Do the Right Thing, 1989
It feels a little weird writing this for a movie that is 25 years old, but just to cover our butts… SPOILER ALERT!!
This week we came across a first in our journey through the AFI’s Top 100 list, a movie that was ranked lower than it should. Watching Do the Right Thing for the first time in 15 years was an interesting experience. It was a trip into the past, yet a reflection of the present. It was an intriguing piece of artistic film and a deeply relevant piece of social commentary. It kind of boggles my mind that this landmark film is so low on this list, but what is even more astounding is that it wasn’t anywhere to be found on the original 1998 list. Lord of the Rings (oh man, I can’t wait to write about this film… again) somehow makes it to 50 six years after release but it took almost 20 years for a deeply significant cultural movie to crack 96. Then I take a second, I remember who makes these lists, and my ire drops a bit. Not because I’m okay with it, but because it unfortunately makes sense. What do 80-year-old white guys know about the African-American story? Why would they hold up and praise a movie special for reasons they worked hard to prevent for decades?
Do the Right Thing was a landmark piece of cinema because it was the first time we got to see the African-American experience from the point of view of an African-American. The movie was written, directed and produced by an African-American. It starred African-Americans. The score and soundtrack were all African-American musicians playing music that is interracial to African-American culture. The central point of the movie was to take on race issues… from the point of African-Americans. This wasn’t Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner or In the Heat of the Night, both significant movies dealing with important and serious race issues, but written, directed, produced by white guys. This wasn’t Melvin Van Peebles Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song either, it wasn’t about the scary angry black man and the seedy world he inhabits, it was a story about a normal African-American neighborhood. Spike Lee accomplished something that had not been done before and was extremely successful in the process. He paved the way for movies like Boyz n the Hood, New Jack City and Menace II Society. Yes, they told very different stories, but they were African-American stories told by African-Americans. Thanks to Spike Lee, big studios were finally giving them the chance to tell their own stories.
I also feel Do the Right Thing helped pave the way for the independent film movement that flourished in the 90’s. Yes, I know, it wasn’t actually an independent film, but ask an average person and they will guess that it was. It was basically an independent film that Universal just distributed. Spike Lee created a piece of art that was his on every level. He wrote, directed and starred, he had his father write and perform the score, he casted all his friends. This was the mentality that independent film was centered around and even though it wasn’t an independent film, it showed film audiences that this style film could be both entertaining and thought provoking. I find it hard to believe that movies like Pulp Fiction or Clerks or Swingers would have been as popular and recognized if it wasn’t for Lee.
The last point I feel I need to make about this movie has to do with its ending. I don’t want to spoil it, but it was hard to sit and watch this movie and not think of the race issues that have been all over the news of late. I find it both interesting and disturbing that a movie 25 years old can present a scenario that is taking up major time in current new cycles. Lee tried to shine a light on inner city issues and, with all the acclaim and notoriety the movie got, nobody really paid attention.
Do the Right Thing is a great movie. It needs to be much higher on this list because there are very few more important films that have been made and probably none more important in the last 30 years. While the styles and settings scream late 80’s early 90’s, the story and the message are at timeless as can be expected. The acting is spot on. The cinematography tells as much of the story as the dialogue. It has everything a movie needs to be considered great. Add in its historical significance and it should be one of the Top 20 movies of all time.
I give Do the Right Thing 5 out of 5 bowls of Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough ice cream. It took a while before someone was allowed to put a twist on ice cream, but now we can’t imagine living without it.
Out of the movies we’ve watched so far on this journey, this has been the most challenging to write about. This is because Do the Right Thing is an important film everyone should see.
If you saw it in 1989, I’d recommend seeing it again. It’s not an easy one to watch, and stirs up lots of difficult topics, ones that I tend to shy away from in groups of people larger than two. Why? So I don’t say the wrong thing, speak about something when I don’t have all the facts, offend someone, ask a question I’m supposed to know. All my own fears. But I don’t feel hopeless after watching it. I feel disturbed, appropriately so, but I also feel awakened, and maybe that part of writing this blog is me finally starting to say how I feel about things I’ve don’t often discuss.
Spike Lee picked the hottest day of the year as the backdrop for four racial groups, trying to live in one neighborhood. They ignore each other, interact, clash, try to understand each other, but clash again, throw up their hands, and collide in total violent chaos. Depending on who “you” are, it may cause you to feel everything on the spectrum from uneasy, to angry, to conflicted, wronged, validated. And in doing so, it will make you think, and maybe discuss. But I also found myself feeling weirdly comfortable about the setting. I began to think of it as a play, with a few scene changes: the neighborhood, including the brownstone stoops, the sidewalks, the red wall where “The Corner Men” hang out, the pizzeria, and the inside of Mookie’s and of Tina’s apartments. I don’t know Brooklyn. I’ve been there enough times to know how to get there. I’m white, living in middle class CT. I don’t really have a neighborhood. The way Spike Lee portrayed the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood was just over the line into happy and comfortable…kind of like in the first season of LOST. There was a brief time (and I mean brief) where everything seemed ok– I’m talking early on, like the 2nd part of the Pilot. In fact, the song I’m thinking of is “Wash Away” by Joe Purdy. You could feel the fact that some awful things were going to happen in the near future.
I found myself struck hard by many things in this film. The anger. The fact that no one let up– no one offered anyone any mercy, ever. I sometimes find myself in situations where there’s a clear choice to exacerbate something, or keep quiet / try to assuage a person or keep an event from exploding. I feel compelled to dive into sentence fragment mode now as I tell you what I kept thinking about:
The kindness and cluelessness and sensitivity and ignorance and misdirection of Sal.
The gentle nature, the care for people, the steady calculating anger of Mookie.
The reasonableness, the wanting peace of Jade.
The unyielding and unrelenting, one track perseverance of Buggin Out.
The fact that Vito could have been saved, convinced.
The symbolic act of justice performed by Smiley at the end.
The title alone.
Does Do the Right Thing “hold up” to the test of time? Yes. Despite the off-putting opening several minutes of Rosie Perez dancing, the late 80s styles, the fact that Radio Raheem carried a boom box the size of my car, and no one had their necks bowed into their smartphones, (something I think about A LOT, feeling unable to grasp this change in our culture), so people still looked each other in the eye when they spoke. The fact of the matter is, I don’t think enough has changed since this movie was made. I was afraid of coming to that conclusion even before I watched it. What I didn’t consider was the timing of when Jon and I sat down to watch this movie, December 5th, 2014. While thousands of people in San Francisco, New York, Boston, Atlanta, Baltimore, and Washington D.C. marched in protest after the Staten Island grand jury decided to not indict the police officer who choked Eric Garner to death this past July. As I sat there, watching the two cops on the screen choke Radio Raheem to death in front of the entire screaming, raging neighborhood, I felt sick and full of tears. I wanted the movie to be fiction, but it wasn’t, it isn’t.
I’m not sure what to do after seeing this movie. It makes me profoundly aware of the fact that I have no answers. It makes me love and fear people. It makes me make that face that causes people to ask if I’m mad (it’s called thinking, thanks). I guess there isn’t exactly something for me to do, at least tonight, but it’s caused me to look deeper into what’s going on in the world I don’t want to think about, and make connections. There’s nothing so sad as seeing a person try in vain to reach out to another person, but go about it so badly, it causes more anger and resentment. This movie was full of characters trying to live their lives, take a stand, make trouble, stay out of trouble, love someone, or destroy someone. The conflict and the depth of hatred and misunderstanding ran too deep to be untangled in two hours on screen. And in under 24 hours in the story, a microcosmic house of cards came down like it was meant to be, like there was no way around it.
I want to believe it’s cyclical, with a possibility of glacier-like progress towards peace. Mookie and Sal’s exchange in front of the destruction the morning after hinted at “just another day” in a way that almost gives false hope. In my experience, people don’t change willingly due to external forces. But they do get the crap kicked out of them by external forces. And people get worn down, tired, and closed.
This has not been my best piece of writing here. I want to say so much more, but I’m constrained by time and responsibilities to wrap it up. The weight of this movie makes our scoops of ice cream rating system seem foolish. But, sometimes you gotta stick with the plan.
I give Do the Right Thing four out of five shaved ices in paper cones, any flavor you want.
Up Next: The Last Picture Show
Jon: Black and white means good, right?
Jenny: I have a bad feeling this title is misleading.