Spike Lee is known to be ruthless and at times reckless in challenging conventional expectations. He has courted controversies with almost every film released by him. Some feel that he indeed has a fresh and commanding say in American cinema and is fearless in conveying his viewpoints even if it implies becoming disliked by white audiences. Others look at him as a dogmatic teacher who aims at influencing the public with his inflammatory messages. Whatever the perspectives may be, it cannot be denied that during the last fifteen years Lee has created an eradicable impression upon self-supporting motion pictures produced in the USA.
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Do the Right Thing is the third motion picture made by Lee and it was this film that made him memorable and well recognized in the world of films. He has attracted immense controversy with this film because it boldly confronts the issue of racism with clarity and an unwavering approach that is rare to be witnessed in cinema. Lee is not prone to bowing down to political pressures and does not believe in sermonizing. He is the type, who will introduce his characters, narrate the situations and let the events take their own course. He has an unbiased approach and those who criticize him for being contradictory are in fact not spending the time to consider what he is actually saying. Lee has been said by critics to be a director who instigates spontaneous critical reactions but such responses to the film have done immense injustice to not only the filmmaker but also to the film (Melody Cooper, 2005).
The film happens during a twenty-four-hour period on a hot summer day in the Bedford Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn. Viewers are presented with a few locals whose activities for the entire day are depicted in the film. Sal (Danny Aiello) is the owner of a restaurant called Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, which has been a community favorite for about 25 years. This business was initiated and built by Sal over the years and has won over customers belonging to two generations. He has two sons, the short-tempered Pino (John Turturro) and the comparatively easier-going Vito, who work with him. Pino is forthright in displaying his racist feelings and most of his time is spent throwing curses at the black customers coming to the restaurant. On the other hand, Vito is not much concerned about the color of his clients. Sal believes that it is possible for both whites and blacks to live cordially with each other. Mookie (Spike Lee) is a young man in his twenties who works as a delivery boy for the restaurant. He has a girlfriend named Tina (Rosie Perez) and another friend Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) who is on a mission to have photos of black men put on the walls of Sal’s restaurant.
Most of the film is portrayed as drama in real life in examining the daily lifestyles of the different characters. But once the movie is 75% through its way, shocking developments take place. The viewers are aghast to see a dead man, a building that is burnt down, and a near-riot situation. The tensions, frustrations, and heat that had been seething under the exterior during most part of the movie so far, suddenly makes the events explode into the forefront. These developments bring shocking results and bring to the surface bold and bitter feelings about race relations in the USA (1989). Unfortunately, there have not been many positive developments in this regard since the movie was released. It is known that the film was made by Lee following the tragedy at Howards Beach, but there have been a number of other tragedies in regard to racial intolerance following the release of the film, one of them has resulted in large scale rioting in Los Angeles (James Berardinelli, 2003).
There has been a lot of speculation in regard to the meaning behind the title of the film. The question arises as to what is the right thing and who had done the right things. The film is seen as chronicling a number of people who failed to do the right things. There are few people who are portrayed as being better off at the end of the film. Sal suffers on account of losing his life’s work, Mookie loses his job, a man is dead and several others are emotionally scarred. The only exceptions are Pino who is able to leave Bedford Stuyveson and the so-called animals that lived there, and Da Mayor who is able to redeem his life by saving a boy’s life from a speeding car. One of the greatest successes of the movie relates to the fact that all characters are presented by Lee irrespective of age, gender, and race with considerable sympathy and three-dimensionality. No individual is glorified or targeted adversely and no person is held responsible or absolved for the events that transpired in the film. All characters that have been portrayed with some semblance are seen as having both good and bad traits and one can infer what inspires them even though one may not be in agreement with them. This is unique for a film that especially deals with issues of racialism. It would have been fine to have labeled Sal and his sons as villains but that would have made the film pit one against the other and it would never have become the masterpiece that it eventually became (John Downing, 2005).
The movie is seen as moving away from the obsessions related to black and white relationships and aims to address the several ethnic antagonisms that are played twenty-four hours of the day. There is also at the same time, no doubt that most of the big shows continue to be run by Whites and the film is more in the nature of portraying on the part of most people that they are not guilty for the misdeeds happening in society since this position is very easy and convenient to take. The movie is not in the nature of being provocative nor does it have any motive to incite riots.
Lee has skilfully moved the audience through the emotions of violence as related to the riots and towards feelings of sadness and contemplation the next morning whereby Sal and Mookie are able to achieve uncomfortable stability. The movie ends with Love Daddy, who is considered to be the voice of ethics, speaking to the people that they should enjoy life and warned that the weather was going to be hotter and that they must vote since they had to learn to live together. There are no clear-cut villains or uncompromised heroes depicted in the film. Some viewers may not appreciate this tendency in Lee’s films, thus leading to frustration, confusion and, at times they may get infuriated too. But what matters more is the difference between reason and anger, justice and reprisal, right and wrong, that Lee wishes to emphasize in recommending his audience to delve into for their own good. The fact that there is already a heated debate in progress relating to the issues raked up through the film clearly indicates that it is a success.
The film has a multi-ethnic cast which appears to have been chosen discreetly. Danny Aiello is well versed in pizza making and is portrayed as having reached a truce between his internal unwillingness and the requirement to co-exist with his clients. John Turturro is full of hatred and anger against black men and sees nothing worth usable with them. Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, in being thorough professionals are able to display dignity and class in their respective roles. Spike Lee, in having limited skills in acting has played a remarkable role, much unlike the roles he has played in his other films. The entire film is shot in Bedford Stuyvesant in capturing the authentic and relevant atmosphere as desired by Lee. In watching Do the Right Thing the viewer cannot be missed in wiping the drop of sweat from his or her forehead. The song Fight the Power became the hard-bitten anthem of the film in predicting the ensuing conflicts when it was played for the first time (Jim Emerson, 2009).
The film was the most important and most discussed movie of 1989. It is difficult to challenge Lee on any account since not a single movie that was released in the same year took as much risk and in spite of the significance of the subject of the film, it contained quite a few instances of comedy situations. Lee has been criticized by some for having evolved a confusing perspective, especially in regard to citing the opposing styles of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X throughout the film. But his intention in making the movie was to highlight the problems and not to provide the solutions. Had the answers been known there was no basis for asking the questions. Do the Right Thing has done exactly what powerful and enduring movies do, in crying out loud and clear, demanding to be heard. In the case of this movie all who hear what the movie says would never forget the message that it conveys.
At the end of the film, there is a lengthy quote from Martin Luther King, Jr, “Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral…. a descending spiral ending in destruction for all….”. There is another quote from Malcolm X, “… I don’t even call it violence when it’s self-defense, I call it intelligence”. These quotations are displayed on the screen and the viewer is forced to sit in captivated silence in absorbing and intellectualizing what he has just grasped from the film.
James Berardinelli, Do the Right Thing, 2003, Web.
Jim Emerson, Wake Up, Web.
Melody Cooper, Classic 80s Movie Reviews: Do the Right Thing, 2009, Associated Content.
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Spike Lee, Lisa Jones, Do the Right Thing, 1989, Fireside.