Do the Right Thing (1989, Spike Lee)
Charm is probably not the right word for what is so engaging about Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee’s 1989 mainstream breakthrough. But charming it certainly is; the first two thirds, much like Lee’s debut She’s Gotta Have It, are infectious in their good humor and natural, effortless humanism. Which makes the controversial final explosion all the more devastating, which in turn is precisely what makes the film so terrific.
Indeed, the very reason that Do the Right Thing is so powerful in its examination of race and the varied ins and outs of a single painfully hot day in the life of an ungentrified Bed-Stuy neighborhood is that it is positioned so precisely as not a movie about a social problem, but a movie about people. During the course of the first two acts, you grow quickly to know and love the occupants of the Brooklyn neighborhood in a completely valid, complex way, the good and the bad. The dialogue, some of it seemingly improvised (but maybe just labored to achieve such an effect), is often brilliantly witty but consistently realistic, so there isn’t even a tiny sense of detachment from the world of these characters. For this reason, the infamous race riot that ends the film has that much more impact: it involves people we’ve grown to appreciate as human beings, and we witness how quickly mob mentality takes over, how little time it takes for misunderstandings to snowball, how easy it is to go over the edge. It may be the best and most persuasive cinematic tract about the roots of violence ever created.
What’s shocking all these years later is that the movie was so controversial; Joel Stein should be humiliated over what he said about it, first of all because what a condescending fuck but also because this could not be more compassionate in its breakdown of how people talking over and around one another escalates into murder. The people who spend time debating whether Mookie’s exercising “love” or “hate” at the climax in my view miss the point, which is that it’s both — in much the same way that MLK and Malcolm X are both fully correct in their quoted convictions before the credits. As for whether he does the right thing, well, of course he does — either as an act of social protest, clumsy or not, or as a way of saving the lives of Sal and his two sons, and as a redemptive moment of clarity for a slacker and perpetual screwup.
Lee’s directing is still clearly the work of a wide-eyed, excited, and perhaps even overzealous young man, relentlessly inventive and fearless with wild visual choices, angles and blocking throughout. The colors capture what looks like the hottest day in history so beautifully you can feel yourself sweating, and Lee’s playful and exuberant camera trickery makes this feel like one of the most “alive” of all American films, and one of the most sophisticated narratives in our cinema. But his script is the piece of greatest magic here, performances aside. It’s an exceptionally good screenplay and quite a technical marvel, reeling the audience in with seemingly unstructured vignettes that slowly build to a horrifying conclusion. Structurally, there are few films more perfect — I suppose Sullivan’s Travels anticipates its central shift from shimmering comedy into tragedy and terror, but it can’t match the humanism and empathy on display here. The first half is so witty and ingratiating it could go on for hours longer, but the maddeningly devastating way it all comes to a head and becomes a very different, far less comfortable film is its stroke of real genius.
But saying that, we’re dismissing what really makes this film so magnificent: the cast is once-in-a-lifetime, and it’s mystifying that Danny Aiello (as Sal, the pizza-patriarch who doesn’t have any brothers up on the walls) secured the only Oscar nomination. The emotional intensity of Lee and cinematographer Ernest Dickerson’s deliberately garish visuals is easily matched by the performances, which don’t flinch before rawness or mild sentimentality. The latter is represented by the achingly real but very intentionally idealized Mother Sister (Ruby Dee) and her overbearing friend and foe Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), the pair of them representing an older generation and a resigned wisdom. Giancarlo Esposito’s uproariously funny Buggin’ Out and Bill Nunn’s pricelessly single-minded Radio Raheem help to ignite and vocalize some unrest that the police will allow to explode, but both are decent young guys with pride in their neighborhood, just maybe a bit of hotheaded naivete. Neither deserves to be arrested or killed. John Turturro is downright scary as Sal’s asshole son Pino — and that’s just the tip of the iceberg, failing to mention or explain Frankie Faison or Rosie Perez or Joie Lee or Martin Lawrence or a young Samuel L. Jackson or the fashionable and mysterious Christa Rivers, who’d never make another film. Lee is also excellent in the role of Mookie, a ne’er-do-well pizza delivery guy who is bright and cunning but also full of misdirected energy (an explicit theme of the film) and a dormant, easily-manipulated cynicism. He is the center of the film and exactly the impenetrably complex protagonist a movie like Crash is missing.
I read heaps about Do the Right Thing before I ever saw it, fascinated by the debates it ignited. But the hand-wringing over it seems stupid when one sees how tirelessly even-handed the film is; unmistakably inspired by the Howard Beach tragedy of 1986 (as well as the murder of Willie Turks four years earlier), it embodies no call to violence, and to suggest otherwise is to suggest that one believes black film audiences are foolhardy and incapable of separating fact from fiction. Besides, the chaos that closes the film is not its summary, and the words of any review are not capable of reducing it. Like The Last Picture Show, which it strongly resembles at times, it must be seen to be appreciated: the fire hydrant sequence, the brilliant use of diegetic music emitting from not just Raheem’s boom box but from every speaker broadcasting the wisdom and tunes of the Love Daddy, the mostly improvised role of Roger Guenveur Smith’s Smiley, Raheem’s glorious love-hate ramble, the many nuanced and intricate conversations and exchanges in and outside of the pizza parlor, the way its comic frivolity so beautifully builds into madness: all of this is verbally inexplicable and yet perfectly organic and engaging on film. And all right, it may occassionally brush up against the look and feel of a revolution (one that, alas, never occurred); the title sequence, most likely the best in any American film of the last fifty years, is a firecracker — nothing but Rosie Perez dancing to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” over the credits, steely determination and purpose in her eyes. Its sense of an individual assertion and triumph tells the real story of this film, of the intended reaction to it.
Yes, it has its dated and uncertain elements (the racism-to-the-camera monologue sequence seems excessively on-the-nose to me, and I wish Lee had dropped the business about the Korean couple), but the skillfully mounted cumulative effect is magnificent, and of course inevitably depressing. Because once again, it isn’t simply a film about racism, or one about whites and blacks or good people and bad people. It’s about gray areas where all the trouble starts; it’s about hatred, heat, and community, and the positive and negative impact that all these things can have. It’s a responsible film because it dares not to provide the audience with a readymade comfortable message to take home. You have to fill in the blanks. That’s art, and that’s scary.
[Expanded from a 2007 review.]