Sunday, May 4, 2014

Do the Right Thing (1989)

Director: Spike Lee                                        Writer: Spike Lee
Film Score: Bill Lee                                       Cinematography: Ernest R. Dickerson
Starring: Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, John Turturro and Samuel L. Jackson

A Spike Lee joint? Okay, I'll go with the metaphor, film as mind-altering hallucinogenic. But in this case it sort of fits. As a director, Spike Lee’s films have always been heavily stylized, and though that effect has diminished over the years it is still present, even in a more recent film like Inside Man. When I first saw it and didn’t know who the director was, it seemed as if there was something very odd about it. Once I discovered Lee was at the helm, it suddenly made sense. Do the Right Thing was Lee's first major film after making a minor splash with She’s Gotta Have It and School Daze. This film has attained a reputation that goes beyond my comprehension. While the hatred on the screen is no doubt realistic and of its time, it’s difficult to see what the point of the film is. While the rage of the blacks is understandable, the yelling and the screaming and the violence and the seemingly utter lack of comprehension as to what it all means has only escalated in the years since. Only instead of pizzerias it’s people who are being destroyed.

The film begins with an opening credit sequence, harkening back to classic cinema and updating it with rap music, in front of brownstone steps that are clearly a set. And much about the atmosphere is artificially exaggerated. The red light coming in through the windows indicates the heat wave in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. Danny Aiello owns a pizzeria and his son John Turturro works for him. Delivering pizzas is Spike Lee himself, giving the viewer a window on all of the goings on that will culminate in the finale as he goes on his rounds. Ossie Davis is the “mayor,” a drunk who tells Spike to always “do the right thing” and seems to be the lone voice of reason. There are Hispanics and blacks on the block, a Korean grocer, and John Savage as the lone white guy who steps on Giancarlo Esposito’s sneakers. Turturro hates blacks but Lee turns it around on him when he admits to liking black entertainers. Of course the whole thing culminates in the violence that has been simmering all day in the sweltering heat. And yet the next morning nothing has changed.

Initially I had hoped that Samuel L. Jackson’s DJ character would be providing a sort of running commentary on what was happening in the film, similar to that of Lynne Thigpen in The Warriors. And while he does make the occasional comment, I was disappointed that it wasn’t more. Spike Lee plays sort of an Orson Welles’ character here in the complete creative control he exerts in writing, directing and acting in the film. His directorial style follows suit as well, with the obvious use (abuse?) of Dutch angles and close-ups and long focus and a number of other effects seemingly thrown in just because he can. It’s not bad filmmaking, per se, as it does bring to mind what Welles did in Citizen Kane, but I keep coming back to my main argument: what’s the point? What is to be gained, what is to be understood . . . what is supposed to be entertaining about two solid hours of anger? It may have been a commentary on race relations at the time, but today it simply seems to be a nostalgic look at violence in the same way that fifties juvenile delinquent films have become.

In his A List essay David Sterritt seems to be an apologist for the film, initial reviews finding it cranky and cryptic--which it is--but then declaring it to be relevant because racism has “hardly ceased in the years since Lee wrote and directed it.” Unless you’re a brain-dead Fox News watcher, however--redundant, I know--then that’s a given. He admits to the comic book characters and foul language, and then goes on to talk about the intelligence of it all. I’m sorry, but I don’t see it. He does note Lee’s understanding of classic Hollywood, which I’ve already mentioned, most obvious in Bill Nunn’s love/hate recitation emulating Night of the Hunter. In the end, though, the best that Sterritt can do is to tout the picture by saying that its lack of answers--or even suggestions--is an open door to dialogue. But once you’ve acknowledged that’s the way it is, so what? If there was a story in there somewhere, okay. If there was a character study, of Aiello for instance, similar to that in The Pawnbroker, okay. Unfortunately Do the Right Thing is nothing more than a cinematic car wreck, which we pass by shaking our heads at the pointlessness of it all, and then go on our merry way.

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