Do The Right Thing (1989)

Directed by Spike Lee

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I don’t know if I know how to properly discuss this movie, but that thought right there is probably a little reductive towards the film.  On the surface it’s about tense race relations in a small neighborhood in New York.  There are a lot of words and insults said that I would rather not repeat, and simply hearing those words made me a little uncomfortable.  I think that’s because I don’t really know how to approach sensitive issues like racial inequality.  Just that statement about it being sensitive already makes me feel like I’m approaching it the wrong way.  I’m ascribing feelings to large groups of people by making the assumption that it’s sensitive, and really all I’m doing is projecting my own apprehensions onto other people who have more to say and more of a right to say it.

Do The Right Thing is very much from a perspective outside of mine (like a lot of films are anyways), and watching this, I wasn’t sure when to laugh or when to nod my head as if I really understand the issues that are still so prominent in the world and in the news.  There is a lot of humor in this film.  It’s bright, with vibrant colors and no nonsense characters who say what they will and do what they please.  These characters toe the line between realistic and cartoonish.

The way the film is shot, with canted angles and particularly its wide angle shots, reminded me a lot of the film I just watched, Robert Rodriguez’ El Mariachi (1992).  Both films are from a director who isn’t white, and while neither film is explicitly about a single culture (rather they’re about more common stories draped in the imagery of a different culture), they’re made with an energy that feels unique.  The stories are relatively simple and familiar, at its core, but they’re made with different choices, shot types, etc.

In this film, the canted angles…

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…don’t feel that different, especially once you get used to them, but they distort the image enough to forcibly give you a new perspective to view the events in this film.  I don’t remember exactly how the angle of the camera tilt relates to the characters and events onscreen, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the tilt reflected power dynamics between people.

There are so many confrontations in this film, possibly more confrontations than polite interactions, that each of these clashes feels like a battle, so the power goes back and forth.  No one is ever on a level playing field.  They either feel victimized, righteous, intimidated, pissed off, proud or vengeful.  Each of these feelings puts you above or below another person.  These types of shots, then give the feeling of a ship in stormy seas, bouncing this way and that.  You can sense violence escalating throughout the film, and, well, this feeling is made very clear in a sequence in which various characters stare straight at the camera (moving towards them like two people about to fight) and say hateful, racist things about each other.  No one is shying away from the conflict.  They’re just waiting for a reason to act on what they already feel.

Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) and Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) have it out for a local pizzeria owned by an Italian man, Sal (Danny Aiello) and his to sons (John Turturro, Richard Edson) after Buggin’ Out had noticed that Sal’s Wall of Fame features only people of Italian descent.  Sal had also asked Radio Raheem to turn off his radio (which defines him, it’s in his name), and this is enough to throw him into the battle.  No one started this conflict.  From the moment it begins, we sense that the divisions between Sal and Buggin’ Out have been ingrained in the culture for a long time.  Sal’s response to Buggin’ Out about who he puts on the Wall of Fame is that Buggin’ Out can do as he pleases when he owns his own shop.  But Buggin’ Out will probably never own his own shop, and he points out that Sal’s clients are predominantly black.  Like the Korean grocery store across the street, the businesses are built on the black neighborhood.  There are no black business owners in the film, so the racial divide also becomes an economic divide.  This suggests how far back racial issues go.  Sure there isn’t as much outright, blunt racism like there was 100 years ago, but the inequalities put in place way back when are still felt today.

Eventually Radio Raheem and Buggin’ Out confront Sal and his sons, and inevitably the vocal hated turns racial.  A fight breaks out in which cops arrive and end up killing Radio Raheem.  This leads to a huge standoff that Mookie (Spike Lee), Sal’s pizza delivery man, pushes over the top when he tosses a garbage can through the window.  Sales place is trashed and then burned down.

It surprised me that Mookie was the one to escalate the situation.  While people screamed at each other, he stood by quietly.  When he grabbed the garbage can, he seemed to do so with patience and a certain reluctance.  As of right now I interpret the scene to mean that Mookie thought this was the right thing to do.  He tells Sal the next morning that Sal can and will collect the insurance money, so it’s not so bad.  He had this in mind when he smashed the window, implying that he thought this would be the only way to de-escalate the situation, by allowing everyone to get their rage out on the store and not on Sal himself.  Either that or Mookie knew that this would send a message, a response for the unlawful killing of a friend.  Something had to be done, and something would be done, so Mookie just gave the group a nudge forward.

The film ends with two quotes, one by Martin Luther King Jr. on non-violence, and one by Malcolm X that doesn’t condone violence but does condone self-defense.  Very early in the film, a character preaches on the streets about the two men, and the whole film puts extreme racial tensions under a microscope so you can figure out which of the two leaders is right (unless they both are).  The film doesn’t promote the violence of the characters nor does it chastise it.  The violence seems inevitable because these characters are human.  No one’s right or wrong.

When the MLK quote slowly scrolled across the screen, I foolishly thought it was the film’s final message, that nonviolence is the answer.  I clearly wasn’t paying enough attention because then Malcolm X’s quote followed right after.

Do The Right Thing opens with a series of shots of people dancing to “Fight the Power,” immediately establishing the atmosphere within the community, constructed years before and provoked through firm racial identities.  The film ends with two perspectives of how to deal with such feelings when they turn physical/literal, without encouraging or discouraging one more than the other.

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