Today’s film comes to us from a very divisive film-maker, and although the film doesn’t seem to have the same power today as it did when it was released, it still does have some degree of power. The filmmaker? Spike Lee. The film? Do The Right Thing.
The 3rd major film to be directed by Lee, as well as his first major hit, Do The Right Thing dealt with the powder keg that was Brooklyn in the 80’s. One stinking hot summer day, that keg blew, and the film deals with what lead up to those events and how they were affected by, and subsequently affected, the denizens of one New York neighbourbood.
Among the characters that are affected by this are pizza store owner, Sal, who has no real love for what the neighbourhood has become, yet has no real problem taking their money; his sons Pino and Vito who share his views and are even more outwardly racist to the neighbourhood kids. Also factoring into the story are Mookie, Sal’s delivery guy, all around gopher and observer of all the ‘hood happenings; and Buggin’ Out, local black militant and catalyst for the actions of the day.
During one extra hot day, Buggin’ Out takes issue with the “lack of colour” on Sal’s Wall Of Fame and stages a sit-in at the pizzeria along with another character, Radio Raheem (whose only crime, it seems, is being black and wanting to be part of things). This angers Sal, leading him to destroy Radio Raheem’s radio; thus setting off a violent chain of events culminating in a neighbourhood riot that ends with the destruction of the pizzeria.
What Spike Lee has tried to do with this film, at least from what I drew from it, is to put across a melange of the world that he grew up in as well as stories that he saw from his contemporaries. However, he has portrayed it in a very hyper-real way, showing the neighbourhood and those that dwell within as little more than caricatures. This makes the film take on a stark (despite the almost total saturation of colour) black and white stance on some rather complicated issues.
Another ‘bonus’ that Lee struck upon by this black and white stance, is an easier way to manipulate what the viewers feel as it pertains to the characters and their drive and emotions. And Lee hopes that you will feel differently for different characters, who run the gamut from overtly unlikeable to lovably in the wrong place at the wrong time. Unfortunately, there are also a few characters (Mookie included) who, due to Lee’s heavyhanded way of trying to get his messages across, may well leave you feeling nothing for them.
Now, while the film has a whole host of pre-fame ‘stars’ (including Samuel L Jackson, Rosie Perez and Lee himself, egotistically taking the central role as Mookie) and you can’t fault Lee’s drive in getting it made on a next to nothing budget (soliciting local businesses and pretty much anyone that Lee knew at the time), it, as I said, hasn’t really managed to keep the powerfulness of its message. One of the things that has always stood out to me is the fact that the whole movie plays out like it was created for the stage, and not just because of the hyper-realness of the setting. Every one of the characters is overplayed, and you can just about read their motivations and stage directions over their heads in every scene. And, given the overall message of racism, and how race relations have changed for the positive since the film was made, the overall feeling and impact behind the film has dulled.
It is definitely worth watching as a snapshot of the times, and as an example of a filmmaker learning his craft, but it is in by no means as powerful a film as it was 20 years ago.