Friday, August 21, 2009

Do the Right Thing (1989)

After the final image fades from Spike Lee's DO THE RIGHT THING, two seemingly disparate quotes appear: one from Dr. Martin Luther King, one from Malcolm X. One speaks out against violence, citing the morality of those faced with the choice of whether or not to exercise it. One advocates its use, stating it's no longer violence when used within the loose context of self defense. The quotes are followed by a photograph of the two famous activists, smiling with their arms around each other.

Two quotes, seemingly at opposite ends of the spectrum, yet beautifully married and understood when placed in the context of Lee's colossal achievement: an empathetic look at racial tension and violence that doesn't pass judgment, but seeks to observe and understand. DO THE RIGHT THING was one of the films I had long held off watching - I was not a huge fan of some of the other Spike Lee films I had seen at that point, and the stream of accolades heaped upon it pushed me further and further away from seeing it. Now, 20 years after it first came out, I was worried about whether the experience, great as it could be, would feel "dated" or out of touch so many years later.

There are maybe a handful of films that, immediately upon seeing I wanted to go back in time to relive the experience again. With DO THE RIGHT THING, it was the shock at how powerful, how much in command the movie was - having mostly been exposed to his later films, I was completely caught off guard by how stylized the film was, how much in command Lee is with every frame, every tone and inflection in the movie, beginning right away with the unique opening credit sequence, where Rosie Perez dances to Public Enemy's "Fight the Power", the lighting, framing, and expression on her face slowly boiling in a foreshadowing of the tone and pacing the film proper would use:

And from the setting up a masterful first shout, the slow zoom out from Samuel L. Jackson's SeƱor Love Daddy, the DJ and chorus of the film:

His hat, lying on the console in front of him, is perfectly captured in the reflection of his sunglasses as the camera moves out. It seems like an obvious shot, meant to show off, but it also begins to set up the visual tone of the film, an idealized palette that belies the tensions running underneath. Plus, it's just so good I don't even care - among the many injustices to the film at awards time was the omission of Ernest R. Dickerson for cinematography.

For those unfamiliar with the film, I'll briefly sum up the action: The film takes place roughly over the course of an entire day and night in the Bed-Stuy section of Brooklyn, on one of the hottest days of the year. The neighborhood focal point is Sal's Famous Pizza, owned and operated by Danny Aiello in an Oscar-nominated role as Sal. Together with his two sons he's been serving pizza to the neighborhood for 25 years.

The other players in the drama circle around the block, but chief among them is Mookie, played by Lee himself in an incredible performance. Oddly, of all the great acting in the film I think Lee's stood out the most for me, but (alas), it was only Aiello who got a nomination. Mookie's trying to get his life together - he lives with his sister, a couple blocks away from his girlfriend and their young son, and he works as Sal's pizza delivery guy. Two seemingly innocuous and unrelated incidents occur near the beginning of the film, and the day goes on and the temperature rises, the result of those incidents culminate in a vicious act of violence, which in turns sparks the community into retaliating (sorry - I'm being as purposefully vague as I can). The next morning, two people meet who, the day before, had a very different relationship. The movie ends, and we see the quotes and photograph mentioned in the opening of this review.

If the above summary sounds eerily similar to Rodney King and the Los Angeles riots of 1992, bear in mind that DO THE RIGHT THING came out 2 years before that, and the echoes it shouts out relate to similar incidents that might not stand out as clearly in our mind, but certainly did to Lee. The movie is peppered with allusions to current events (Howard Beach, Tawana Brawley), other films - NIGHT OF THE HUNTER figures very prominently - not only in Radio Raheem's LOVE and HATE rings, but in his beautiful monologue about how they go together, again foreshadowing and sadly commenting on the violence and response to it later in the film's climax.

It would be a mistake, though, to think that the film gets bogged down in the message it's trying to get across. DO THE RIGHT THING is filled with tiny moments of beauty and love as it moves up and down the streets of the neighborhood, peeking in on the lives of its inhabitants. Mookie's sister Jade (Joie Lee, Spike's real-life sister), fussing with the hair of Mother Sister (Ruby Dee), the matriarch of the neighborhood. Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), the patriarch of the 'hood and his tender wooing of Mother Sister. Mookie's tender moment with his girlfriend Tina, seductively rolling ice over her body and whispering in her ear. Lee wants the viewer to know the neighborhood, to make it and its people a single organism you grow to care about so that, when the climax happens, it's all the more sad.

I can probably write an entirely different review of DO THE RIGHT THING, focusing on all of the minor characters (John Tuturro feels as much embedded in Lee's universe as he does with the Coen Brothers). It's the rare film that maintains its passion, its message undimmed a generation later, and the high-water mark of an expert filmmaker and commentator for our times. I can't say enough about how incredible this movie is, but this review is getting a little long, so I think I'll just leave, and watch DO THE RIGHT THING AGAIN.

Read Roger Ebert's Great Movie Essay about DO THE RIGHT THING here

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