Monday, January 24, 2011

I Didn't Go To A Black College - I Don't Get This Film

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.


  1. Do The Right Thing for me was a tad postmodernist in the sense that it was a part of pop culture ushering in the wave of 'political correctness' and Lee's staunch critique of it. In retrospect, Do The Right Thing was about recognizing the internal (and bringing forth external) hostilities and prejudices based on race and experience and narrowing the focus on this culturally diverse neighborhood of Bed Stuy.

    It's impossible for me to even imagine that this film doesn't hold up well because we still live within the confines of those very prejudices, all of us judging books by covers, and obviously too afraid to both admit it, and do the work of reflective self-examination for it. Basically, open dialogue about race will still get you shot in the foot, figuratively.

    Lee combined this, great film technique to drop the very concept of heat in a bowl of aesthetics, semiotics, and literalism to simply give us a snapshot of race relations in the U.S. - unresolved and continuously discursive.

    Just to tighten things up, Vito actually stood in opposition of Pino's overt racist attitude toward the neighborhood people which I'm kind of uncertain what Lee was doing with that dynamic except for maybe raise even more tension with the sweltering heat and/or highlight the burgeoning nature of what is now called "post-racialism." I could be totally wrong about that.

    This film is probably even more powerful than it was 20 years ago. Just my 2 cents...

  2. Thank you for taking the time to comment, it's always good to know that new readers are coming to my stuff.

    I think that my "less powerful" comments come as I am a white, middle-class Australian, and have never really had any of the issues Lee raised put directly into my path. I've only really seen them in a second or third hand way. I know the film still does hold power, just not as much as it once did - at least through my eyes.