Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Great Movies: "Do the Right Thing"

At the Movies with Michael5000

Do the Right Thing
Spike Lee, 1989

Previous Contact: I watched Do the Right Thing on the big screen at its original release. At the time I thought it was OK but felt a little sheepish about not liking it better, since there seemed to be pretty much universal critical enthusiasm. On this watching, I expected to "get it" and love it.

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Do the Right Thing is intended as a parable about racial tension. It is played out on a block in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of New York City which is also carefully crafted to stand in as an Anytown, U.S.A., as wholesome on the surface and as gently seedy underneath as any Mayberry. Everyone knows everyone else in this village, and the cast is as large and as packed with colorful personalities as a Dickens novel. The movie progresses as a long series of stylized vignettes where small groups of characters have conversations in colorful settings which, even when they are outdoors, are still contrived to seem enclosed and intimate.

The most singular feature of the movie is the steadfast moral ambiguity of its characters. Even though the action takes place over only a dozen hours or so, every character is given a chance to show his or her dark side. We are asked, ultimately, to be shocked at the possibly racially-related death of one of the characters -- but we have seen him, earlier in the film, spew out his own hateful stream of racism as well. We are asked, perhaps, to feel for a man who loses his livelihood and what remains of his innocence in a small race riot -- but we've also seen his own inflexibility around racial issues. We see washed-up neighborhood bums who rise to opportunities to do good, and articulate, energetic young people who think that it's fun to wander around stirring up trouble and negativity. By the end of the movie, they've stirred up quite a bit of both.

Then there's Mooky, more or less the protagonist, who we meet at the beginning of the movie as a mellow, soft-spoken, intelligent, working man out for a honest day's work. As events progress, we gradually realize that he's a deadbeat dad and chronic screw-up who isn't so much working as allowing an employer to pay him for making his daily social rounds. Late in the film, he's shown looking tired and disgusted with all of the building tension and violence. He sighs thoughtfully and then, with an air of resignation, knowingly performs an act that transforms tension into riot. It's a weird moment.

"Do the Right Thing" is an interesting title for a movie in which events deteriorate as the cumulative effect of numerous people failing to cut their neighbors a break. At a dozen or so points in the plot, characters have an easy opportunity to back down, to let it slide, to chill out; instead, they choose to grease the slide toward the final spasm of violence. Everyone is a little too sure of themselves; no one does the right thing.

The movie famously ends with a pair of quotations, one by Dr. King decrying violence as a means of combating racism and one by Malcolm X defending it. The King quote is especially apt to the film, but the Malcolm X quote is a non sequitur. Although racism saturates the story and world of Do the Right Thing, none of the violence that eventually erupts is a means of combating racism, or self-defense against racism, or even a taking of revenge for racism. It's a sheer spasm of human destructiveness, pure and simple.

Plot: It's a hot day in Brooklyn, and everybody's out on the street. Down at Sal's Pizzeria, there are overlapping, escalating arguments among the basically decent small businessman Sal, his wimpy younger son, his hateful older son (a character who Lee seems to have forgotten to give any redeeming features, which screws up the otherwise pristine ambiguity), his employee Mooky, and two neighborhood kids, the enormous, taciturn Radio Raheem and the diminutive, garrulous Buggin'Out. Nobody pays attention to anyone else's priorities. Trouble ensues.

Visuals: The brightly colored, brightly lit sets render Bed-Stuy as something like the Fisher-Price village, a sweet, wholesome community almost surprised on this summer day to find trouble in its midst.

This is, it must be said, a movie that is starting to show its age. The characters of the film sport the height of fashion for 1989, which of course looks ridiculous to us from our current spot on the cultural long wave. To my surprise, the title music (by Public Enemy) doesn't sound anywhere near as urgent or powerful as I remember it doing at the time. Interestingly, for a film about racial tension in Brooklyn in the 1980s, there is no evidence that illegal drugs are a problem in peoples’ lives, or for that matter that they even exist.

Dialog: This is a dialog-based film with a solid script. It each of its many vignettes, characters articulate or embody ideas about race and racism; this gives the movie a slightly staged, even didactic feel, yet the characters are complex enough, and the acting solid enough, to handle the political content without cracking.

Prognosis: The very quality that makes Do the Right Thing intellectually interesting – the ambiguity of its characters – also make it frustrating to sit through. It’s hard to watch a group of more or less likeable people make bad decision after bad decision when better decisions are available and would cost them little – you want to reach into the film and knock heads together. It's also frustrating to have Lee imply, through those quotes at the end, that he's shown you something profound about how racism works at the street level: people just get more and more frustrated until, pow! things get violent. Without those quotes, the movie becomes a much more tenable case study in how things, in any given context, simply go better for everybody when people listen to each others' concerns and maybe even back down once in a while. And that’s the truth, Ruth.


sister jen said...

Well, I'll say a few things. One, I don't know if Lee is suggesting what you suggest he's suggesting with the two quotes at the end; I suspect he's raising the question created by the juxtaposition of those quotations-- much-referenced, more or less bookended ideas of what they address--and asking us to think of the events of the movie and the issues they raise in the context of that tension.

Also, the "shocking act" you mention is given a lot of power if seen as a nod to/echo of a similar moment in The Battleship Potemkin-- Lee the intellectual film student/ scholar quoting another film and broadening that moment in his own by the reference--but not exactly accessible outside a film classroom or room full o' film nerds.

Other than that, I totally agree with your description of the ambiguity here and the frustration it creates. I also agree that it's grounded in a political awareness of its times (otherwise a lot of the references get lost--to Tawana Brawley, etc.).

Think it's a great film, tho.

IamSusie said...

I love Do The Right Thing. It is definitely one of my favorite movies of the 80s. I think the ambiguous ending gives it more power and I love the colorful neighborhood and the crazy speeches. I never noticed that there are no drugs...

mrs.5000 said...

I'm agreeing with most everything in this review, which makes it funny that after we'd finished watching it I said, "well, that holds up pretty well!" and got a startled look from M5K. Of course the fashions are dated, but I remember they looked pretty outlandish to most of us even in 1989. The look as well the characters are stylized--it's like watching a brightly-colored terrarium--and people appear and reappear with a circular, claustrophobic motion that emphasizes they have nowhere to go. It's not gritty realism, but neither would you mistake it for Mayberry, RFD--there's way too much anger.

And the plot is not JUST one bad decision after another--there are a number of incidents throughout the day that do NOT erupt into violence, and the one that does seems almost as much arbitrary as inevitable. There is a lightness and quirkiness and life-goes-on about the movie that I quite admire, as well as its evenhandness--no one is blameless or unsympathetic. (I'll extend that even to the John Tarturro character, who really is hateful, but is also both trapped and stupid. I would like to see him married off to the selfish and oh-so-angry Rosie Perez character, perhaps, who would carve him up nicely. Mooky could go off to Brooklyn College on a scholarship, and stop throwing around trash cans.)

Michael5000 said...

@Sis: Right on, I love it when you show up for movie day.

Regarding the shocking act: now you've got me frustrated, 'cause I've SEEN Battleship Potemkin, and not too long ago, and I didn't notice the connection. So I'm thinking "Damn, Mr. Lee, you can't make the pivotal moment in your movie a reference that no one's going to catch!"

Similarly, I lost sleep after writing this thing -- not much, but a little -- trying to figure out what the hell Lee was doing with the quotation of the Love/Hate episode from "Night of the Hunter." Are we to connect Radio Raheem with the Evil Preacher in the earlier movie? Umm... no. Is there a similar synecdoche (Check me out! I said "synecdoche"!) between the story of RightHand/LeftHand and the arc of the movie? Don't think so.... Is there, in fact, any reason at all to include the quotation, except as an Easter egg for film buffs? I can't really think of one! But then, I'm new in town. Feel free to educate me.

@IamSusie: Ambiguous ending = more power? Could be, could be. What I want when I'm watching the movie is for Mooky to make some kind of positive commitment to do good or do well, but maybe if I got that wish fulfilled the movie might just seem kind of insipid.

@Mrs.5000: I'm agreeing with most everything in your comment, not least because I know what's good for me. But also because I agree with it. I'll just note that it's easy to underestimate how much anger there is in Mayberry, though.

mrs.5000 said...

The LOVE/HATE snippet points to the moral fulcrum everyone's on, it hints that Radio Raheem might be an interesting guy if you got to know him, and it's in opposition to the scene where Mooky gets Pino to confess all his cultural heroes are black--R.R. likes this flick about rural white folks enough to memorize a whole scene from it. Whereas I've only encountered it via this amazing blog!

Nichim said...

I never saw Do the Right Thing.
But re: Tawana Brawley
In my neighborhood there were a reasonable number of bumperstickers that read as follows: I'm from Wappingers Falls, and I didn't do it. The house where my mom lives now is just up the street from Tawana's old apartment complex. Various of my high school friends were in school with her. That was a really weird time and I wonder just how it affected my forming racial consciousness.

Michael5000 said...

Dammit, Mrs.5000, what's a smart girl like you doing with a lummux like Michael5000? Thanks for the education.

Also, if everybody keeps talking about this Tawana Brawley I'm going to have to use Google or something.

Jenners said...

I saw this right when it came out too and remember being blown away by the music and danding at the start. But I'm waaaaay white so that doesn't surprise me. It would be interesting to see it from my perspective now ... as I read your review, I realize I don't remember all that much about it except the dance sequence in the beginning and the music.

sister jen said...

Google away, Bro--also Howard Beach and Eleanor Bumpers. (Wikipedia will do you for this.) It's worth it to get those references.

I was kind of thinking that maybe Lee was sort of just showing his admiration for that whole night of the hunter love/hate thing, but I'm completely won over by Mrs5000's argument. (Also, as always, I feel compelled to give a shout out to Springsteen's similar nod in "Cautious Man," on the Tunnel of Love album--check it out.)

Re: Potemkin: Think disjunctive editing. (Also think sailor washing dishes--and then breaking one, several times, in different ways, from different angles. Remember that we see the trash can go through Sal's window twice, from two different perspectives--yeah?yeah? He goes all Eisenstein-ian on us.)

Re: ambiguous ending: I think this film is ALL ABOUT the ambiguous ending. It doesn't tell you, it asks you to think about.

Bridget said...

Interesting - this has just shown up from my netflix - hoping I don't have to know film history to watch it . . .

Michael5000 said...

@Bridget: You'll do fine. Report back!