Friday, September 6, 2013

Late to the Party #6: Do the Right Thing (1989)

Late to the Party is a recurring feature that addresses older movies, TV shows, albums, and books that I missed the first time around, for some reason or another.

You don't have to look very hard to see that there's an unfortunate lack of representation for African-Americans in film these days.  Really, Tyler Perry is the only director who's consistently putting out films with a predominant black cast, but those films are marketed to a niche audience (and are of questionable quality, some would argue).  Even still, I don't personally feel under-represented in stories.  There's so much more to me than being black, so I find representation in all of the other aspects of myself that appear on television and in film.  There are so many stories littered with male nerds, depressed people, and lonely indie music lovers that the lack of African-Americans, while troubling, was never something that I felt personally wounded by.  That is, until I watched Do the Right Thing for the first time last week.  Of Spike Lee's filmography, I'd seen Malcolm X, He Got Game, and Inside Man before, but I saw the first two at such a young age that I couldn't really process them and the third was outside of his usual style, so I never gave him much thought.  But everything started to make sense once I saw Do the Right Thing, and I realized how vital Lee is as a filmmaker for his efforts to shine a light on the lives of black people in America.

The film is such a great depiction of black culture -- all of the colors, clothes, and hairstyles so perfectly attuned to the details at the turn of the 90s.  Though I've never lived in a kind of neighborhood like Bed-Stuy as portrayed here, it feels so specific and tactile.  Just look at everything going on in the background of any given scene.  Mookie (played by Lee himself) and Buggin' Out (a young, completely unrecognizable Giancarlo Esposito) will just be talking in the foreground, but there's an endless amount of activity to look at on the periphery.  And it's not just the faked processes of paid extras; it feels like a living ecosystem at work.  Most of all, it just gets that ball-busting, "shooting the shit" feeling right.  Lee's work is known to be flabby, and some of the scenes might not contribute much on a plot level, but they're all so vibrant that it's hard to make a case for any of them being cut.

The hangout vibe benefits from the plot, which is mostly just about an entire neighborhood going through the hottest day of the summer.  Mookie, a black pizza delivery man working at an Italian family restaurant, is the closest thing the film has to a main character, but he's really only an entry point into this knotty world.  Stories start with him, then break off completely, and so many vivid characters get their own little arcs that intersect and accumulate.  In a sense, it's sort of like Jamie Hernandez's Love and Rockets stories in the way that individual parts form a composite piece.  Bed-Stuy is a mostly black neighborhood, but there's also a bit of a cultural blend going on.  As the temperature rises, so too do the closeted tensions between the different races.  It's a figurative melting pot in more ways than one, and like the atoms in a liquid boiling over, the entire neighborhood is gaining energy and knocking against each other.  You can just see the beads of sweat on people's faces increase as the film goes on, the waves of heat rise from the pavement.

Lee is on-the-nose about these tensions in the film -- and race issues in general -- but subtlety is not his intention.  It's all supposed to be fiery and in your face, aiming to work you up into the same frenzy that ultimately results at the end of the film.  There are numerous scenes where characters talk directly to the screen, like the infamous insult sequence, and it almost feels like Lee is urging you not to be a passive viewer.  Yet for all of its brazen blustering, the film is still able to sneak up on you.  At the beginning of the film, you'd hardly be able to guess that the seemingly minor conflict between Buggin' Out and Sal the pizza shop owner (Danny Aiello) would end up being the film's most essential plotline.  Early on, Buggin' Out gets kicked out of Sal's because he complains about the fact that restaurant's wall of fame has no black people on it.  His campaign against the restaurant is taken as a joke until it isn't, and eventually he gets Radio Raheem, the neighborhood's DIY DJ, in the mix.  This leads to the fight between the Italians and the blacks, which leads to a mini-riot that alerts the cops, which leads to Radio Raheem's death at the hands of one of those cops, which leads to an even bigger riot.  There goes those details again, always seeming to amass.

The almost accidental way things progress is one of the biggest themes of the film.  Lee does a great job of depicting how these kinds of things can just spin out of control.  Initially, Radio Raheem wasn't even mad at Sal for the wall of fame, but when Buggin' Out presents him the opportunity to channel his anger -- even if it's for something unrelated -- he takes up the offer.  Everybody in the neighborhood is fed up, and they might not know what it is that they're fed up with, but they all unite together against one target.  Like the city it depicts, Do the Right Thing is all about exploring warring impulses.  The love/hate scene, from which the picture at the top derives, spells it out in the middle of the film, arguing that we are not just one prevailing disposition, but a constant balance between multiple feelings.  When Sal says that he loves and appreciates the black community that has grown up on his food and helped his business thrive, he probably means it.  But in that moment where Buggin' Out and Radio Raheem confront him?  He can't contain his racist rage, even if he didn't know it existed at all.  And that's why I think Mookie's decision to toss a garbage can through the window of the restaurant, effectively causing the riot to swell, is much more complex than Spike Lee would later make it out to be in interviews.  According to Lee, questioning whether Mookie "did the right thing" is equivalent to thinking that a white man's property is as important as a black man's life.  But the film ends with contradictory quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X, punctuating the idea that the true warring impulses are the ones that cause us to wonder what is the right thing.

When I saw the movie Fruitvale Station last month, I cried at the end.  It was less about the film being sad -- although it was unfortunate for Oscar Grant to die unnecessarily -- and mostly because it caused 21 years of being black to rush at me all at once.  I've lived a pretty easy life, and haven't faced many overt hardships, but even still, there are certain little things that can make being black feel so unfair.  Maybe I wouldn't have been stopped and searched by a cop in the middle of the street for no reason that one summer afternoon, or maybe a white girl I had a crush on would've been more inclined to like me back, or maybe I wouldn't feel like have to appear as nonthreatening as possible when meeting people for the first time if I wasn't black.  If Fruitvale Station made me bummed out about being black, Do the Right Thing made me fiery.  Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" plays multiple times during the film, and it's almost like an encapsulation of the movie as a whole -- brash, powerful, and completely unapologetic.

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