An Appreciation – Do the Right Thing
In preparation to write on Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989), I ran across an interview where Lee described being asked why he went with an ambiguous ending rather than providing straight answers to the problem of racism. Lee, understandably, responded with confusion. If there was an answer for racism, he would have given it. But because prejudice in society is so historically ingrained, finding it is not so easy. The beauty of Lee’s film is that it is bold enough to ask those questions and encourage dialogue. It’s a provocative work, emboldened not by anger but by desperation and passion. Lee wants to shake us out of social stagnation, to question why there is so much hatred in our communities by telling a story that encompasses people of all cultures. It’s not a surprise that he would open with the line “Wake up!”
Lee’s career has spanned decades, with varying levels of success. He’s made important and acclaimed work (Malcolm X, 25th Hour), but has also made head scratching choices (She Hate Me). Whatever the case may be, he’s remained a consistent and focused storyteller. Racial inequality has been his constant theme, which has brought him his fair share of supporters and detractors. But it’s that very notion that has made him one of the more significant voices in cinema. If anything, his work is more important now than ever, when numerous examples of racial profiling and discrimination have surfaced (at least in mainstream media). Many of the stories we see today tell the exact same thing Lee has been saying for years.
Do the Right Thing is Lee’s third feature film, after She’s Gotta Have It (1986) and School Daze (1988). It is here where we see him fully mature as a writer and director. His setting of Bed-Stuy, a predominately black neighborhood in Brooklyn, is teeming with life and vibrancy. He sprinkles each corner, apartment, and doorway with characters that feel lived in and authentic. For a story that tackles such a subject, the tone is upbeat and energetic, engaging our attention even though the questions raised are serious. There are splashes of color everywhere, from the wardrobes to the set design. The soundtrack includes everything from hip-hop and rap (Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”) to jazz (by Lee’s father, Bill Lee). These different bits of detail build an environment with its own identity.
Living in this place is a multitude of people. Although there is a “plot”, Lee is not interested in incorporating one in the traditional sense. Rather, we’re given episodes of characters interacting with each other, butting heads, and coming to philosophical differences on race. Notice that Lee writes his characters with an even hand. There are no true “villains,” but nearly everyone has major flaws and makes very bad decisions whether they’re black, white, Hispanic, or Asian. Mookie (Lee) is one of the leads, and we are made to identify with him, but we also empathize with Sal (Danny Aiello), an Italian-American operating a pizzeria in the neighborhood. It’s a credit to Lee’s skill and perceptiveness – along with Aiello as an actor – to dedicate a large amount of time building Sal as a dimensional character. At heart he’s a good person, hardworking, and appreciates the customers that come in and buy his food. One key scene involves Sal sitting down with his son Pino (John Turturro) and asking him why he bottles up so much hate for other races. A lesser filmmaker would not have included this scene, which reveals much about Sal and Pino as people. But like everyone else, Sal has a breaking point, and when pushed too far, has the potential to make detrimental choices.
In terms of craft, Lee shoots the film (with cinematographer Ernest Dickerson) with an in-your-face approach. The use of close up and slow motion points to the underlying perspectives between the characters. Like he has so often, Lee has his actors speak directly into the camera, as though they were addressing the audience. In a memorable sequence, he has a number of characters filmed this way as they berate us with a host of racially charged expletives (he would repeat this technique in 25th Hour). While unnerving, the montage is used to confront the terminology and explore the context of what makes it so offensive. It’s not about hiding it away and asking people to stop, Lee wants to get at the root core of where it comes from. He isn’t after the symptoms; he’s after the causes.
But the causes go in a circular motion – back and forth until there appears to be no beginning or end. Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) asks Sal why he only has pictures of Italians on his wall, when most of his customers are black. Sal responds by telling Buggin’ Out to open his own business, but one can say that social and economic inequalities prevents black people from having those opportunities. Gentrification might change and maybe improve a community economically, but it can also push up housing costs and drive out the very people that helped contribute to its culture. Is a neighborhood “better” if the result has white people coming in and forcing minorities out? What Lee wants us to see is that fingers are being pointed in both directions. The characters focus their tensions at each other instead of themselves as a whole. Given that it’s also the hottest day of the summer, the situation is a ticking time bomb.