Do the Right Thing (USA, 1989, Spike Lee)
Wherein Ben and I take a journey down Spike Lee's mythic deconstruction of Main Street America
Who's Your Senor Love Daddy?
In my review of The Elephant Man, I thanked you for making me take cinema seriously, for lack of a better way to put it. It took a film I had already seen but had failed to "see" for me to grasp the extent to which you had "opened my eyes." These words I put in quotation marks are in them to signify the metaphoric meaning of the words, of course, but the words are close to literal too. Certainly, before you became my movie dealer and me your blog slave, I already could analyze and appreciate film in terms of the formal aspects it has in common with literature and theatre. But I had yet to also take up the form in terms of music and painting. To explain my development this way is not to suggest that film itself continues to be derivative of these prior arts, makes no sense in its own right, has no unique "grammar." Far from it. Indeed, it is impossible to apprehend the specificity of this grammar without beginning with "motion pictures" literally understood. Technological development aside, understood as a matter of art history, the first door opening to the "pictures" is painting and the initial portal to the "motion" is music. It is no accident that I often find it necessary to reference Tarkovsky. His practice and theory of The Image was for me the first time I consciously addressed the grammatical specificity of film. His model is one-sided, of course, but it is also the minority in the history of the medium for reasons that have as much to do with the political economy of capitalist film production as with the nature of the form itself. But I digress. My personal point is that Tarkovsky made me "look" at a film for the first time and you made me watch Tarkovsky for the first time.
Seeing The Elephant Man post-Jardine/Tarkovsky, I told you that I now observed it's tremendous visual beauty and power. Pinpointing the "visual" is dangerous, though, as it leans towards a conception that is all painting and no music, for lack of a better way to put it. Hence, I have differentiated "images" and "visuals" in the past, particularly in my criticism of Malick. Turning (finally) to DTRT, my post-Jardine/Tarkovsky epiphany is even more pronounced than it was for The Elephant Man. As with The Elephant Man the first time around, I "got" DTRT back in 1989. Fuckin' right I got it! And I get it today. And I get today in it too. Everything the film examines in still happening. DTRT is as relevent as the day it was made. So, Lee's message was not and is not lost on me. What's new for me the second viewing, then, is my observation of HOW he gets that message across.
I apologise for taking such a circuitous route here but I don't want to merely tip my hat to the cinematography of DTRT. As you know, I am always attempting to think and speak dialectically and my present ambition is to avoid saying that DTRT makes a heavy statement AND has great cinematography, or vice versa. What I grasp now is the dialectical relation between the form and the content of the film. The working class race politics are given the highest realistic expression yet the style of this expression relies in no way on the rules of realism, whatever they may be; documentarian, cinema verite, gritty street-cred, whatever. Picasso said that art is the lie that tells us the truth about ourselves. I knew the first time that DTRT tells the truth but it is only now that I grasp that it does so by lying.
Sure, they took over an actual block in Bed-Sty, built a few authentic sets on it, used locals as extras and so on. But it is still filmed as if it were all on a studio backlot. There are a few crane shots that let us look down the street to see a little bit more of the surroundings. But fundamentally we are located in the microcosm of the single block. This intimate setting is initially presented to us as able to contain it's social tensions. That these tensions are revealed from the get-go already signals a story of substance, that we are not in some stupid sit-com. But at the same time, danger is not brewing so plainly we can smell trouble. In short, DTRT drops us on Main Street. No, not the Main Street sold for decades to white, middle-class, Middle America, but a Main Street equally mythical. It's the nice, non-violent, just-petty-criminal version of The Hood, full of funky fun and laughs for the dignified black majority. Of course, the film explodes the shit out of all this with political passion. But the artistic brilliance of DTRT is that it establishes the mythical happy Hood - where niggers know their place in every sense of the phrase - and how it does so.
This brings me back to the dialectic of achieving realism without realistic style. DTRT reminds me of an MGM musical for Christ sake? Granted, none of the characters start singing and dancing, but they could have and it wouldn't have felt bizarre. The way it's filmed, the colors, the blocking, the framing - it's Gene Kelly splashing through the puddles! Yeah, yeah, it's not as straight forward, the camera occasionally tilts on a somewhat disturbing angle reminding us that, no, this ain't Sesame Street. But more's the better on this score because the more pronouned the technical device the more apparent is the artificiality of the artificial Hood. And that's the dialectic at work, setting the stage for the detonation of the myth, itself a bogus ideological comfort in the first place for white, middle-class, Middle America - and white, wealthy, middle Manhatten too, motherfucker. Main Street my ass! In Kansas. In Brooklyn. Fuck off.
In that documentary about cinematographers - Light and Shadows and Robert McNamara and what? - a segment is devoted to Ernest Dickersen. I have to admit that this struck me as tokenism. I'd have to make a study of him, of course, and, of course again, it would not be fair to compare him with guys who have been in the business for many more years. This said, on the basis of DTRT alone, I want to proclaim that I was full of shit. Dickersen's cinematography is absolutely vital to the power of the film. Still, I do not mean to reduce the latter to the former. There are many other brilliant aspects contributing to the dialectic I have theorized. The characterizations are updated Fat Albert, Bill Cosby's universe being the exemplar of the mythology at hand. Also vital, the soundtrack/score especially comes to mind. Naturally, the use of Public Enemy is no joke but even more outstanding for me is the ersatz Song of the South stuff. More than just ironic - and it's very ironic man - this music is a direct semiotic for the artifice that concerns me, it lulls us to Sleepy Hollow in the ghetto.
Finally, the performances. Rosie Perez and Spike himself are not very good actors, but the film doesn't ask them to play Ophelia and Hamlet, right? They are on top of roles that are much closer to home and it works for me. This may also be the case for much of the cast, probably a solidly New York gang, but who cares because Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee are the real theatrical shit, while Aiello and Turturro are so good, they're invisable. It is the acting that might seem to break with my analysis of the film insofar as it is not obviously a stylized affair. But this is neither here nor there if we keep our eye on the actor's prize of characterization. Neo-realist naturalist from some, full-on craftsmanship from others, the performances are in-your-face credible, bringing hypertrophied characters to life as part of the films overall mission.
Apparently I wrote a short capsule review for this back in the day. Here it is:
"Do the Right Thing's militant tone is established from the moment the opening credits roll, as Rosie Perez gyrates to the sounds of Public Enemy's "Fight the Power." Never less than fascinating, Do the Right Thing has the greatness necessary to embrace its contradictions.
Set on the hottest day of the year in Spike Lee's home turf of Brooklyn, Do the Right Thing strings together a series of vignettes one pearl at a time. There are dozens of speaking parts, and everyone has something interesting to say. DJ Mister Senor Love Daddy tells us to "Waaaake up!" as the activist Buggin' Out (Giancarlo Esposito) tells pizza delivery man Mookie (Lee) to "Stay black." Later, neighbourhood rummy Da Mayor warns Mookie to "always do the right thing." Most of the movie revolves around Sal's pizzeria, run by Sal (Danny Aiello) and his two sons Pino (John Turturro) and Vito.
There are some very funny scenes in this film, but just when you think this might be a comedy, Lee whacks us in the side of the head. In one scene, for example, a series of characters spew a stream of filthy racial epithets that will curl your short hairs. This transposition of laughter and rage yanks us around emotionally, never letting us settle easily into our expectations. Lee wants us to feel uncomfortable, uncertain. How else can we confront our preconceptions and prejudices?
Do the Right Thing climaxes with a riot, where in a defining moment Mookie takes action. But does he "do the right thing?" How you respond to the film may boil down to how you answer that question. The movie ends with two very different messages, one by Martin Luther King Jr., the other by Malcolm X. Lee does not ram one truth down our throats, and is confident enough to allow us to decide for ourselves."
To which I will add:
Your comparison of DTRT to MGM musicals is certainly apt, and Spike Lee displayed in the film he shot just before DTRT, School Daze, his deep affection for this very form. Lee's dad was a jazz musician, and Spike has a strong handle on the all the music composed for his films, but what separates School Daze from his other films is that it is a musical, set in an all-black college. The other difference between SD and DTRT is that School Daze is essentially a (slightly dark) comedy, whereas DTRT is pretty clearly not. Still, it's got similar dynamics, and you'll be happy to hear, Spike develops a solid dialectic in order to explore inter-racial divisions in the college between social classes, between activists and nerds, and between light- and dark-skinned students. Interestingly, white society is pretty much ignored, but that makes some sense given the inter-racial tensions Lee is exploring, and of course the black college setting. Laurence Fishburn represents the dark skinned activist group, whereas Spike himself is the lighter-skinned nerd whose only dream is getting accepted into the college's most popular fraternity. In the end it's not nearly as effective as DTRT, mostly cuz it is lazily constructed (Spike's strength has never been storyline) and some of the humour is more juvenile than incisive, but it's clearly a strong step towards his masterwork.
I'm also feeling your suggestion that the contrast between theatrical form and neo-realist function is a big part of Lee's message here. He recreates the myth in order to destroy it. The film is all bright and beautiful, stunning facades and incredible cinematography, until some of the characters begin challenging the appearance of contentment. The first hints of trouble in paradise arrive with Radio Raheem, with his Robert Mitchum-inspired Love/Hate rings of defiance, and his alliance with the politically-charged Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito). The long-suppressed racist tirades of the all the folks in the neighbourhood hightlights what's happening beneath the placid surface, and anticipates what's to come, but these moments—this includes Radio Raheem's monologue--also acts as a structural break from the realistic depiction of the action on the street up to this point. So again, a moment where Lee reminds us that he is not gonna sit back and simply recreate and idyllic myth of the domesticated black man, the house nigger, he's gonna confront that shit head on. What it lacks in subtlety, it makes up in impact. Goddamned potent filmmaking.
I have more to say about the film, but it's a beautiful day and I must make an effort to get out there and into it. Still, the question remains, does Mookie Do the Right Thing in the movie? Well, does he?
Nice catch on the Night of the Hunter.
I agree with you that DTRT does not ram one truth down our throats. At the same time, the Criterion edition of the film includes a short talk from Lee and he points out that many reviews of the film at the time said it was irresponsible for setting out to incite violent race war. These reviews exlicitly mentioned that the film features the destruction of private (white) property while remaining absolutely silent about the murder of a (black) man by the (white) police. I have put the race facts in parentheses in order to bring forward the class facts, as Lee does in his talk, albeit only in passing. His defense of Mookie actually comes down on the personal level of the character. Lee stresses that Radio Raheem is Mookie's main man and Mookie throws the trash bin through the window in reaction to seeing his best buddy killed. Personally, I do not find this recourse to narrative logic especially convincing. Nevertheless, if it is connected to the larger class observation Lee highlighted about the reviews DTRT received, I am down with it. That is, the fucking reviewers are such running dogs for capital, so much the priests of private property, they can't even begin to recognize that Mookie is a real human being; a complex character with mixed tendencies who strikes out with violence in an already violent circumstance. (Part of the problem, I suspect, comes from Lee's flat acting. If he had registered Mookie's anguish on his face when it becomes clear that Radio is dead, the bourgeois review flunkies might have been more sympathetic.) I know your question is rhetorical, but even so, I reckon Lee might answer it: No, Mookie does not do the right thing. He does the wrong thing. But he does the wrong thing for the right reasons.