Sunday, February 28, 2010

Don't Make a Scene: Do The Right Thing

For the month of Valentines, scenes from four women we love in the movies.

The Story: In the hub-bub, swelter and melee of "Do the Right Thing," random acts of kindness are jumbled up with the constant beat-down as ever-present as the 80hz thump from a boom-box. In Spike Lee's version of "Our Town: Bed-Stuy" tossed with mixed (and salted) "Peanuts,"* a kind word is the healthy spice in a stew of curses, and a kindness is looked on with suspicion and rarely reciprocated.

Except here.

In the cool, cool, cool of the evening (which will soon get much hotter) two people in their own twilights put aside their differences—he's a man, she's a woman; he's a drunk; she's a lady—and acknowledge some worth. But, it's reserved and Lee keeps the barriers between them intact by never putting them in the same frame. From our vantage point, they are talking AT each other (and to us), but never WITH each other.

And like everything Mr. Lee does, it's theatrical, buoyant, direct, to the point and often in your face. But sweet, and lovely to look at (Ernest Dickerson's manufactured roseate days and velvet nights are the stuff of M-G-M technicolor) I love the street-light that pops on and bathes Da Mayor's face with a (though a couple seconds late) orange glow when Mother Sister gives him his due. And as played by one of theater's great couples—Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, great artists and great activists—the two actors bring their own history to bear on the proceedings

Davis has moved on. Ruby Dee's still here—still writing, still acting (she was nominated for an Academy Award for her impassioned turn in "American Gangster"), and her every appearance now is An Event.

As it always was.

"I guess I should be a hero more often." Mm-hmm, that's right. So, should we all. At least as much as these two people have been in their lives. As much as Ms. Dee still is.

The Set-Up: The hottest day of the year, and that has brought tempers to a boil in the Bed-stuy neighborhood in Brooklyn (between Flushing and Park Place and Ralph). But it's also caused things to melt, like the chill Mother Sister (Ruby Dee) put up between between Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) and herself. Mother Sister is a woman to herself and Da Mayor only holds court over a bottle. But today, he has kept a child from being run over in the street, and didn't get much gratitude for it. Except here. Except now.


Da Mayor is walking by Mother Sister in her window when she calls him.
MOTHER SISTER Mister Mayor, I saw what you did.

Da Mayor stops and looks at her. A smile comes to his face; after eighteen years has he finally broken down her defenses?

MOTHER SISTER That was a foolish act,

MOTHER SISTER ...but it was brave.

MOTHER SISTER That chile owes you his life.

DA MAYOR I wasn't trying to be a hero. I saw what was about to happen and I reacted, didn't even think. If I did, I might not have done it in second thought.

DA MAYOR Da Mayor is an old man, haven't run that fast in years.

DA MAYOR I went from first to home on a bunt single, scored the winning run,

DA MAYOR the bottom of the ninth, two out, August 1, 1939, Snow Hill, Alabama. (he is warming up now)

DA MAYOR Ole Mudcat Bunchabones was the pitcher now—he hated my guts—DA MAYOR ...he ran back, come down offa that mound and I took off...

DA MAYOR white lightning out a black snake's ass.

DA MAYOR Maybe I should be a hero more often.

MOTHER SISTER Maybe you shouldn't. Don't get happy. This changes nothing between you and me. You did a good thing and Mother Sister wanted to thank you for it.

DA MAYOR I wanna thank you.

MOTHER SISTER You're welcome.

Da Mayor tips his hat.

"Do the Right Thing"

Words by Spike Lee

Pictures by Ernest R. Dickerson and Spike Lee

"Do the Right Thing" is available on DVD through the Criterion Collection.

This scene occurs at 7:17 on the video. The incident that provokes it is at 2:34.

* I'm still working on a piece for "Do the Right Thing" (but I'm watching some Lee films I missed in the meantime to get a better handle on his technique) but the gist of it is that its community feel is a combination of "Our Town" (except everyone thinks they're The Stage Manager) and "Peanuts" because characters are defined by a single attribute, as in Schulz's world—Schroeder's an obsessive musician, Lucy's a fussbudget, Linus the dogmatist, Pig-Pen the one with dirt—they're all children because none of them can grow out of their obsessions to be adults.


Mike Lippert said...

An excellent scene from an excellent movie. You know, I had to say this because Spike Lee is one of my favourites, but he has never found another cinemapographer who has been able to combine that matter-of-fact, in-your-face tough street smarts with the sweet, dreamy quality that is present in most of Lee's works, than Ernest Dickerson. Unfortunately, Dickerson never managed to fine a great deal of success as a director on his own. I love all of Lee's movies (even Girl 6) but this one is among the best.

Yojimbo_5 said...

He and Dickerson have a magic touch together, that's for sure. The use of color in "Do The Right Thing" is ingenious and gorgeous, that recalls the splashy look of the M-G-M musicals and The Archers.
Dickerson hasn't found a director's career in movies, but in television he's done an impressive variety of work for "Stargate," "Dexter," and especially "The Wire." And Lee brought him on as 2nd Unit Director for "Miracle of St. Anna."
I mean...wouldn't you?