Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #25: Do the Right Thing

I'm a cinephile. Studied film in college and got to review movies for a TV station (don't get excited; it was way back in the 20th century). My Netflix queue swelled to over 400 titles in 2013, so, for 2014, I gave myself an assignment: watch 50 films that I've never seen before and write something about them. I'll be watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years.

Do the Right Thing
 (released June 1989)

Roger Guenveur Smith as Smiley in Do the Right Thing

Here's the original theatrical trailer...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: The knockout four-minute opening credit sequence of Do the Right Thing features "Fight the Power," a confrontational and anthemic song by Public Enemy, the legendary hip hop group. It's a protest song filled with rhetoric calling on the oppressed to "fight the powers that be," as well as dismissive references to Elvis Presley and John Wayne. As it plays, Rosie Perez (her first film role) does a mesmerizing angry-erotic interpretive dance on an ominously theatrical New York City street set. It's an audacious, in-your-face kickoff that immediately suggests you're in the hands of a fiercely ambitious filmmaker -- that would be Spike Lee, who wrote, produced, directed and stars.

Do the Right Thing takes place on the hottest day of the year in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, New York. As the movie begins, the neighborhood's residents -- a diverse mix of African Americans, Italians, Puerto Ricans and Koreans -- go about their business, intersecting in alternately funny and adversarial ways that play out somewhat like an edgy, super-adult version of Sesame Street. The film's ostensible protagonist is Mookie (played by Spike Lee), a delivery man for a popular pizzeria run by Sal (Danny Aiello) and his sons, Pino and Vito. One of Mookie's friends, an instigator named Buggin' Out, decides to confront Sal about the "Wall of Fame" in his restaurant -- a space devoted to framed photographs of famous Italian Americans, like Frank Sinatra and Al Pacino (even Liza Minnelli!). Buggin' Out argues that since Sal's pizzeria is in a predominantly African American neighborhood with primarily African American patrons, there should be some brothers on the wall. Sal responds by saying that it's his pizzeria and he gets to honor whomever he chooses. The dispute intensifies, but Mookie escorts Buggin' Out from the premises before things get too ugly. It's a slyly prankish but perceptibly tense scenario that adroitly forces you to have a quick conversation in your head: Am I supposed to take sides? Who's right and who's wrong here? What would I do in the same situation? Moments later, Mookie's first pizza delivery of the day is interrupted by his neighborhood's affable old alcoholic, Da Mayor (Ossie Davis). He imparts this advice to Mookie: "Always do the right thing."

As the sweltering hot day progresses, a rich cast of characters appear. A droll cop and his macho partner. A stuttering, mentally-challenged young man selling photographs of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. The impatient Korean grocers who just want you to buy something and move along. A boom box toting dude who's determined to share his music with the inhabitants of his small world. A Greek Chorus of black men who occupy one corner all day, discussing, among other things, the fact that the two most successful businesses in the neighborhood are run by Italians and Koreans. An old woman who's seen it all and is exhausted by it. And then there's Mookie's girlfriend Tina (Rosie Perez), who just wants him to grow up and take an interest in their toddler son. As the heat affects everyone to varying degrees, amusing bits are juxtaposed with flaring tempers, seething frustrations and blatantly racist rants.

There's a deceptively loose, almost episodic structure to Do the Right Thing, but all those raw nerves and expertly drawn racial tensions are building to something. And when that something comes, it's a visceral moment that culminates in a shocking death on the street. A crowd gathers, stinging confrontations escalate and then Mookie makes a decision that will either confound you or rouse you; chaos ensues. The entire sequence is 15 minutes of harrowing, hold-your-breath filmmaking. Spike Lee pulls no punches. He gives you an unflinching, closeup view of the kind of incidents that most people only know about from tendentious snippets on the evening news.

As an exploration of racism, Do the Right Thing has nothing in common with Hollywood claptrap like Crash or Driving Miss Daisy, two unremarkable films that undeservedly won Oscars for Best Picture. Crash is undermined by a series of implausible coincidences that add up to nothing more than the non-revelation that racism is a bad thing. And Driving Miss Daisy, despite two fine central performances by Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman, is terrified of offending anybody. In contrast, white critics literally feared that Do the Right Thing would incite violence in black moviegoers simply because the movie depicts violence in an excruciatingly real way. It must have really surprised these critics when African Americans all around the country saw the film and left the theater without setting it on fire or killing an usher. Side note: Spike Lee rightfully criticized reviewers and op-ed writers for implying that black audiences were incapable of restraining themselves while watching a fictional motion picture. (Leave it to white people to think that a movie would incite riots, as opposed to centuries of institutionalized racism.)

Released 25 years ago, Do the Right Thing has become one the most debated films ever made. But beyond the unprecedented treatment of the subject matter, it's an amazing, kinetic blend of theatricality and shattering realism. Ernest R. Dickerson's cinematography is outstanding. Spike Lee makes consistently interesting directorial choices, including provocative camera angles and having many of his actors deliver portions of their dialogue directly to the camera in a way that feels completely natural. There are some notable veterans in the cast  -- Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee and Danny Aiello in an Oscar-nominated role. Spike Lee is convincing as Mookie, wisely refraining from making the character ingratiating. And there are some standout performances among the eclectic mix of newcomers, too. Roger Guenveur Smith is affecting as Smiley, a mentally-challenged resident of the block; Giancarlo Esposito goes big and gets under your skin as the reactionary Buggin' Out, and John Turturro is bristling and loathsome as Sal's aggressively racist son, Pino. I especially admire Turturro's performance because a lot of actors would have looked for a moment to soften the edge's of a character this contemptible -- he doesn't.

Considering the low budget, location shooting and the fact that Spike Lee was directing, producing and acting, this production had to have been a high-wire act. Do the Right Thing was only Lee's third feature film, but he's in full command of his craft. Plus, he managed to get a major studio (Universal) to release a film that completely ignores any traditional Hollywood template in the summer, which is not exactly the time of year when people go to movies that might make them think. He never interjects any cheap preachiness about these characters or their actions, and the denouement doesn't tidy up a single thing. He didn't even have to change the film's final images:  two conflicting quotes by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, the most prominent civil rights leaders of their time. As far as I could tell, Spike Lee made only one definitive assertion with this movie: "always do the right thing" is easier said than done. Unfortunately, Do the Right Thing got no love from the Academy Awards. It lost in both categories for which it was nominated (Supporting Actor for Aiello and Original Screenplay for Lee). The Academy took a safer route by selecting Driving Miss Daisy as the year's best picture.

Stray Gay Observations: Well, leave it to a big homo like me to notice what the characters in a movie like Do the Right Thing are wearing. Ruth E. Carter's costumes suggest the late 1980s without making it seem as though the film is permanently stuck there. That couldn't have been easy.

While it's surely true that Spike Lee inspired a lot of African American filmmakers, what does it say about us (and by us, I mean Americans) that the most successful black filmmaker today is Tyler Perry, a man who makes godawful melodramas (Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor) and so-called comedies that involve him getting into drag to play a large, overreactive, randomly vindictive, gun-toting elderly woman named Madea. Jesus. Seriously. Jesus.

Should You See It? I picked Do the Right Thing because I noticed it was the film's twenty-fifth anniversary and I wondered if all the original controversy about it would still make sense. Aside from a few cultural references from the era, Do the Right Thing does not feel dated at all. It may depict the fictional events of one day in one neighborhood a quarter of a century ago, but it all feels like something that could have happened somewhere last week and will certainly happen in America's future. I grew up in the South and have lived here almost my entire life, so I've witnessed a lot of overt racism. Yet, Do the Right Thing was a genuinely startling, enthralling and unsettling experience; I was surprised by the grief it brought up for me. It's easily the most worthwhile movie I've ever seen about race in America.

With Do the Right Thing, I'm halfway through this series about movies I've never seen before. I've really enjoyed many (in fact, most) of the films I've already watched. But this is the first time I've sincerely regretted not getting around to a movie sooner. I wish I'd seen it 25 years ago in a theater, surrounded by an audience. I'll bet it was electrifying.

Also... If this movie came out today, I can't imagine it being any less polarizing and controversial than it was 25 years ago. Conservative radio hosts would be apoplectic. Every Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives would blame Obama for its existence. And there'd be some serious pants pissing over at Fox News.

Next Week: Sunset Boulevard (1950)

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