Thursday, April 22, 2010

Do The Right Thing

Year: 1989
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 96
Writer: Spike Lee
Director: Spike Lee
Star: Spike Lee, Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis

Why is everyone so gosh-darned angry?

Every character in Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” is angry about something, but what makes this film so beautiful is that their surface anger masks undercurrents that are, for the most part, completely unrelated to what they scream and shout about. The film uses racism as a connective tissue to show the fractured souls of some of the inhabitants of a Brooklyn block during a summer heat wave, but in doing so makes (almost) no character judgments. It seeks not to condemn or exploit, but to comprehend. When the famous riot sequence begins, your stomach lurches because the film has succeeded in making the viewer understand all the character’s points-of-view, even if you don’t agree with them.

Most of the first two-thirds of the movie views the neighborhood in a series of vignettes. Though it is an ensemble piece, the story’s pivotal character is Mookie (Lee), who is a delivery boy at Sal’s Famous Pizzeria. Sal (Danny Aiello) is a loud, proud Italian man with two sons (John Turturro and Richard Edson) who bitches out Mookie but admits that he thinks of him as a son. This does not sit well at all with Pino (Turturro) whose jealously over Sal and his brother’s affection for Mookie is masked with racism. Mookie has had a child with his very, very loud girlfriend (Rosie Perez), who knows Mookie will never be there for her when she needs it but forgives him every time he shows up at her door.

There are others, of course. Mother Sister (Ruby Dee) sits at her window passing judgment over those who pass, specifically the drunk but affable Da Mayor (Ossie Davis). Then there’s the aptly-named Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito), who is always hissing hatred over the (gasp!) small scuff on his Air Jordans or the lack of photos of black men on Sal’s walls, and Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), who marches through the neighborhood showing off just how loud his boom box can go. A trio of men sit at a corner loathing the Asian family across the street for daring to open a supermarket in a black neighborhood when they always wanted to. Characters may love one another, but none seems to really like anyone else, and innocence and misunderstandings lead the elevated tensions throughout the day. All the while, the temperature just keeps going up and up.

“Do the Right Thing” seems to be directly inspired by one of Rod Serling’s masterpiece episodes of “The Twilight Zone” called “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street.” In that episode, a cul-de-sac of families cracked over the day after being told that aliens are coming. People were singled out for being too “different” and every action was questioned and generalized into being suspicious. That episode ended similarly as well, with the entire block imploding in a riot against one another.

There are so many questions in the film about why characters are the way they are and why they act the way they do. Why couldn’t Radio Raheem just have turned down that damn boom box? Why does Rosie Perez always forgive Mookie for disappearing for weeks at a time? What happened in Mother Sister’s past that makes her so unwilling to give Da Mayor any leeway in his actions? Then, of course, there is everyone’s actions at the climax, specifically why Mookie threw that trash can through Sal’s window and why the police put so much force into the arrest of Radio Raheem that they accidentally killed him. But please, stop me before I get started.

Of course, Lee doesn’t want to give us easy answers to the question, and if he did that would be a lesser film. Much hullabaloo was made over whether Mookie made the right choice in throwing that trash can, but the real issue, of course, is the murder of Radio Raheem by the police, even if it was an accident. But then again, Radio Raheem was about to murder Sal, wasn’t he? But then again, Sal shouldn’t have destroyed the possession he prized as much as his life. But then again, Radio Raheem shouldn’t have gone into the Pizzeria looking for trouble. Around and around we go…

It should be noted that Lee makes a fascinating thematic choice in how he handles two pivotal characters in the lead-up to the climax. Through the film, we are led to believe that Pino and Buggin’ Out are ticking time bombs that will eventually cause the riot. At the midway point in the film Pino almost causes an incident when he attacks the mentally handicapped Smiley verbally and then physically. Buggin’ Out desperately tries to cause incidents throughout the film, first when his shoe is scuffed and later when he sees that Sal doesn’t have any photos of black men on his wall. When the riot begins, Da Mayor hurries Pino and his family away from the carnage and Pino stands impotent while anarchy reigns around him. Buggin’ Out cackles and screams when Radio Raheem is killed, but is cuffed and taken away in a police car before he can do any damage. By reversing our expectations for these two characters he makes a brave choice, one that pays off because it makes the actions of the other characters all the more powerful.

There is one thing that I loathe about the film, and that is the needless epilogue where Mookie confronts Sal and demands the money he is owed. The film, for me, ends when Smiley walks through the still-burning wreckage of Sal’s and pins a photo of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X to the wall. Lee paints Mookie in an almost sympathetic light in this final coda, which dilutes and reverses much of the power the audience felt during the riot. Worse yet, it doesn’t add in any new layers to any of the characters, instead merely underlining questions we were already left with. “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” had the sense to leave the main characters in the midst of their riot instead of softening the impact by showing the characters pick up the pieces, and I oh-so-wish that Lee had followed suit.

Lee shot the film in a fractured visual style. Some shots, specifically the ones involving Da Mayor and Mother Sister, seem like they could have come out of a ‘40s Technicolor musical while other scenes and shots are purposely ugly. The style works fairly well for an ensemble film, with the approaches changing somewhat as we visit different characters. You can feel Lee trying to experiment with all of the crayons in the box throughout the movie, sometimes to greater affect than others.

None of us have the answers to the questions “Do the Right Thing” poses, and though I like to hope that race relations have significantly improved since the film’s release, I am reminded that racism isn’t really what the movie is about. It’s about rage. And that, sadly, is something the world still has much too much of, and I don’t see any signs of that ever changing.

My Score: ****1/2 (out of 5)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

So I enjoyed the film, sort of, every time I got into it, Spike Lee tried to act. It's incredibly apparent at the end here Sal is pouring his heart out and Mookie is simply a blank expression. And the only reason he threw the trash can at the end is that without that you'd have an entire film where the "main character" does nothing at all to advance the story.

I also have other horrible thoughts that I may or may not agree with. So the firemen imagery totally powerful but in the context of the film, those people (what do you mean those people?) were trying to burn down a whole chunk of their home. So there was nothing wrong with keeping a mob away from a burning building that threatens the entire block.

And according to the last quote we are given, you can turn it around to saying that the cop choking Radio is an intelligent act. Not that I think that, but an argument could be made.