Spike Lee Director's Chair hosted March 25-27, 2011, at LAMB.)
In many ways it's a shame that Spike Lee made far and away the greatest movie of his career, Do the Right Thing, so early on. As he is surely aware, and no doubt painfully so, African-Americans who directly address the terms of African-American experience are all too quickly pigeonholed in today's America as irrationally angry. This kind of thing has even turned into a constant refrain about Barack Obama since at least the pseudo scandal of the Reverend Wright, even though anyone with eyes to see knows that Barack Obama just might be the single most serene human being alive today—the role he knows he must play, for the obvious reasons.
Spike Lee did the right thing. Like Reggie Miller squaring up just back of the three-point stripe, he saw his opening in 1989, took his best shot, and hit nothing but net. Lucky for us. For the most part, the rest of Lee's career has been little more than the day after, heat and hearts alike broke, of that sweltering summer day he documented so brilliantly, with such purposeful, pointed anger and yet with so much care and nuance. In fact, as a recent look at it once again confirmed, it remains a hugely ambitious picture, and one worth examining closely, mulling exactly what happens in the last 40 minutes of it—what any one or all of those characters experienced and felt and what motivated them. No one is entirely innocent, no one entirely guilty.
One of the neatest tricks Lee pulled, of course, was confining his action to a single block in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn and setting the action on "the hottest day of the year," a strategy affording him wide latitude in visual and dramatic opportunities. Even from the opening image, a woman (Rosie Perez) dancing energetically in front of a brownstone, the palette radiates from the hot end of the spectrum, the images bathed in yellows and oranges shading to hell-red and fading toward dirt-brown. The first words, from the Public Enemy theme—"1989 / A number, another summer"—instantly set the utterly contemporary terms for this movie, released on June 30, 1989.
An alarm clock goes off, set to 8 a.m., waking Mookie (played by Spike Lee). A radio DJ, Love Daddy (played by Samuel L. Jackson), announces, "I have today's forecast for you. Hot! Sss!" That is followed by a series of introductions of many of the picture's characters almost literally wilting under the heat, and the heat seems to be the one thing any of them can talk about: "It is hot!" "It's going to be hot today, Jade." "Oh, it's hot." "It's going to be a scorcher today. That's for sure." The camera angles are often canted on this sweep through, leaving us as off balance as the heat does the characters.
Populated largely by African-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Italian-Americans, and the occasional yuppie WASP, the characters frequently resort to sports and cultural signifiers to declare their identities to one another, arguing Dwight Gooden versus Roger Clemens, or Prince versus Bruce Springsteen. Mookie wears a Jackie Robinson jersey. These small gestures are arch, arguably obvious, but they get the job done because it tends to be the way it's often done anyway and so easily recognized.
A white guy walking a bicycle and wearing a Larry Bird jersey accidentally bumps into one of the African-American characters, Buggin' Out (played by Giancarlo Esposito), and scuffs his sneakers. This is an outrage that cannot be countenanced. "Who told you to be in my neighborhood?" Buggin' demands to know. "I own this brownstone," the white guy (played by John Savage) says. "Who told you to buy a brownstone in my neighborhood?" Buggin' comes right back.
With one pot already set to just under boiling, Lee raises the emotional temperatures more gradually, introducing his characters and their relationships slowly and randomly, letting them go through the motions of their days, running across and interacting with one another naturalistically. Like some chef working a stove in a restaurant kitchen, Lee evinces a masterful sense for adding ingredients and for when and how to raise or lower the temperature, even as he finds ingenious ways to abstract the action and thus distance us and the characters too from it. It is at once both human comedy and human tragedy, frivolous and profound by turns.
Perhaps the most remarkable example is a series of epithet-ridden explosions that suddenly erupt from major and minor characters alike, each in their turn, spewing hatred venomously into a camera pointed directly at them and zooming slowly ever closer, winding the comic tension up tight. It starts with Mookie on an empty street: "You dago, wop, guinea, garlic-breath, pizza-slinging, spaghetti-blending, Vic Damone, Perry Como, Lucciano Pavarotti, solo mio, non-singing motherfucker."
In similar vein come Pino (played by John Turturro)—one of the sons of Sal Fragione (played by Danny Aiello), the proprietor of the Sal's Famous pizza parlor that is at the center of this story and the block on which it's set—complaining about his African-American customers, then an African-American complaining about Koreans, a cop complaining about Puerto Ricans, and finally a Korean grocer: "It's cheap! I got good price for you, Mayor Kochie, 'How I'm doing?' chocolate-egg-cream-drinking, bagel-and-lox, B'nai B'rith, Jew asshole."
And then, as quickly as it blew up, this storm is over and passed and Lee returns us to the slow-moving action, which builds inexorably to its shattering conclusion. Strangely, in many ways this is far more quiet and less frenetic than many other Spike Lee movies. Partly this is a result of a shrewd turn to moody orchestral music that often lends the proceedings a calming stateliness. Partly it's the wide scope of characters, which enables Lee to keep his action moving almost purposelessly, it sometimes seem, a giant dance of people moving in and interacting and moving out again, set against its landscape of a simmering-hot day, yet coiling ever tighter and tighter around the resentments that power this amazing picture. Mostly, in short, it's the result of a filmmaker who knows exactly what he is doing.
Compare, ten years later, when Lee attempted something very similar in Summer of Sam, a much longer movie recounting the events of the summer of 1977 in New York, which include the Son of Sam killings as well as a crippling blackout and the widespread looting and rioting that followed it. Here Lee starts out with a similar focus and a similarly radioactive hot palette, in a small neighborhood in the Bronx. But all too quickly the scope widens to proportions impossible to manage, encompassing disco culture, punk-rock culture (wildly off, it seemed to me), random issues of lurid sexuality and drug use, and point-of-view threads in regard to David Berkowitz (the Son of Sam) that include a talking dog which may actually be more funny than Lee intended.
Here, again, Lee is attempting to stir a simmering pot to boiling but there's little significance to any of it other than, "It happened, kind of." The action roams from the Son of Sam killing grounds to CBGB's to Saturday Night Fever discoteria knockoffs, by all signs telling a determinedly race-neutral story. Props to Lee for taking it on, but my impression is that his one true passion lies elsewhere; the one that gets him labeled as hateful and full of rage. No summer heat wave of 1977 is ever going to bake this mess hot enough. It's altogether too cerebral and sensational and overtly crafted to have much of any impact.
In fact, the way this picture so resolutely "balances" African-American issues against others "equally" intrinsic to New York makes me start to suspect that Lee at some point bowed to pressure and/or set himself on a series of projects of reinvention, at least since Malcolm X—now the New York City filmmaker, coequal of Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese (a seed perhaps planted by the 1989 New York Stories anthology, which probably should have included him), now the civil rights documentarian (4 Little Girls), now the solemn tribune for African-American culture writ large (When the Levees Broke).
Me, I'd like to have the Spike Lee of Do the Right Thing back—I would happily settle for the honorable failures of Malcolm X, Mo' Better Blues, and Jungle Fever, or the sprightly lightweight pizzazz of She's Gotta Have It, if he could find his way now and then to the mad brilliance of his one undeniable masterpiece.