Friday, August 22, 2014

Do the Right Thing

I've seen and thought on Spike Lee's DO THE RIGHT THING many times since that matinee at the Cross County 8 Theater in 1989. It would be one of the most memorable movie going experiences of my life. The audience was largely African-American. The mood was very different from my usual times there, seeing trashy horror films with very vocal audiences. This time, there was hardly a peep, from the opening images of Rosie Perez throwing punches to Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" to the last shot, a pull away down a littered Bedford-Stuyvesant street the morning after a riot.

Honestly, I was a little concerned. The tension was thick in that theater. I was in the minority that day, and it felt as if many of the eyes in the audience were burning on my friend and me even before we got up to exit. But we left without incident. I don't recall any really dirty looks or utterances. Maybe it was all in my head. Isn't that often the case? How suspicions develop, fester, and perpetuate?

DO THE RIGHT THING takes place over the course of one long, sweltering summer day in a Brooklyn neighborhood that hasn't exactly seen the benefits of trickle down economics. It is almost exclusively African-American. The people we meet pass their day on stoops or on street corners, offering commentary on passersby, the Korean couple who opened a grocery, each other. Some are trying to raise kids, perhaps with an absent parent.  There is a old drunk called Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) who attempts to woo Mother Sister (real life spouse Ruby Dee). A mentally disabled man hobbles around, stuttering and trying to sell pictures of MLK and Malcolm X.

All are standing and watching, perhaps their lives and opportunities flashing by. There is one white guy who bought his brownstone and maybe thinks it's chic and cool to live in the "ghetto." Perhaps someone with a few bucks who hopes to be on the cusp of the inevitable gentrification to come.  Or maybe that's all wrong, maybe just what the other residents have in their minds, their own prejudices formed. He doesn't ingratiate himself when he accidentally scuffs the Air Jordans of a local called Buggin' Out, who in response tells his nemesis to "go back to Massachusetts."

That young man, played with ferocity by Giancarlo Esposito, is far from content with just hanging out and shooting the shit. He stalks the block in protest against Sal's Pizzeria, a popular joint owned and operated by Italian-Americans Sal (Danny Aiello) and his sons Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson). Working for them is delivery boy Mookie (played by Spike Lee).  Buggin' is mighty pissed that Sal has no black figures on his celebrity wall, demarked by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Al Pacino.

And then there is Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), more a potent symbol than a real person. He blasts his boom box, playing "Fight the Power" and nothing else. He wears brass knuckles that spell LOVE and HATE on either hand. In one scene, a sort of breaking of the fourth wall, Raheem explains the constant struggle between the two. So goes this movie.

I don't want to spoil DO THE RIGHT THING for you by giving away what occurs, invisible audience, though by now they're hardly secrets. If you're a filmgoer to any serious degree, you've either seen or heard about the fiery climax. A confrontation within Sal's that boils over into violence and tragedy. A brilliantly staged, absolutely harrowing catharsis that echoes the real life disturbances of Howard Beach and so many others. It is a stunningly acted, directed, and edited bit of cinema that assaults and stimulates in roughly equal measure. A "heat of the moment" sequence that will leave any thoughtful viewer quite troubled.

Why? There are obvious reasons. HATE seems to have taken the prize. LOVE shoved into a corner. As you replay these scenes, you begin to consider each point of view. Then it hits you, they're all wrong. All of them. Sal for his outburst and sudden aggressive action. Is he blameless because he was pushed beyond reasonable tolerance? Or did it take such a test to show his true colors, behavior and words that refute everything we've observed of him before that scene?

Raheem is wrong for brazenly aggravating Sal. Disrespecting his business, the general peace. Yet, we may agree with some of his gripes, the catalysts that drive him. Buggin' is perhaps the match that lights the wick, eggs Raheem on. He's wrong for his instigating behavior throughout the movie. Mookie is wrong for his ultimate decision, from which the film's title derives. Everyone does the wrong thing. Things that only further drive themselves apart, create more fuel for the fires of caricature and stereotyping. More suspicion. But none of the characters would see it that way.  And we can understand why each would think the way they do.

Spike Lee, despite the words of his detractors, has not fashioned a biased, racist polemic. The film is angry, and rightfully so.While the critic who called DO THE RIGHT THING "dynamite under every seat" may have been correct, this film is not a call to violent action. Not a rabble rouser. Lee's examination of a society of individuals who've been left merely to peer through the storefront of the American Dream is very sobering, very real, never mincing words or ideas. The so-called land of opportunity is not a level playing field, despite what your average tea partier might tell you these days. Some may choose not to leave the 'hood, to lazily swill and complain, but many are trapped. And not always by their own bad decisions.

Every character in DO THE RIGHT THING is drawn realistically, riddled with flaws. There is no one to "root" for. Thank God. I wish more films would have the balls to makes their players so complex.   As an example, Mookie is no hero as he wastes time and neglects his girlfriend and child.

Spike would never make a better film than DO THE RIGHT THING, or even one as good. There are plenty of fine movies in his cannon, some with moments as powerful as what is found in DO THE RIGHT THING, but it seems as if Spike put everything he had into this one. Created as if this was his last film.  Certainly his most defining, his "lightning in a bottle" moment. This is absolutely essential viewing, no matter your creed. It is a film to be viewed and discussed, more than any other I can think of.

At the end, the local DJ Mister Señor Love Daddy (Sam Jackson) is left to offer his post mortem, his take on what he saw and couldn't believe he saw. And it's still happening.

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