Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Do the Right Thing

USA  (120 mi)  1989  d:  Spike Lee

Motivated by a series of high-profile police cases involving the senseless deaths of black suspects, Spike Lee honed in on various stories that were repeatedly making the headlines, the first of which was on the night of June 22, 1982, when six white men were charged in the fatal beating of Willie Turks, a black subway car maintenance worker who, along with two other black transit workers, were literally pulled out of a car and beaten by a white mob that had grown to 15 to 20 youths in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn, where at the sentencing hearing Judge Sybil Hart Kooper said, “There was a lynch mob on Avenue X that night.  The only thing missing was a rope and a tree.”  A succession of other incidents followed, such as the strangulation death of graffiti artist Michael Stewart while in police custody in lower Manhattan in September of 1983, the fatal 1984 Bronx shooting of elderly and mentally unstable Eleanor Bumpurs by the New York Police Department while enforcing a court-ordered eviction, shot twice by a 12-gauge shotgun, or the 1986 mobbing of three black men in the largely Italian community of Howard Beach, Queens. which resulted in the death of Michael Griffith when he was struck by a car after he was chased onto a highway attempting to evade a mob of white teenagers who had already beaten him and his friends.  All of these incidents occurred during the administration of Mayor Ed Koch, fueling racial tensions in the city.  It was this climate that led Lee to write his own script, where due to the volatile subject matter in which an Italian-owned pizzeria is burned to the ground in retribution for the unjustified killing of a black man, he was forced to scale back his budget from $10 million dollars to $6.5 million, but this gave him control of the final cut.  

A powerful, incendiary work that draws the lines of demarcation in misunderstood race relations, that beautifully follows the lives of ordinary people on a congested Brooklyn Bedford-Stuyvesant city block one hot summer day in New York City.  Lee, himself, plays an everyman, a guy defined by his lack of heroics or even ambition, but he’s completely likeable in this memorable performance as Mookie the pizza deliveryman.  He works at Sal’s Pizzeria under the domineering thumb of paternalistic Italian owner Sal, Danny Aiello and his two grown sons, one overtly racist, the older John Turturro, and his more impressionable younger sibling Richard Edson.  What becomes immediately noticeable is that the owners are all white while the customers are all black.  Turturro makes despicable remarks about the clientele all day long, a hothead who freely throws out the “N” word, without a clue as to the consequences.  Sal acts as an intermediary peacemaker, usually throwing out a few bucks to make the problems created by his son go away, but he also carries a baseball bat behind the counter threatening anyone who doesn’t follow his rules.  Mookie, meanwhile, has a tendency to prolong his delivery time, getting lost interacting with nearly everyone he meets, everyone that is except his girl, Rosie Perez, and his newborn son Hector that she complains he never sees.  Perez opens the film in a wonderful montage of nonstop Flygirl dance moves over the opening credits to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” that generates a fiery spirit of individualism and fierce determination, Do The Right Thing Intro - YouTube (3:40).

Into this picture walks three men on the edge, Buggin' Out (Giancarlo Esposito), a black hothead who espouses black nationalism to a chorus of one, shown in fine form stirring up trouble here, DO THE RIGHT THING - YouTube (2:23), Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith), a mentally challenged guy who carries around a picture of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, but stutters to the point of incomprehensibility, so is shunned by everyone, and Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), the proud owner of the largest and loudest boom box in the territory, that constantly plays the thundering Public Enemy hip hop anthem “Fight the Power.”  These three young guns form an odd collective of Greek chorus outsiders who are defined by the fact no one listens to them, balanced by an equally ostracized older set of three characters who sit and sarcastically comment on the world around them.  Add to this mix the wonderful casting of Ossie Davis, a stumbling drunk known as Da Mayor who occasionally lapses into moments of pure eloquence, and his harshest critic, Rubie Dee, known as Mother-Sister, who sits in a windowsill and oversees all.  What quickly becomes evident are the racial undercurrents that run beneath this neighborhood community, simmering just under the surface, waiting for an opportune moment to ignite, where the temperature rising eventually reaches a boil.  Perhaps the most important voice of the entire collective belongs to Samuel L. Jackson as Mister Señor Love Daddy, the local deejay whose voice of black dignity is heard throughout the day, a reminder of all things black and beautiful, with themes of love connecting everything he plays. 

In an inexplicable moment when a black kid gets senselessly shot by the white police, a spark of indignation sets off a free for all race riot in the middle of the night that leaves everybody in the middle of a melee.  What’s interesting is no one person is to blame, there are no heroes, no villains, though it gets confusing in the moment when all hell breaks loose and rage sets the neighborhood against Sal, who may be perceived as the villain and the victim.  All have something to do with the outcome, yet little is gained from this outburst, as it’s a fury seemingly without any real political context.  The film is notable for a theatrical staginess that includes a dream-like reverie of hatred pitting one race against another Do The Right Thing (Race Rant Scene) - YouTube (3:33), a race rant that reoccurs again in 25th HOUR (2002), also for the orchestral music written by the director’s father, Bill Lee, that occasionally sounds like the Aaron Copland Americana of OUR TOWN (1940), for accurately reflecting a natural sense of dialogue that isn’t heard in other films, that boldly dissects a small turf of a New York City neighborhood, filled with humor, charm, wit, and and a sly intelligence, as it refuses to be pigeonholed into something it isn’t, as it certainly doesn’t advocate violence, nor does it pinpoint blame.  What it does do is stimulate a multitude of points of view, taking the issues of race and police brutality head on, combining the ideas of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X instead of picking one over the other, where one preaches non-violence, the other that violence is needed in self defense, leaving the viewers to sort it all out after the fact.  When this film won no awards at Cannes, the Festival President that year, Wim Wenders, explained his view that the character of Mookie did not act heroically, believing he did NOT do the right thing, so the film did not deserve to be recognized.  As incredible as that sounds, this diversion of opinion is the beauty of the film.      

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