Saturday, December 3, 2011

Do the Right Thing (Lee. 1989)

"And that's the truth, Ruth!"

Do the Right Thing is a movie that terrifies me, but not for the reason that you may be thinking. Race has nothing to do with a person’s ability to become enthralled in Spike Lee’s best movie, but the film’s entertainment value does not outweigh the consequences of watching it. If you have a heart, this is a film that will make you very angry. It is a confusing, concise and polarizing look into race issues in American culture. Though it was made in the 80s, a shot-for-shot remake could be made in 2011 and the message would remain clear.

After first watching Do the Right Thing, I was convinced that Spike Lee was an angry, aggressive “reverse” racist who was trying to make an anti-white person statement. It took me a few days of thinking to realize what he may have actually been trying to do with the movie. The action takes place through the eyes of Mookie (Lee), a pizza delivery boy in a slummy Brooklyn neighborhood. He works for the only eatery in town – Sal’s Famous Pizzeria – that just so happens to be owned by an Italian family.

Throughout the movie he walks the streets and passively sees what is happening on his block. It is a poor neighborhood that is populated by mainly black people; African-American may be a misstatement in this case. There are three elderly black men who sit on the corner and gab about the neighborhood goings-on, a watcher from her window, Mother Sister, played by Ruby Dee, and a loveable street drunk named Da Mayer who sweeps Sal’s sidewalks for one dollar a day.

Much to his disliking, Mookie is often brought into the middle of the issues brought on by the people who surround him. He is asked to boycott the pizzeria by his friend, Buggin’ Out. Sal’s son, played immaculately by John Turturro, is constantly berating him for his color and the mother of his child is desperate to make him more present. Mookie makes it very clear that he is only interested in “making that money”, so he idly works for Sal and does not get involved in any other person’s business. Spike Lee could have made Sal’s character into a horrible villain, but there are no villains in Do the Right Thing. Instead, he presents Sal the same way he does Mookie or any other character.

In an Oscar nominated role, Danny Aiello plays Sal as a man who is clearly proud of his livelihood. He makes an honest living helping the people of the black community stay fed. They have been raised on Sal’s pizza. He is also in no way a racist silhouette of a Brooklyn business owner. He is happy to serve the people in his neighborhood, and they are happy to eat his pizza. The relationship is good until Buggin’ Out looks up at his “Wall of Fame”.

“Why aren’t there any pictures of Brothas up on the wall”? Sal answers by saying that it is his restaurant and only Italian-Americans are allowed on the wall. This answer should make sense – it is perfectly reasonable. But racism is so deeply ingrained in our culture that, no matter how you shake it, the issue creeps into the back of your mind. Does Sal have something against black people? He should not HAVE to put any picture on his wall that he does want there, but he very easily COULD appease his all-black customers. It becomes a matter of racial principle. Who wants to back down and admit that race is the issue? Do the pictures make Sal a racist? Probably not.

But that does not mean that racial frustration is not the issue in Do the Right Thing. Race is the ONLY issue. In one scene we have a white cop, Korean shop owner, black man and an Italian-American spewing racial slurs until Samuel L. Jackson defuses the situation with his hysterical radio commentary. Everything in the movie is tense, and it cannot help that it is the hottest day of the year. Everybody is irritable when the temperature hits three digits.

John Turturro’s character (Pino) is a racist. He uses horrible words and acts aggressively to any person of color that comes into the restaurant. In a funny moment, Mookie points out that Pino’s favorite athlete, musician and movie star are all black. But they are “bigger than black” to Pino. No matter what the issue, skin color is the divider.

The heat continues to scorch and tempers continue to do the same thing, but Mookie is always able to remain calm. He is far more concerned with Sal hitting on his sister than he is with the boycott of Sal’s Famous. Buggin’ Out continuously reminds him to “stay black”, but this is just as bad as an Italian-American-only Wall of Fame. It is making race the dividing line between the people on the same block. It makes no sense. Nobody is telling anybody to sell-out their culture, but people would get along better if they tried to accept that other people’s experiences are different. It is not about “staying black” or sticking to your Italian roots. It is about cherishing the concept of understanding and empathy.

This brings us to the wild card of the movie, Radio Raheem. Bill Nunn plays Raheem and is an intimidating figure that towers over most of the other actors in Do the Right Thing. His ever-present boom box only blasts one song – “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy. Radio is offended by anyone who tries to lower the volume of his stereo, especially Sal. If race is the spark that starts the fire during the climax then the stereo can be called the firewood. That is what makes Lee’s screenplay so perfect – he does not leave Raheem without blame. He storms into the pizzeria, music blasting, in support of the boycott and is loudly warned to shut his music off. After all, he is in Sal’s place. It is nobody’s fault but Raheem’s when his blaster is smashed by the baseball bat behind the counter.

Throughout the movie, Sal may be the only considerable voice of reason. He loves his neighborhood and is deeply saddened by his son’s racist behavior. Sal wants to stay on that corner forever. He says that Mookie is like a son to him, and that there will always be a job for him and Sal’s Famous. That all changes after Sal smashed that boom box and utters the worst word in the English language. When Sal says “nigger” it is all over. This initial conflict had very little to do with race. Sal wanted the music off, and Raheem wanted his people to be fairly represented in his community’s most frequented eatery. All of this is fair, but when the n-word is used the situation loses its footing. A fight breaks out that culminates in a white cop choking and killing Raheem.

This moment has been criticized as being racist against white people, but people need to look deeper into the scene. Yes, a white cop does kill a relatively innocent black man, but the cop is not the “bad guy”. Like I have said before, there are no villains in Do the Right Thing. If anything, the villains are fear, ignorance and sweltering heat. There is a Hispanic cop who is trying to play the voice of reason. He shouts “that is enough” to the murdering cop. The other white cop is in charge of riot control. Does a black man get uncomfortable when he walks into a room of all white people? I assume that he does, and it works the same in reverse. These cops are the outsiders and race is, like always, in the back of their minds. Not only are they the only white people in the room, but they are the only cops in a racially combustible and violent room.

Raheem’s murder leads to a riot where Sal’s Famous is burned to the ground by the crowd. Sal did not do anything wrong in this movie, but neither did Raheem – in reality, neither did the cops. But everyone is to blame because they allowed things to get this far. The people on the street are frustrated, confused and angry. It becomes about race only because race is the apparent issue. Even the all-black mob is racist – they come within an inch of putting the Korean man out of business for no other reason besides his skin-color.

Nothing is solved at the end of Do the Right Thing. Sal loses his pizzeria, Mookie gets paid and Radio Raheem remains dead. It is doubtful that the officer who killed him will be punished for what he did. Everybody wakes up the next day just as angry, confused and overheated as they were the night before. What questions does this movie answer? None. It is not meant to answer anything because race may not have an answer. One of the worst things a person can do is say that they are racially “colorblind”. In summation, that means that they choose to ignore the differing backgrounds and experiences that each race has endured throughout history. But remaining separate, “staying black”, led to nothing but anger and violence.

Nobody does the right thing in Do the Right Thing. Not the black people, nor do the white people. As long as race divides us – we are all bad people. Do not expect to leave this movie fulfilled or uplifted. It will make you angry. That may be the point that I was initially missing.

“Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral.” – Martin Luther King

“..I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don't even call it violence when it's self-defense, I call it intelligence.” - Malcolm X

Do the Right Thing: A

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