Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Classic Movie Review From My Collection: Do the Right Thing

Spike Lee’s first two feature films clearly established him as a filmmaker concerned with issues within the African American community (She’s Gotta Have It showed him also being particularly sensitive to feminist issues), but his third time at bat proved to be the magnum opus – the film that would tie together race relations on Stuyvesant Avenue in Brooklyn, a microcosm perhaps for the entire borough or even the whole city of New York. Do the Right Thing remains to this day one of his greatest accomplishments for the skill in direction and writing to bring together good entertainment value, social issues, sound filmmaking techniques, and a clearly delineated personal vision into one concise film.

Lee has since made at least one other film that I admire – or more to the point, respond to – more (25th Hour) because it’s more polished and more universally American – not just African American – than anything else he’s made. But there is still nothing else in his expansive body of work (which has included documentaries, low budget digital video productions, and star driven genre pictures) that has generated quite as much disagreement and conversation. The disagreement tends not to focus on the quality of the film but on the motivations of the characters and who is right and who is wrong at the end.

It’s a film that preserves the classical unities of setting, time, and action. The entire film takes place over the course of a single day and all on the same block, although the individual scenes shift from streets and neighborhood stoops to the interior of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria and some apartments. And the plot, although it encompasses many characters, each of whom has a unique story, is tightly focused on a couple of main characters and heating of racial tension throughout the day.

Lee really makes Stuyvesant Avenue feel like a place we know filled with people we grew up around. His characters are painted in broad enough strokes so that they are familiar as types – the old drunk, known as Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) whom everyone knows and no one takes very seriously; the men sitting on the corner (including Frankie Faison and Robin Harris) commenting on the day’s activities; the group of young people hanging around (including Martin Lawrence in his film debut); the hardworking business man; the wise sage (Ruby Dee) doling out much needed advice to any and all who’ll listen. Some of these are types that we might recognize across racial boundaries, but what I think Lee has done will to accomplish is to populate his story with types that are most recognizable to urban African American communities. The production design is intriguing in the way all real Brooklyn locations were used, but the way its shot and much of the lighting makes it feel like it was filmed on a soundstage. It’s a way of drawing attention to the theatricality and melodrama of the story. I just wish he had taken as much time fleshing out the female characters as he did the male. In addition to Mother Sister (Dee) there’s only Joie Lee as Mookie’s sister, Jade, and Rosie Perez as his girlfriend, Tina. None of them have a whole lot to do except tell Mookie what he’s doing wrong and what he should be doing instead.

To the extent that there is a protagonist, I suppose it would be Mookie, played by Lee himself. He’s a young man of the community without much ambition. He works as a pizza delivery boy for Sal (Danny Aiello), an Italian American outsider whose product is nevertheless enjoyed by the locals. His two sons work for him. They are Vito (Richard Edson), the softer and more understanding younger brother, and Pino (John Turturro), the more aggressive older brother who can barely contain his distaste for the black people of the neighborhood. The plot is set in motion and the seeds of discord sown by Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito), who notices that the “Wall of Fame” in Sal’s pizzeria is loaded exclusively with famous Italian Americans. Buggin’ wants to see some ‘brothers’ on the wall. He has a point about black people being the ones who spend money in there and so they deserve recognition. This one spark of an idea, harmless at first, spirals out of control as he tries to organize a boycott. Only Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), the neighborhood heavy who goes around blasting Public Enemy from his boom box, and the childlike Smiley join him at the end of the day. The confrontation erupts into the well-known climax of the film – a full-scale neighborhood riot that ends in police brutality, a death, and the looting of Sal’s business.

Nearly 25 years after its release, the movie looks highly stylized now. I’m just not sure how much that was true at the time. It’s obvious there was every intention to make it in a visually specific way. Lee and cinematographer Ernest Dickerson use the camera often to exaggerate the emotional states of the characters and the reaction they’re seeking in the audience. There are a lot Dutch camera tilts and extreme close-ups, particularly at moments of heightened emotions and aggression. As tensions flare up throughout the story and the hot New York summer temperatures that the characters comment upon increase, the camera pushes in tighter and tighter. This is a film with a clear visual scheme to match the story.

The difficult questions we’re left asking after all is said and done is who did the right thing? What Lee gets so right in the film is avoiding any explicit attempt to answer the question. In fact, I’m not even sure Lee thinks it’s a question we should ask. These are characters acting on impulse – the impulses based on Lee’s own ideas of the characters coupled with the actors’ performances. Films don’t often get to be much more personal labors of love than Do the Right Thing. I think it’s slightly harder to watch the movie today mainly due to the stylization and some of Lee’s storytelling techniques that feel jarring, but keeping in mind that it’s all part and parcel of Lee’s vision for what was, at the time, a vitally important story to tell. It’s not incendiary or polemic as many charges leveled against it claimed. It is merely a story, a sadly universal story of rage against those who do nothing to help their fellow man. Lee shows us characters of all stripes – some of whom do nothing, some of whom take small steps to improve a situation, but all of whom probably believe that they are actually doing the right thing.

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