Monday, November 05, 2012

80s Revisited: Do the Right Thing

Do the Right Thing (1989)
Written and directed by Spike Lee; produced by Spike Lee, Jon Kilik & Monty Ross.

Do the Right Thing is a movie that got away from me for a lot of years. I was 13 when it was released, and 14 when it came out on video. I remember trying to watch it with my Mom, but I think she wanted it to be more of a comedy and was surprised by some of it. Eventually, she just had to turn it off because she was so uncomfortable. I honestly didn't really get it, but I was 13 and grew up in a predominantly white suburb, and the movie already had that controversy around it (it had since before it was even released) that it was somehow going to cause all of this racial violence that it never actually caused.

I saw it again--this time the entire picture--a few years later, when I was 19 or 20. By then, I had seen a few other Spike Lee movies and wasn't really a fan of his, but I had a better handle on what kind of filmmaker he was. Do the Right Thing was so acclaimed and considered such an important work that I really felt I had to sit down and watch it and give it a chance to reach me. But I still didn't really know what to make of it. And over the years, as I liked Lee's films less, I started to internalize this opinion that's out there that the movie was too angry, too racist, tried too hard to be controversial, and I didn't think about giving it a second chance.

But recently I've just happened to read some stuff about the movie (on great film lists and such), and I began to realize that all of that was just a sort of overreaction/justification to how uncomfortable the movie made me in its last 20 minutes or so. It never sat well with me that the pizzeria gets burned down in the end; I thought, when I was younger, that that was just going too far. But I just had this realization that none of my feelings about the film itself were really based on the film itself, but by those bizarre imprecations that the movie was a racial flashpoint. So I decided I had to see it again and make up my own mind.

I think the problem, as usual, is age. I wasn't ready for this movie when I was 13 or 19. I wasn't able to hear what it had to say, to see what it had to show me. I find, to my disgust, that I had completely forgotten that what motivates the crowd who burns down the pizzeria is the murder by police of a young black man; that I should have been angrier about a human life than I was about white property. I don't like what that implies about my subconscious. But I understand so much better at 36 than I did at 19 all of the tension and frustration that leads to that moment in the movie when Spike Lee's character Mookie throws the garbage can through the window of Sal's Pizzeria.

What I was surprised about was that the movie is so fair. Spike Lee as writer and director observes his characters, sees their faults and their strengths, and--most crucially--has empathy for all of them. That's key to the whole film. It takes place on one Bed-Stuy block in one day during a summer heatwave, and in that one day, we observe a microcosm of racism in America. It doesn't beat you over the head with a message, it just simply observes a day in the life. But under the surface, you can feel the tension building. You can hear old resentments resurfacing, you can see it in the way people look at one another, you can feel it in the way people sometimes overreact to one another when they feel slighted. You start to feel this struggle that just keeps rising, leading to an explosion of violence that seems shocking and sudden, but which you realize afterwards was inevitable.

What I like about this movie is that Spike Lee has the courage to show what was then and still is the truth in America: that racism exists, that it is institutionalized, and that is has taken root in our minds in ways that are subtle and charged and that we don't always understand. I don't think I'm a racist, but I think there are ways in which racism in society has affected how I think. I don't want to be a person who is more saddened by the destruction of a building than the murder of a kid by cops. I think what bothers me and a lot of people about this film is that it confronts you with the possibility that, well, maybe you are and maybe that's part of the problem.

That's what's so brilliant about this movie. No one's really the bad guy. And no one's really the good guy. Lee doesn't paint each race or each class with the same brush. He empathizes with the people of the neighborhood, the people who live and work there. He's sympathetic to all of them. He makes them understandable. We don't anticipate what will happen, but by the end of the film we understand why it does. Like I said, it's very fair towards its characters. It's society that isn't fair, and that's what all of the characters can't escape. This movie is a masterpiece, maybe the masterpiece of the 1980s. It says everything about that decade without waving any flags.

Do the Right Thing, famously, wasn't even nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars that year. Driving Miss Daisy won. I guess the Academy wasn't ready for Spike Lee's vision of what it was like to be African-American. My Mom couldn't make it to the end of Do the Right Thing. Driving Miss Daisy made her cry. I think that sums up what audiences wanted to be told about racism in 1989.


Roger Owen Green said...

CLEARLY the best film of 1989. My favorite SL joint.

Arthur Schenck said...

Completely agree with you! I saw the film in the theater when it was new and LOVED it (I was a Spike Lee fan after that). To this day, I've never seen Driving Miss Daisy.