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With determination, a clear head and an endless supply of self-confidence, young director Spike Lee became one of the most promising talents of the late 1980s. His Universal picture Do the Right Thing broke down multiple barriers against the expression of political ideas in American films, in an entertaining fashion that sought to engage rather than alienate the general audience.
The opinionated and articulate Spike Lee writes screenplays undeterred by politically correct ideas -- anybody's PC ideas. Do the Right Thing covers a 24 hour period on a particular block in Brooklyn-Bensonhurst. Writer-director Lee populates this black neighborhood with at least two dozen particularized characters, all of whom have issues with their loved ones, their neighbors and the status quo. None have problems vocalizing discontents large or small. Lee's microcosm of America puts the neighborhood under a scorching heat wave, the better to bring tempers and conflicts to boil.
The characters are exaggerated yet too individualized to be stereotypes. Spike Lee plays the main character Mookie, a knock-kneed sports fan that lives with his responsible sister Jade (Joie Lee) but has fathered a son with his girlfriend Tina (Rosie Perez). Mookie delivers for pizzeria owner Sal (top-billed Danny Aiello). He clashes with Sal's angry son Pino (John Turturro), who doesn't understand his father's affinity for the black neighborhood. The folks on the street are a regular chorus of viewpoints. The local drunk Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) has a secret yen for Mother Sister (Ruby Dee), a proud landlord. Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) insists on asserting his identity by blasting out Public Enemy on his boom box, wherever he walks. Young hothead Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito) responds to the heat wave by lodging a protest to Sal: why does Sal decorate his Wall of Honor exclusively with pictures of Italian-Americans? The mentally handicapped Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith) dodders about, hawking pictures of his heroes, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Sweet Dick Willie (Robin Harris) is one of a trio of aging layabouts that sit in the sun trash-talking and complaining about the industrious Korean grocer Sonny (Steve Park). Among the younger crowd of street hipsters is the smart-talking Cee (Martin Lawrence). Variously tolerated or unwelcome on the block are building owner Clifton (John Savage) and obnoxious wise guy Charlie (Frank Vincent). Watching all from his picture window broadcast booth is deejay Mister Señor Love Daddy (Sam Jackson), a voice for peace and harmony among the block's various warring factions.
Lee paints a picture of general discord that, unlike earlier generations of Blaxploitation films, doesn't absolve the black community of its failings. Mookie is irresponsible, lazy and pugnacious, and he's one of the film's most reasonable characters. Although generous in his presentation of Sal, the pizza man who loves his business neighborhood, Lee keeps a firm eye on the black perspective. Like the feisty Korean grocer, Sal came to the block because he couldn't compete with pizzerias in his own ethnic neighborhood; he can't get his air conditioner repaired because servicemen avoid the area. The blacks consider this encroachment, in the same way that they resent Clifton's very presence a white "gentrification". And there's no question that the cops are a negative presence. Lee constructs an entire sequence from the hostile stares traded between the NYPD cruising in their prowl car and the sullen locals who watch them pass.
The flashpoint issues turn out to be petty excuses for violence. Radio Raheem and Buggin Out assault Sal at the same time with loud music and unreasonable demands. Sal reacts, and the chain of events snowballs into a full-blown riot.
In sociological terms, Spike Lee presents an accurate measurement of interracial resentment, from cause to consequences. It's a picture of contradictions, as opposed to a balanced presentation. Although Lee sketches positive portraits of several white characters, he actively seeks to jangle whitebread nerves. Mookie's limited relationship with Tina is guaranteed to raise mainstream hackles against welfare families and uncommitted fathers. Welfare isn't mentioned in the film, but we do wonder where all of these un- or under-employed neighbors get the money for their designer wardrobes. Buggin Out is a troublemaker in search of a fight. And Radio Raheem is a walking collection of white gripes about rude, aggressive blacks with 'tude. Raheem demands license to irritate his neighbors with his blasting boombox; we can easily imagine a visiting rapper telling Raheem to "turn that s___ down".
Lee also refuses to take a standard tack as regards assigning responsibility for the violence. A standard liberal read of the film (forget the conservative view, which would likely prescribe a nuclear weapon) would conclude that the blacks are fully culpable. They push the well-meaning Sal beyond his zone of tolerance and attack the pizzeria as a mob, eventually looting and burning it. What's more, Mookie personally begins the actual riot by tossing a trash can through Sal's window. The black liberal representative Da Mayor sides with calm and sanity. He's swept aside despite the fact that the title motto is one of his dialogue lines. Hostility is so rife on the block that Da Mayor barely gets credit for saving the life of a child. Only Mother Sister understands Da Mayor for what he is.
Spike Lee's idea of a reasoned argument will seem radical to many. In Lee's view the blacks as individuals or a community have a responsibility not to remain calm in the face of generalized injustice. What the police do to Radio Raheem requires a violent reaction, to instill the notion that blacks will not accept the racist status quo. After asserting that a response is necessary, Lee is mature enough to state that the short-term effects will be negative. War lines are more firmly drawn, with Sal no longer on cordial terms with his black neighbors.
The racist Pino voices his hatred of blacks, but Mookie also reacts with racist intent, to the idea that his sister Jade might have a friendly relationship with Sal. Yet Mookie himself is engaged in what many will see as a demeaning relationship with the Puerto Rican Tina. Lee might call this an irreconcilable contradiction, not hypocrisy. Race relations are most clearly expressed by the aggressive Korean shopkeeper Sonny, who turns back the mob by shouting that he's black too. Sonny's not white and he takes a hopeless stand to fight for what's his -- qualities that the mob seems to respect. Do the Right Thing isn't meant to smooth over the racial divide. Spike Lee doesn't see momentary racial harmony as the ultimate goal, or even necessarily desirable. He ends his argument with contradictory quotes from the heroes Martin and Malcolm.
Spike Lee attracted talent from all over the spectrum, and like a studio director of old is already collecting a stock company. White America looked to Lee's pictures both for entertainment and for enlightenment as to the wholesale takeover of mainstream entertainment by talent "of color". Lee discovered the irrepressible Rosie Perez, who "physicalizes" the film's aggression with her title sequence dance, partly performed in boxing gear to fight the power! Giancarlo Esposito often seems like a political cartoon, his hairstyle completing a character who looks like nothing less than a living exclamation point.
Lee's new sensibilities owe little to previous films; it's probable that most of his audience black and white will not relate Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee to the earlier generation of white-produced liberal filmmaking that Lee clearly rejects: No Way Out, Edge of the City, A Raisin in the Sun. Lee's only blatant theft is of Robert Mitchum's "Love / Hate" speech from the classic Night of the Hunter. Radio Raheem's performance of the speech doesn't work with his character, even symbolically. I'd be interested in hearing an explanation of its significance in this context.
Universal's 20th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray of Do the Right Thing really pops in the increased definition and razor-sharp colors of HD. Cinematographer Ernest Dickerson dresses the film in cartoon-panel color, making the supposedly run-down block look rather attractive. As it rained during part of the production schedule, Dickerson had his work cut out maintaining the look of a scorching heat wave: in some high-noon scenes, people don't throw shadows!
Reversing a Universal trend toward skimpy extras, Do the Right Thing offers a pile of added attractions overseen by the clearly proud Spike Lee. His new docu (in HD) rounds up his surviving cast from two decades previous; all hold the picture and Lee in high esteem. Rosie Perez is as confrontationally funny talking to Lee as one would expect. Lee also provides a new commentary, in addition to the disc's older multi-speaker track. A deleted scenes gallery (in HD) is included, along with behind the scenes video, an older making-of docu, an interview with editor Barry Brown, Lee's storyboards for the riot sequence and a videotaped press conference from Cannes in 1989. That adds up to more than four hours of extras.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Do the Right Thing Blu-ray rates:
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