Mar 23, 2011

Do the Right Thing


Due to the corrosive nature of Spike Lee's most controversial film, to discuss the film would be to humor the happenings with analytical discussion. In other words, if you haven't seen or plan to see Do the Right Thing I don't recommend reading any further as I will reveal many plot points. Do the Right Thing is Spike Lee's most critically acclaimed film to date and for good reason. Concocting a heatwave aesthetic, the burning asphalt leaps off camera and scalds your senses. This was Spike Lee's aim with the bright orange backdrops and sweat-covered hood rats marching up and down the block - it's quite obvious that he succeeded. The heat mirrors two purposes: to allow the boiling point of racial tension a visual metaphor and to accentuate the "hottest day" of the summer in which the film is set in. Rewind back to 1989 and you'll see the release of Do the Right Thing, a racially conscious masterpiece of urban life that terrified critics as fears and rumors of the films release inciting real riots spread. To fully understand Do the Right Thing requires two key elements: being black and acquainting yourself with the many characters that Lee immortalized. As I am not African-American (but can speak jive), I must rely heavily on the second aspect in order to absorb any intended effect that Spike Lee had set out to burn into the brains of naive white liberals.


Allow me to introduce a selection of the colorful cast of characters now. Mookie, played by Spike Lee, is a passive manipulator. Mookie also moonlights as a deadbeat father to his Latino girlfriend who has two volumes, squabble and mute - no in between. He is employed at Sal's Famous Pizzeria located in the projects of Brooklyn. Mookie is what can be considered a terrible human being, which is especially apparent at the film's end. He not only takes extended breaks while on the job but whines incessantly about having to deliver the pizza up and down the block - a task of which he is graciously paid but fails to understand the idea of trade. It comes as a surprise that he maintained his employment for as long as he did. Sal is a compassionate yet fiery Italian-American who maintains his business regardless of the racial climate that the area has turned towards. Considered not a dangerous neighborhood but a belligerent one, Sal feeds off the thoughts of his pizza feeding generations of children, surely a sweet man with the thickheaded and proud visage of an Italian. His pizzeria is what fuels the fire that rages throughout the second half of the film. Sal's two sons, Pino and Vito, are the typical Italian brothers, feuding amongst each other and getting into a homo-erotic fights now and again. Buggin' Out is the catalyst for the perilous episode that befalls the block and seems to reflect the ignorance of director Spike Lee, but we'll get to that topic in point later. Rounding out the cast is Da Mayor, a humble old drunkard whose wisdom makes up for his lack of decision-making skills and intelligence shared by the rest of the cast, and finally, Radio Raheem, a philosophizing street preacher who sermons on the relationship of Love & Hate - Spike Lee's homage to Night of the Hunter.


As I mentioned before, Buggin' Out is the main offender in the film and the cause of substantial structural damage and the death of a brother. After purchasing a slice from Sal's Famous Pizzeria, Buggin' Out becomes highly offended when he notices no "brothas" on the Wall of Fame within Sal's Italian establishment. Sal responds "You want brothers on the wall? Get your own place". This is a perfectly logical retort from someone who manages and performs upkeep on his own shop. Seeing how Buggin' Out is so concerned with "staying black" and avoiding responsibility, you'd think an infraction could be laughed off as juvenile and redundant. But no, that isn't enough for Buggin' Out, who enlists the help of Radio Raheem to boycott Sal's Famous Pizzeria. The irony involved is that Spike Lee demonstrated the same indomitable Negro spirit as Buggin' Out did by ousting Clint Eastwood. "He [Eastwood] did two films about Iwo Jima back to back and there was not one black soldier in both of those films," said Spike Lee during an interview. Clint Eastwood responded how any self-respecting legend would and told the idiot to "Shut his face". What does one expect when someone in a league of his own such as Eastwood falls victim to a state of radical racial malaise. In one fell swoop, Spike Lee dropped his facade of intelligence and proved without a shadow of a doubt that he is as hypocritical and aggressive as the characters he creates. Furthermore, Do the Right Thing failed in regards to sympathize with the blacks. For most, if not all, white viewers, by the end of Do the Right Thing, one cannot help but to weep for Sal and his former famous pizzeria - victim to the destructive force of the black community. If what Spike Lee expects of his brethren to be true, by films end, blacks would be cheering on the destruction in quasi-brainwashed fashion while weeping for Radio Raheem, a man of no distinguishable humanity.


Radio Raheem is the whistle-blower to the climax. Herded into the climactic boycott of Sal's Pizzeria like cattle, Radio Raheem's stubbornness and general inconsiderate behavior lent to the greatest tragedy in Do the Right Thing - the death of the ghetto-blaster - the consequential relic of the film. Had Radio Raheem known that this confrontation led to his future death, would he have changed anything? Probably not. His character seemed to give priority to "keeping it real" over his own life. I find myself hardly empathizing over Radio Raheem's death, a scene that which later greatly inspired Mathieu Kassovitz's La Haine - as he never applied himself to anything other than "hood". The scene in which Radio Raheem enlightens Mookie on left hand, right hand is one of the more fascinating scenes to be found and proves that had Radio Raheem straightened out and garnered even a sliver of responsibility, he could have done something, anything other than loitering and listening to Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" on repeat. In the end, Mookie reveals himself to actually be the Antichrist of urbanites when he incites a riot by throwing a garbage can through the pizzeria window. As I mentioned before, Sal blesses Mookie with a job. Something that seems so irrelevant and passé to Mookie is actually a necessary element of escaping the cycle that all black youth are born into. As Spike Lee records via stream-of-consciousness in his companion volume to the film, "I gots to get paid. Mookie repeats this often. When he delivers pizzas, he refuses to leave until he gets a tip. You can believe that." Lee then calls him an "instigator, a rabble-rouser" and then expects us to back up the motivations that drive Mookie to destroy a positive influence to a rotting community. Spike Lee also scowls in the directors commentary that he "has only ever been asked by white viewers whether Mookie did the right thing; black viewers do not ask the question". He is also accredited to saying that those who question Mookie's irrational actions "are implicitly valuing white property over the life of a black man." This brings me to the conclusion that Spike Lee's ignorance is a cause for concern. Had black youth caught wind of the sweltering hysteria of Do the Right Thing, why, we'd have hordes of blind militants storming the streets "doing the right thing" and amassing millions in property damage stemming from persuasive hatred.


Tied together with Samuel L. Jackson playing narrator via the radio waves, Do the Right Thing is an exceptional package, often confused as well, which makes the film and its legacy truly hilarious. Spike Lee attempted to rationalize the bellicose blacks. What is left behind the rubble is a question asked and an answer nowhere to be found. Traditional white values are not to blame for interpretation, rather, the brilliant set-up as you watch the local Negroes, built to support, inevitably cause the structure to crumble. No more Sal's, no more pizza. The prospect of any self-respecting eatery was launched out the window when they formed a misguided uprising and destroyed what very little they had. The problem of Do the Right Thing is also its greatest aspect - it's a definitive racially polarizing masterpiece of cinema. It is the heat that gets to you. All the water in the world, nor the Popsicles can cool the racial tension that boils under the city streets in Do the Right Thing. When you take a step back and glance over the picture in retrospect, Ossie Davis as Da Mayor captures the only "good" force within Do the Right Thing. Da Mayor was passionate, wise, levelheaded, and intelligent - a saint amongst sinners. Is Do the Right Thing culturally important and a modern masterpiece of American cinema? Yes, but for reasons unintended by Spike Lee. I wouldn't go as far as to say Radio Raheem was murdered by hate, but instead: irrational stupidity.

-mAQaveli X

2 comments:

duchampo said...

Great review, really spot-on. I always had a soft spot for this movie. i completely agree that Do the Right Thing culturally important and a modern masterpiece for reasons unintended by Spike Lee.

Infinite Jester said...

bravo!