Sunday, May 11, 2014

Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing Revisited

Spike Lee explores the racial divide in America and mob mentality in his controversial film Do The Right Thing.

(review contains spoilers)

It has been 25 years since Spike Lee's landmark film Do The Right Thing hit theaters in 1989. The film remains as relevant as ever and continues to spark heated discussion about race and racism in America. It stands as one of the most honest and uncompromising depictions on film of the problematic and sometimes volatile state of race relations in the United States. This is a very courageous film, especially for a young filmmaker who was just making a name for himself.

Probably the most significant thing that Lee accomplished with this film is that he reopened dialogue about race in America. Not many films at the time were addressing racial problems in the U.S. in such an upfront and contentious fashion. Although many critics hailed the film, others accused Lee of being reckless and irresponsible for releasing such an "inflammatory" work, which they felt reopened racial wounds that were better left closed. When Lee made this film, he knew full well that race problems were still very present in America and believed sweeping them under the rug and not addressing them just made the situation worse. He felt that open dialogue was the best way to address such issues. Therefore, Lee was doing the exact opposite of trying to fan racial flames as some had wrongly accused him.

Lee assembled an extremely talented cast for the film, which included Ossie Davis, Samuel L. Jackson, Ruby Dee, John Turturro, Giancarlo Esposito and Danny Aiello. Aiello is superb as Sal, the Italian-American owner of a pizzeria located in the Bedford-Stuyvesant (Bed-Stuy) section of Brooklyn. Sal has run the pizzeria in the same location for the last 25 years, and he and his pizzeria have become neighborhood fixtures. Sal is basically a decent and caring man who works hard and makes an honest living. For the most part, he gets along with most of the people in the area, which is predominately African-American. However, he is not without his flaws; he still holds deep-seated prejudices and is a bit of a hothead. Aiello doesn't hit a single false note as Sal, probably the most complex and finely drawn character in the entire film. Lee originally wanted Robert De Niro for the role of Sal, but De Niro turned it down due to prior commitments. Lee has said that getting Aiello for the role turned out to be a "blessing."

Sal runs the pizzeria with his two sons Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson). Older brother Pino is openly racist, has contempt for nearly everyone he comes in contact with, and hates every minute of working at the pizzeria: "Every day I come to work, it's like Planet of the Apes," Pino gripes. Vito, on the other hand, is much more tolerant and open-minded. He is cordial and respectful to all the customers at the pizzeria and even befriends a couple of them.

Mookie (Lee) is a young black man who delivers pizza for Sal. Mookie lacks ambition and is irresponsible. He has a young son out of wedlock with his girlfriend Tina, a sexy, sharp-tongued Puerto Rican played by Rosie Perez, and he's a burden to his younger sister Jade (played by Lee's real-life younger sister Joie Lee), with whom he lives. He does his job in a lackadaisical, apathetic fashion and constantly complains to Sal about making deliveries. Mookie is well-liked by almost everyone in the neighborhood, and even though he constantly screws up on his job, Sal holds a soft spot for him. Of course, Pino thinks his father should have fired Mookie a long time ago.

With such a serious and polemical subject matter, one would think that this film would be a grim and heavy viewing experience. On the contrary, much of the film is an enjoyable slice-of-life piece that chronicles the events during the hottest day of the summer in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood. The film is filled with colorful and humorous vignettes of the characters coping with the heat and bantering back and forth. Lee adeptly balances humor and serious drama in the film. The comedic moments allow the viewer to warm up to the characters. It was a smart move on Lee's part to offset much the serious drama with ample doses of humor. This melding of comedy and drama can be found in the famous racial-slur montage, one of the film's most powerful scenes. In the montage, people of different races and ethnic backgrounds take turns spewing racial epithets directly at the camera. This scene is at once compelling and funny.

The main conflict in the film begins when Buggin Out (a militant young black man played by Giancarlo Esposito) notices that there are no African American on Sal's wall of fame at his pizzeria, only Italian Americans. Buggin Out's grievance is that the wall of fame should be representative of the majority of customers who frequent the pizzeria, which is largely black. However, Sal feels he can put on his wall whomever he likes, as it is his pizzeria. An argument ensues between the obstinate Buggin and the hothead Sal, with Buggin being kicked out of the pizzeria. This compels Buggin to call for a boycott of Sal's Pizzeria. Later that night, Buggin and Radio Raheem (a hulking and intimidating young black man played by Bill Nunn) storm into Sal's restaurant right before closing.

Buggin loudly demands that Sal put some pictures of "brothas" up on the wall, and Radio defiantly has his boombox turned up full blast, further exacerbating an already explosive situation. Sal finally snaps, first dropping the "N" bomb and then destroying Radio's boom box with a baseball bat. Then all hell breaks loose, with Radio attacking Sal while Buggin and some of the other customers get into it with Pino and Vito. When the police arrive, they immediately go for Radio and put him in a choke hold until they cut off his air supply, killing him. The large crowd of onlookers explodes like a nuclear blast, and the conflict between Buggin and Sal has erupted into a full-scale riot during which Sal's pizzeria is burnt to the ground.

In this explosive scene, Lee brilliantly illustrates how a seemingly insignificant conflict can escalate into a full-blown riot. He shows how mob mentality can take over in which people don't think or act rationally. When Mookie throws a trash can through the window of Sal's Pizzeria, he yells, "Hate!!," verbalizing what was going through the minds of all the rioters. Da Mayor (the sagacious neighborhood drunk excellently depicted by Ossie Davis) is the only voice of reason during the mayhem; he tries to calm the crowd down, but to no avail. Lee caught flack from some people for the violent climax, but more praised him for the brutal honesty of the scene and for not holding back and laying bare how people's emotions can get the best of them and cause them to do things that they later greatly regret.
The film's conclusion has Mookie coming back to see Sal sitting in front of his destroyed pizzeria the day after the riot and asking for his last paycheck. The conversation they have is quite interesting. There are no apologies from either but a mutual understanding and an unspoken acknowledgement that both were wrong in their actions the previous night. The scene subtly shows that even after all that happened the night before, Mookie and Sal don't hate one other. Much credit should go to Lee for avoiding the temptation to infuse the scene with fake sentimentality or empty platitudes. The scene wouldn't have possessed the same authenticity and power if he had. The scene symbolically illustrates that there is still hope for a mutual respect and understanding between races--particularly between white and black--but will only be accomplished by acknowledging that there is a problem and addressing it through open dialogue.

Lee doesn't pretend to have all the answers with this film but merely opens the door for discussion about the issues of race and racism in America. He respects the intelligence of his audience enough not to spoon-feed them a pat ending wrapped up in a nice little bow. Lee challenges viewers to ponder and debate the issues rather than telling them what to think. 25 years later, Do The Right Thing still stirs up heated debate about racial issues in America,  which is a testament to the film's effectiveness and timelessness.

Do the Right Thing at Amazon

Related blog entry: Spike Lee Reminisces about his Youth in Crooklyn