Friday, August 19, 2011

Do the Right Thing

Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989)

"Now, watch and I'll show you the story of Life..."

It's been 22 years since Spike Lee launched his "Our Town" in Bed-Stuy, with Rosie Perez's aggressively pneumatic dance to Public Enemy's "Fight the Power." Twenty two years since the critics came out of the screening at Cannes saying that Lee's movie would foment race riots throughout the Summer, rather than cause the orderly lines around the block it did. Twenty two years since Lee debuted his movie about a particularly special day in the battle between Love and Hate: the hottest day of the Summer, the best day that Sal's Pizzeria ever had, the day Da Mayor (the late, great Ossie Davis) did another heroic thing in his life.

The day the music died.

And the worst day that Sal's Pizzeria ever had.

And someone's responsible—
the least responsible member of the community.Do The Right Thing is Lee's version of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" (but not with slices of middle-American white-bread life) and everyone (but everyone) thinks they're the Stage Manager. It's Charles Schulz's "Peanuts" with attitude, as all the characters have one aspect that defines their personality and, like the strip, something radical has to happen in order for them to break out of their self-inflicted stereotypes.* And maybe grow up.

The diverse, huge cast and series of one act diversions is a culmination of something Lee's been saying since the beginning and folk of all types have been mis-reading. It's not about black versus white versus Latino versus Korean versus Jewish. It's "us" against "them," cop versus citizen, young versus old,
man against woman, and this particular pizza, forged in the heat, can be sliced all sorts of ways, but probably not equally. Because when it comes to hate, there's no such thing as fair.

Except your fair share of it.

What it is is the age-old tribal struggle of the pissing match between privilege and entitlement and who thinks who's got what. Everybody marks their territories with lines of death that no one can cross. And on the hottest day of the year, those lines get mighty stinky.

The last words of Lee's previous film, School Daze, are the first ones in Do the Right Thing: "Wake Up." In the previous film, they are hollered by Dap (Laurence Fishburne) in frustration and desperation, a protest.  In DTRT, it's the reveille of Mister Senor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson) at the start of his shift on We Love Radio, but the context is the same.  Become awake.  Become aware. Don't sleep-walk.  Look alive.  It's a warning, but still a wake-up call.  Open your eyes, people.

The wandering begins along the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant color-filtered through Ernest Dickerson's floating lens.  Ugly attitudes have never been so beautifully filmed, approaching M-G-M Technicolor in its vibrancy and beauty.  The crowds ebb and flow, clash, curse and break apart, some wander like vagabonds, while others, acting as a Greek chorus, stay planted and observe and trash-talk.  Locations vary between street and stage, at time, sometimes appearing to be aflame with color from the heat...but the constant music (like the American Graffiti soundtrack) emanates from boom-boxes and radios and the nearby station, mixing genres and styles—a polyglot of aural wallpaper, something for everyone. 

Do the Right Thing might not be Lee's most accomplished work—I think that might be Malcolm X, for its breadth and depth—but, it is the one that shows his love of movies.  Take for example, the bling-knuckled demonstration by Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn)of Love and Hate, taken with few differences from The Night of the Hunter:

The Mitchum soliloquy ends with the old woman saying "I ain't ever heard it better told," whereas Lee's Mookie, after an uncomfortable pause, sums it up dead-pan comically ("There it is, Love and Hate") and non-committally (as he is wont to do until the end).  Mookie is the fraying thread that holds the film together, despite his lack of ambition and any sense of active responsibility—Lee habitually plays characters in his films that are morally problematic (as opposed to M. Night Shamyalan's parts in his own films).  He pairs him up with John Turturro's Pino (racist with no dolby and nor squelch and no backbone), when Sal treats Mookie's sister (Joie Lee) as a treasured customer. For both Mookie and Pino, the kindness crosses the line, is suspect and turns the heat up a bit on their attitudes. It's the one thing they agree on, but for different reasons (Pino, because she's black; Mookie, because she's family).

That complexity belies the simple tale of Love and Hate, pointedly, and Lee's entire film offers a tragic counter-point.  It's never sure who to bet on in the fight, as both sides will take rounds and both sides will sustain damage.  And we might not even know when the fight is over.

But I ain't ever seen it better told.

In 1999, The Library of Congress inducted Do the Right Thing into The National Film Registry, just 10 years after its debut, and the first year it was eligible.

* One character—Danny Aiello's top-lined Sal—is consistently inconsistent, due in part to Aiello's ad-libbing  sections of Lee's script, which Lee allowed him to do, perhaps to build dramatic tension about what the man is going to do.  We'll look at a key scene—and how it differs from Lee's script in this Sunday's "Don't Make a Scene."