Thursday, July 29, 2010

Film 101: Do the Right Thing

(Before I get to my continuing quest to educate myself about 110 years of film history, let me say this: My blog gets all kinds of random comments from chinese spammers (with links) that I have to immediately delete as soon as I find them. If anyone (by which I mean Shawn, how apparently is the only person still reading) on how to stop this from happening, let me know. If not, I'll continue to fight the good fight.)

Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.

I've found myself on an interesting kick this summer. Perhaps because my own writing has been so blocked, I've been kind of immersing myself in all kinds of movie history. This is partly a fun way to prepare for my film class, but mostly because it's a subject I really love and am drawn to. I'm 30 pages away from finishing a book about the 1967 Best Picture Academy Award nominees and how they represent a shift from Old Hollywood to New Hollywood. I've been watching Turner Classic Movies on a semi-regular basis. I bought and devoured an old special about Martin Scorsese's personal journey through movies that influenced him (which has turned me on to several old films I've never heard of but really want to see now, including "The Bad and the Beautiful" and "Duel in the Sun"). I've bought and started perusing 1001 Movies to See Before You Die (I've seen only 198, sadly). I find it the topic of a lot of my thoughts and a great way to spend my time. Meanwhile, I'm limited with what I watch because Amelia has been trying to get me to watch old movies for ages, and now that I am interested she doesn't want me to watch them all without her--understandable I think.

So today I sat down looking for something to watch from my good friend Netflix Instant Watch and found Spike Lee's 1989 film Do the Right Thing. Spoilers may follow, but I haven't included anything major that I didn't already know before watching the film. Interesting thing about Spike Lee in my humble opinion: the same things that help make him an important and compelling filmmaker are also a big part of what scares suburban white viewers away from his work: his anger, his unwillingness to compromise, his refusal to back away from complex and multifaceted (and difficult) topics like race in America. Though his last few movies (I haven't seen them all, but I have seen The 25th Hour and Inside Man) have been less explicitly about race, as a young filmmaker he tackled these issues head on, perhaps never more effectively than in Do the Right Thing. (Again, I say perhaps because I admit my exposure to his catalog is limited.)

Taking place over a 24-hour period in a predominantly black neighborhood in Brooklyn, the film deals with the racial undercurrents that run beneath a community that has seen a lot. Central to the story is Lee's own character, Mookie, a pizza delivery man and struggling father. Mookie's employer, Sal, who runs his business with his two sons, has been in the neighborhood for years and has both deep care and fast contempt for the black men and women who make up his business. His two sons are even more strongly divided: one a barely restrained racist and the other tolerant (this feels like the wrong word, but it's late and I'm getting tired) and friendly with the neighborhood. Other characters, like Radio Raheem, a large black man who carries around a boombox constantly playing Public Enemy's "Fight the Power," and the Mayor, a semi-vagabond who is both loved and hated in the neighborhood, hover on the periphery, and one of the strengths of the film is the way many characters are both fleshed out and symbolic with just a few scenes. There's Mother Sister, a kind of watchful caretaker of the neighborhood. There are the three older men who serve as both comic relief and commentary on the various figures in the neighborhood. There are the Korean grocers who have recently moved in. As the heat rises on the hottest day of the summer, however, these various characters interact in increasingly nasty and violent ways.

Sal, for example, refuses to acknowledge a request from a loud customer that his pizza place could use some pictures of black men on the wall next to all the Italians. Sal's son gets increasingly vocal about his disdain for the neighborhood. The three old men complain about the Korean grocers owing a store in a black neighborhood. A large group of young people harass a guy riding his bike for scuffing their new sneakers. Again and again there is conflict, and simmering just under the surface is something more. When one of the conflicts turns violent and a character is murdered, the floodgates open and everything that has been barely contained beneath the surface comes crashing out. (Whoa, some mixed metaphors there).

I don't know what I was expecting, but I was surprised and blown away about this film. Part of what really gets me still is the great shifts in tone that Lee employs. I don't know if it's his youth or his desire to push boundaries or what, but there are so many quick steps between tension and comedy, community and disjunction. He employs innovative techniques, like characters hurling a series of racial stereotypes and epithets directly to the camera, that both break the viewer out of the story and force him to be drawn in--are those epithets being spoken to you? Are they voicing thoughts you've never voiced (or at least never acknowledged in mixed company)? What do you see in this neighborhood: threats on every corner? Home? A bridge? Something that must be confronted? Even the title asks viewers to pass judgment: what is the right thing? Does Mookie do it when he basically starts a riot? Or not? Who is to blame here? Not all the things he tries to do work, I don't think, but he's not just throwing everything against the wall; he's trying to create a cross-section of experience--the friendships, the arguments, the love, the loneliness. Some of his technical stylings seem overly exuberant, but I'd rather have a filmmaker trying new things than just imitating everyone else.

There are things that date the movie: the opening credits feature a dance sequence by Rosie Perez that just seems silly now, though I guess you could make a few arguments that her various costume changes are a metaphor for the different facets each of us have below the surface. The crazy bright colors set this in that late 80s period before rap went gangsta and everyone wanted to be hood. And Samuel L. Jackson's radio DJ--seems so provincial to have a "neighborhood radio station," but who knows, maybe that's common in New York. At the very least it provides a good framing device for moving from point to point throughout the day (though I did think at least once, "Man, is that guy the only DJ at the station or does he just work a 16 hour shift?").

Dated moments aside, it remains a pretty powerful film. Even in our post-Obama and supposedly post-racial world, there is still plenty of room to explore the concepts of race, anger, stereotypes, and guilt today. In fact, my first reaction was that I wished I could show this to my film class (there's just too much bad language and a little bit of nudity to justify it) and to my sister's Houston students, because I'd be interested in how a cross section of 2010 teenagers process this. How do they assign guilt and innocence in the events that play out? What does that say about them, and about our world? What does it say about me?

I was impressed. Like The Searchers, my other favorite summer movie find so far, this may make its way onto some sort of great movies list for me: I couldn't say whether it's top 10 or top 50, but it's one I'll continue to remember and think about. I think that's what Lee was going for.


Kate said...

I read your blog. :)

Zimm said...

I watched this about 2 years ago, and it left quite an impression on me. The biggest problem with the film, which you point out, is that it has not aged well. If you can ignore that and stop it from yanking you out of the story, it really is a fantastic film.

I vaguely remember the controversy surrounding this film when it came out, and I was only like 10 years old at the time. Some (white) people were afraid that it would incite riots, which in hindsight seems ridiculous. Especially when you can see that Spike Lee's criticism about racial prejudice is also applied to Mookie and his anger/hatred toward Turturro's character. It's not a one sided problem.

The film's ultimate question is "what is the right thing?" Two options are given by King and Malcom X. While those two options are often seen as contradictory, I think Malcom X was arguing for an exception rather than a direct contrast to King, if that makes sense.

It's been a while since I watched it. But yes, definitely a Film-101-worthy movie. Looking forward to more posts like this.

Joel said...

That does make sense. But I also like that the ambiguity and uncertainty--the recognition that there is a tension--is part of what he's trying to get you to think about.

Joel said...

And thanks, Kate!

Damian said...

I read, but don't often comment, it looks like you have the verification on so you shouldn't get chinese spam. Your other option is to turn comment moderation "on" you do this in your control panel. You will get an email every time someone posts on your blog, and with a click you can approve or delete that comment before it goes live.

I like do the right thing. It has all of the hallmarks of a freshman effort though. It is a brilliant film, but also one that draws attention to the filmmaking. "Look what I, the director, am doing now."

Jungle Fever and Malcom X also took on important issues and are worthy of study in the Lee ouvre (at least Malcom X is)

Joel said...

Thanks for the tips, Damian!