Black and White. Right and Wrong.

9 Aug

Film: Do the Right Thing

Director: Spike Lee

Year Released: 1989

Cast: Spike Lee, Danny Aiello, John Turturro, Rosie Perez

Available on Netflix Streaming: Yes

Available on Cuevana: No

Rating: 9.0/10

The Mayor: “This is The Mayor talking.”

Mookie: “Alright. Alright.”

The Mayor: “Doctor….”

Mookie: “Cmon Cmon…What?”

The Mayor: “Always Do the Right Thing!”

Mookie: “…That’s it?!”

The Mayor: “That’s it.”

That’s it. It sounds so simple when you put it that way but director Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing is anything but simple. It’s a disturbingly accurate depiction of inner racial tension and sentiment exploding into deadly and chaotic force. Keep in mind that Spike Lee made this film prior to the Rodney King riots of 1992 (see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rodney_King_riots) and the film’s vision seems all the more foretelling when put into chronological perspective. Certainly much more believable and honest than that melodramatic trash that the Academy gave the Best Picture Award to a few years back.

Let me tell you the story of Love and Hate.

In my last review of Trainspotting, I asked you to consider the decision between choosing life and not choosing life; here, Spike Lee asks you to very seriously consider the choice between doing what’s right and doing what’s wrong. This is a very different decision in nature, altogether; in fact,  people’s views on the exact meaning and understanding of right and wrong have such little universal conformity, that the decision becomes almost impossible to make at times. Are you truly doing something wrong? Is standing up for what you believe in, even if it means using some form of violence, inherently right or wrong? Is everything circumstantial? Is Fighting the Power as Public Enemy so deftly demands something wrong? Spike Lee forces us to ponder these many questions and contemplate our own feelings regarding race, morals and our civic duties. Sure this film is about race: examining black and white. But it also equally implores us to realize that most things are rarely ever just that: black and white.

The film explores the lives of several citizens, during a single day, living in the predominantly African-American neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. It just so happens that New York is going through one of its worst heat waves in history and everyone around is scrambling to cool off and escape the heat. This is impossible: Spike Lee drives his characters into several interactions that push them closer and closer to their boiling point until they can no longer withstand anymore heat. It is no coincidence that this story takes place on an extremely hot day. Heat represents intensity, frustration and stress: an unstable, smoldering pot of ingredients just ready to blow at any time. The characters that Spike Lee generates allow his film to transcend its simple story by breathing such vivid and authentic life into the intrigue as well as by playing off the racial relationship between each other. There is love, there is hate, there is uncertainty. One thing is for sure: these incredibly realistic portraits of Brooklyn will stick with you and you will remember their little quirks and tendencies forever. The cast is quite a pleasant surprise as Spike Lee himself plays main character, Mookie, who works for pizzeria owner, Sal, played incredibly well by Danny Aiello. Sure it does not feature an all star cast but you will recognize faces all over the place. As much as music and sound headline this blog, viewers should pay special attention to Spike Lee’s unique visual style.

Rosie Perez opens the film with a bang

In fact, the visual and the audible go right together hand in hand. The colors and fashions of the characters are bright, saturated and painfully characteristic of 90’s flair. Camera angles range from canted to overtly off center in order to bring attention to the terrible realism of the film: the fact that all these characters are on the verge of something awful. When the viewer sees loud colors, the viewer hears loud and strong sounds. When Spike Lee introduces viewers to quieter and smoother characters, we hear equally smooth jazz sounds along with cooler tones. One of the best blends of these two distinctive styles (yet unmistakeably African American based in culture) comes at the very beginning of the film, during the opening credits, when Public Enemy’s Fight the Power is remixed to a jazz composition alongside it. The implications of the mixture of these different musical genres only becomes clear as the film progresses and slowly we begin to grasp the significance of the opening credits’ visual component. I do not want to mention it in this review since I find it quite unique and considering this was Rosie Perez’s film debut, it makes it all the more special.

I will say that the film’s score did not strike me as particularly memorable despite its orchestral adherence to the jazz genre (if you like jazz you will love the score; the tracks sound relatively the same at times and too much so at times for me). However, the film’s soundtrack, which features Public Enemy and Perri, achieved several milestones on the Billboard 200 and has some fantastic songs. A nice reggae-inspired track of Steel Pulse plays towards the middle of the movie and gives the film an additional layer of cultural verve.  Of course, the most prominent song of the movie as I mentioned before in my previous post is none other than Public Enemy’s Fight the Power. The importance of this song can not be lost on the viewer; it plays repeatedly during the film on one of the character’s boomboxes (yeah this film is retro) and serves as a reminder to everyone that they must keep fighting oppression and powerful forces attempting to subjugate them. At an early point in the film, a character with some form of cerebral palsy mentions that even though Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. are both deceased, we must still keep fighting.

Indeed, this film was extremely controversial upon release due to its brutally honest portrayal of racism and critics’s fears that the film could incite riots all over the country. Now just appreciate the magnitude of that statement. A mere piece of cinema has the potential to instigate fundamental responses out of people. Quite amazing I must say. Whether Spike Lee intended his film to inspire people to fight back is unclear but the motivation is altogether irrelevant if one person gets that message from the film anyway. It only takes one to say we must fight! And another to say, no…we must do the right thing! Wait, could they both be the same thing? Who knows? So many people have watched this film and interpreted it differently that no, one clear universal message can be taken from it. Everyone will take something different from it. And I hate to say this but sometimes your race may even affect how you feel about this film. Because Spike Lee does force you to identify with his characters, his music, his world; and if you don’t like it or you’re not used to it, too bad! Whether the film makes you uncomfortable means nothing to Spike Lee because he didn’t set out to make you feel good in this movie. No, he set out to demonstrate that racism still exists in our society and that making/determining the right decisions never comes easy. The solution and responses are neither simple nor singular. Several viewers argue over whether the actions of certain characters are for the best, whether they are right or wrong…

A hugely important reference in Do the Right Thing

However you feel about this film, one fact remains clear. Spike Lee has created something that many films aspire to but few films achieve: the illustration of deep, raw human emotion in the context of race and self-examination. It references so many different moments in history, belief systems and cultural norms that we truly know that this is America. This is the country we live in and these are the issues we face every day. It’s no wonder why critics thought the film would spark violence; everything about it is just so real. Spike Lee does not filter or pretend. And that is why I love this film. It is the penultimate standard for films on racial and moral exploration. So as The Mayor so bluntly tells us, always remember to do the right thing…and go ahead and let me know what that is for sure once you figure it out.

Rating: 9.0/10

Soundtrack and Score: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Do_the_Right_Thing#Soundtrack

Here’s a couple great tracks from the film:

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