee) sees everything from her window – and maybe the only one who really doesn’t like Da Mayor. There’s the three black men who sit all day on the corner, remarking on everything that goes on like a Greek Chorus. The DJ (Samuel L. Jackson) who is a kind of narrator and soundtrack for everyone. There’s Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith) who stutters and has some sort of mental issues, who sells pictures of Malcolm and Martin for $2.
The problems that will lead to the violence start off as mostly comic. Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) is angry because Sal refuses to hang the pictures of any brothers on his Wall of Fame – which is reserved for Italian Americans only. Sal tells Buggin’ Out to open his own place and put up whoever’s picture he wants up there – but Buggin’ Out has a point that it’s black people who spend the money in Sal’s. Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) carries his absurdly large Boombox blaring Public Enemy’s Fight the Power at full blast everywhere he goes – annoying even those who like the song. Both of these conflicts will start as comedy, and come together, and end as tragedy.
It is because we get to know all of these characters – and more – over the course of one long day in Brooklyn that the end of the film is so shocking. The “riot” and the burning of Sal’s Pizzeria is shocking of course – and something that white audiences have often latches onto as irresponsible. But that rage coming from the black members of the community is, of course, real and justified – they just saw an innocent, young black man killed by the police. If this were a real incident, no doubt we would hear from the police how they were scared – how the young man wouldn’t listen, he was big, and they didn’t know if he was armed. Yet, clearly, they had a choice – you hear those in the crowd yell to let him go, you even hear other officers yell that. And yet, choices were made that cannot be unmade.
Do the Right Thing is an angry film, yes, but more than that it is a sad and empathetic film. Lee understands all of these people, why they do what they do. It is not a simple film about good and bad, right or wrong – but a film full of complicated people capable of both good and bad. Lee, I think, often gets himself in trouble in interviews – where his rhetoric is often more fiery than his films are. Here is a film that shows empathy for Italians Americans who use the n-word – and understands the difference between when John Turturro’s Pino says it and when Danny Aiello’s Sal says it – neither are okay of course, but you can understand one more than the other. It’s a film that knows that anger in the black community that lashes out in violence against the one target they have – Sal’s – and then how that anger almost spills over to pick on an innocent target – the Korean grocery across the street, who had nothing to do with it. The black residents on the street are unhappy – and not unjustly – at the generations of economic wealth that has been systematically denied them – and yet the poor Korean grocers are, like them, trying to get by on little.
More than anything else Do the Right Thing is a great film about race because it doesn’t pretend to have all the answers – or even that there are answers to be found anywhere. It’s one of the odd quirks of movie history that Lee’s film came out the same year as Driving Miss Daisy – a perfectly fine film, but a comforting one about race, that argues that we really can all get along, and things are better now. It sums it up in a neat little package. Lee refuses to do that – which is probably why Driving Miss Daisy won the Best Picture Oscar, and Do the Right Thing wasn’t even nominated. It got only two nominations – one for Lee’s screenplay, and the other for Aiello’s performance. And not that Aiello’s performance isn’t worthy – it is – but the fact that the Academy singled that one out over all the others in the film probably shows where their sympathies lay. Do the Right Thing is a masterpiece – pure and simple – one that grows and becomes more important with time. It’s one of the greatest films ever made.

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