Friday, December 07, 2012

Do the Right Thing (1989)

USA, 120 minutes
Director/writer: Spike Lee
Photography: Ernest R. Dickerson
Music: Bill Lee
Editor: Barry Alexander Brown
Cast: Spike Lee, Danny Aiello, John Turturro, Richard Edson, Rosie Perez, Joie Lee, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Giancarlo Esposito, Bill Nunn, Roger Guenveur Smith, John Savage, Samuel L. Jackson, Paul Benjamin, Frankie Faison, Robin Harris, Martin Lawrence, Frank Vincent

It's very possible that I overrate Spike Lee's third major feature. This makes the third time I've written about it one way or another for this blog in the past couple years and I haven't written about anything else by him and, in fact, I still need to see a lot of his pictures that people recommend. Somehow I keep coming back to this one and finding new things in it all the time, from the extraordinary work of its soundtrack, drawing on vast sources of African American music, to smaller pieces of it, such as the fluid court and spark occurring between Mother Sister (Ruby Dee) and The Mayor (Ossie Davis), or the powerful performance of Dee in the final scenes.

It remains what it intends to be first and foremost, with great power: a penetrating diagram of the development and execution of a race riot, which takes place on a baking hot day in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York City, USA. A good deal of its power, in fact, derives purely from this laser focus. Seen again, it only becomes more apparent how carefully it is put together. All the myriad tiny factors that contribute to the conflagration at the end are systematically identified, defined, laid out, put on display: the simmering hot day with no relief, the brewing complexities of resentment among the characters, the sense of boredom and desperation and hopelessness. Yet it is always full of strange byways and surprises.

I'm certain I'm missing all the references but this picture is rich with them: Porgy and Bess, West Side Story, The Night of the Hunter, Vanishing Point. At times, Do the Right Thing feels like it is constantly swiveling and pivoting among visual, dramatic, and musical territories that we know, presenting a constant, gnawing sense of déjà vu from which we keep getting jerked by the urgencies of the narrative. It slips into stagy, theatrical moments, with crane shots of tenement stoops and then into documentary verite with blasted hot interiors and people arguing at the top of their lungs, their voices ricocheting off the hard walls, and then into quasi-music video productions with the soundtrack playing loud to exciting montages of people dancing or cavorting, and then characters turn and speak directly to the camera.

There's a remarkable precision to its structures. Mookie (Spike Lee) is matched against Sal (Danny Aiello) and his two sons (John Turturro, Richard Edson), paired with his girlfriend, and mother of his child, Tina (Rosie Perez) and with his sister Jade (Joie Lee), aligned in racial solidarity with Buggin' Out (Giancarlo Esposito), Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), and Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith), each of whom operates essentially on his own ("Stay black," says Buggin' a lot). Outside of this core there are gradually widening communities: Mother Sister and The Mayor, falling into one another's orbit across the length of the picture. Three middle-aged ne'er-do-wells sitting in front of a red wall cracking jokes and making heated exchange on events and people they witness. Four teens who bop around the action chattering away to one another and randomly coming to the foreground and getting in people's faces.

Director and writer Spike Lee sets it all to a simmer and sticks a big wooden paddle in and stirs. In the racialized interpersonal politics that come thick and heavy, everybody gets their turn being wrong. The interplay between characters is rapid-fire and dizzyingly entertaining, with no end of throwaway great lines spraying out of it: That's the truth, Ruth.... He's a bum. Chump change, to-the-curb, pullin' no major pub, bum.... I better not see her naked on payday.... You 30 cents away from havin' a quarter.... You the man. No, you the man.... How come ain't no brothers on the wall?

It is nearly as devastating in its indictments of ways that African Americans bring trouble onto themselves as it is of the wider white racism with which every last character here (including the white ones) must contend. There's one telling exchange among ML (Paul Benjamin), Coconut Sid (Frankie Faison), and Sweet Dick Willie (Robin Harris), the three men at the red wall. ML notices how Korean families have established businesses in their neighborhood within a year of arriving in the U.S., contrasting it with how they themselves have lived there all their lives and done no such thing. There's a pause as the other two absorb this. "It's got to be because we're black," an aggrieved Coconut Sid finally blurts out defensively. "Ain't no other explanation."

Spike Lee, of course, reserves his most withering contempt for the noxious, pervasive, and psychologically corrosive racism that is poisoning the lives of everyone here. As it transitions into its deadly serious final third, Do the Right Thing becomes more and more deliberate about everything it shows and tells us, raising the stakes and tension one steady notch at a time. As the lines of confrontation assemble, and the violence slowly begins to occur, at first one distinct episode at a time, the entire picture starts to convulse almost, as if it's giving birth, moments of eerie quiet and calm alternating with new spasms of going too far. No one is willing to give on anything. The tragedy begins to feel like fate. Yet even in all the chaos and confusion, as it boils up, Spike Lee remains clear about who's getting the worst of each confrontation: disproportionately—not even close—African Americans. He is as clear about that as he is understated.

Do the Right Thing is altogether just remarkable—so full of spirit and energy, sass and grit, surprising musical connection, striking imagery, rich dialogue, lives of characters, hurtling into a terribly fearsome thing to see. And on that note, I now promise myself I will get back to and step up that little Spike Lee film festival and, seriously, write about something else he's done one of these days. Something this good doesn't just happen in a vacuum. Does it?

Top 10 of 1989
At the time, I thought 1989 was at least a very good year for movies, if not an excellent one. Now I'm not so sure about that. I like everything here, of course, but also see where it might be a little heavy on the light (which is partly a function of my taste then, I must acknowledge). But I'm not even sure anymore what is consensus great for this year after the Spike Lee.
1. Do the Right Thing
2. Drugstore Cowboy
3. Say Anything
4. Mystery Train
5. Sex, Lies, and Videotape
6. Field of Dreams
7. True Love
8. Casualties of War
9. Dead Calm
10. Jesus of Montreal

Didn't like so much: The Asthenic Syndrome, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Dead Poets Society, Henry V, The Plot Against Harry

Gaps: Black Rain; Born on the Fourth of July; The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover; Driving Miss Daisy; My Left Foot

No comments:

Post a Comment