March 05, 2014

Do the Right Thing

In Do the Right Thing (1989), writer-director-star Spike Lee uncorks enough rage for five movies. It's about racial tensions in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn boiling over on a hot summer day. The local deejay (Samuel L. Jackson) proclaims that it's the hottest day of the year, and the relentless, sticky heat seems to bring out the inner-rage of every member of the neighborhood, except for a status-quo-loving Uncle Tom type (Ossie Davis) who fancies himself the moral compass of the local black community, but whom the rest of the community laughs at, when they aren't ignoring him completely.

Spike Lee plays Mookie, a pizza delivery boy whose boss Sal (Danny Aiello) is stubbornly proud of his Italian heritage. Giancarlo Esposito plays Buggin' Out, a ranting patron of the pizzeria who harps on the fact that Sal only decorates his restaurant with pictures of famous Italians. He argues that since Sal's clientele is predominantly black, Sal should put a few prominent black people on the walls too. There's also a guy named Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), who wanders around the neighborhood with a boom box on his shoulder that plays Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" on a loop. Radio Raheem seems to be incapable of expressing his rage except in disturbing the peace with his loud music. Mookie, meanwhile, is always dawdling during his delivery runs, sometimes visiting his girlfriend for a little T&A. If these sound like stereotypes, well, that's because they are.

I found much of the movie grating: Lee seems to have one way of expressing anger, which is by having his characters shout at each other, often incoherently. And while there is one scene in which this technique is effective (where the men are shouting amidst Raheem's boom box, which he turns up louder and louder, escalating the tension), much of it feels too repetitive, too chaotic, and too unappealing. Perhaps it's a realistic depiction of life in the city. (I doubt it.) But realism isn't the only thing that matters in narrative, and the scenes of people screaming their heads off distance us from the characters and the film.

And yet Do the Right Thing is undeniably powerful. If ever a movie tapped into the pure emotion of racism, this is it. The film is all jagged angles, loud noises, jarring music, and intense people invading your space, forcing you to notice them. It has a kind of red-hot brashness to it, and this Spike Lee cultivates with masterful precision and intensity. He may not offer much in the way of solutions (even the ending, with conflicting quotes by Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, fails to suggest a way around mindless in-fighting between races), but in terms of showing us just how ridiculous these conflicts can be, he succeeds. It's a shame that he had to do so by relying on so many stereotypes. Nobody in Do the Right Thing feels like a well-realized character. They're cartoonishly violent and excitable and stabby. This movie is the cinematic equivalent of the stereotypical loud black lady in the theater: it doesn't show us why thinking in stereotypes is flat-out wrong. It doesn't give us much of a reason to move beyond the limitations of such one-dimensional characters. (There is a kind of sweet exchange between Lee and Aiello at the end that feels a little more complex, but Lee doesn't do much with it. He uses it to sweeten what may already be too sour to begin with.)

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