November 12, 2013

Classic Review: Do the Right Thing (1989)

Do the Right Thing
Director: Spike Lee
Writer: Spike Lee
Cast: Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Spike Lee, Giancarlo Esposito, Danny Aiello, Bill Nunn, John Turturro, Paul Benjamin, Frankie Faison, Robin Harris, Joie Lee, Miguel Sandoval, Rick Aiello, Samuel L. Jackson, Rosie Perez

A slice in the life of a community picture, Do The Right Thing tells the story of racial tensions in a New York City community. Spike Lee raises many esoteric philosophical questions about the appropriateness of using violence to address systemic oppression, while also managing the difficult task of grounding them in our gritty reality.

It's the hottest day of the year when the film opens. Mookie (Spike Lee) is a delivery boy for Sal's Pizzeria and constantly finds himself at odds with Sal's oldest and most definitely racist son Pino (John Turturro). Da Mayor (Ossie Davies) is the town drunk and is attempting to make peace with Mother Sister (Ruby Dee) who scorns his shadow. Meanwhile, Buggin' Out (Giancarlo Esposito) is organizing a boycott against Sal's Pizzeria following his discovery that there are no photos of black Italians on the Wall of Fame that Sal keeps at the Pizzaria. Overseeing all of this is Mister SeƱor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson) the local radio DJ and two police officers (Miguel Sandoval and Rick Aiello). As the day proceeds, tensions gradually bubble to the surface until exploding into a riot that lays bare the ugly belly of racism.

The Queering
It's generally accepted by now that the LGBTQ rights movement got it's start following the Stonewall Riots, a violent push back against police arrests and the lack of effort to curb direct anti-queer violence. Prior to that, similar riots also took place, notably, the now forgotten Compton Cafeteria Riots. In the seventies, the White Night Riots occurred following the acquittal of Dan White of the most serious charges he was charged with regards to the murder of Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone.

None of the riots that LGBTQ people have engaged in have ever been particularly well publicized or talked about in the mainstream media, probably because mainstream societies way of dealing with LGBTQ people is to pretend that we are weak and fay and all that or that we don't exist. The image of us rioting and breaking stuff does not help to perpetuate that narrative. Racially motivated riots on the other hand, generally receive more attention, not only because it is harder to pretend that people of color do not exist, but also to help perpetuate the narrative that people of color are SCARY!

However, the larger question remains, is violence an appropriate response to systemic oppression? It is easy to answer in the negative. It is even easier to point to the success of non-violent tactics used in various civil rights movements across history from Ghandi to Martin Luther King Jr. and Bayard Rustin. It is even easier to point to the failures of violent revolutions to effect positive systemic changes. The French Revolution gave rise to chaos, which lead to the rise of Napoleon and the eventual reinstatement of the French Monarch. The Russian Revolution went from Leninism to the even greater disaster of Stalinism. Large scale violence has a nasty habit of not only begating more violence but the sort of economic turmoil that also tends to breed even greater suffering than the conditions that existed pre-violent revolution.

But what of violence that takes place on a smaller scale? What of individuals and communities so oppressed that they have no other truly viable options? And what of violence that is not directly in response to circumstances where the perpetrator is not in any immediate danger? Let me make it clear, I do not condone violence on any level. But at the same time, I must admit that the historical record leaves little room for doubt that few actions other than a violent uprising, could have created the conditions that led to the birth of the LGBTQ rights movement.

Spike Lee contends that criticism of Mookie from white critics of his throwing the garbage can through Sal's Pizzaria's window, it is because white people consider white property to be of greater value than the lives of black people. However, it bears noting that Mookie's actions might have been more easily justified if he had thrown the garbage can through the window to draw the attention of those beating Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) while the assault was taking place. Throwing the trash can through the window when Mookie actually does, accomplishes nothing and the riot that followed only end up placing the lives of the other black characters in greater jeopardy than they would have been otherwise. The problem is, destroying Sal's property carried with it no possibility of bringing Radio Raheem back from the dead. As it is, it's a purely destructive form of protest.

Let me make myself clear, I am not condemning Mookie's actions either. The thoughtless death of a member of a community is certainly justification for extreme action, even if that extreme action is destructive and accomplishes little.

There are no easy answers to the problems and questions that Spike Lee raises and he rightfully makes little effort to provide definitive answers. The competing philosophies of both Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X are cited throughout and direct quotes from both show up in the end credits.

From a technical perspective, Spike Lee brings all of his considerable talent to the table. Filmed on a shoestring budget, Spike Lee manages to accomplish a lot with few resources. Arguably, the low budget helps a bit with creating a sort of gritty realism that so many Hollywood films sprain themselves trying to capture. Ultimately though, it is Spike Lee's vision and hard work (along with a highly accomplished cast) that make the film work like it does. The cinematography through the use of "hot" colors, successfully manages to highlight the devastating heat wave and make visual the non-visual phenomenon that the characters are experiencing.

Do the Right Thing put Spike Lee on the map and while much of his later work would fail to accomplish what he achieved here, I still think of his more recent films (particularly Miracle at St. Anna and She Hate Me) are criminally underrated. While one may not always agree or like what Spike Lee says here, what he says is worth listening to. Do the Right Thing is a film that cannot not, nor should be, ignored.

The best way to Do the Right Thing is to see it.

The Rating
**** out of ****


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