Today, we launch our new column “Films From The Bucket”, where we will share our thoughts on films that have had a considerable impact on contemporary society dealing with social, political and racial issues.
After everything that has been said lately regarding the #OscarsSoWhite controversy which still continues to make headlines as actors and industry insiders weigh in on the current problems facing the Academy, it seemed almost natural for us to start our column with a controversial, exciting, provocative film by a much discussed director, a film that generated a public uproar upon its release in 1989:
We are talking about Do The Right Thing written and directed by Spike Lee.
This epic dramedy about racial tensions in Brooklyn was famously snubbed by the Academy 25 years ago, and was also excluded from the Cannes Film Festival’s official selection by a jury too afraid of taking a bold stance on the matter.
When the film came out, critics were worried that it would inflame racial hatred and incite riots because of its inherent criticism towards US society and its failing approach towards racial integration. Surely, it was a particular time when Lee decided to make this movie given the increasing rate in hate crimes, just three year after the shocking Howard beach episode. The film’s climactic explosion of interracial violence generated the fear that it could possibly spark a violent reaction by the young African-American audience of the time. In the end, of course, nothing happened.
That same year in 1990, Driving Miss Daisy directed by Bruce Beresford got nine nominations and won Best Picture. A film directed by a white man about a servile black man catering to a narrow-minded white woman. While the only acknowledgement conceded to Do the Right Thing came to nothing more than a nomination for best supporting actor (Danny Aiello) and best original screenplay (Lee). It is no surprise that since then, the iconic African-American filmmaker has always been outspokenly critical about the Academy, which in his opinion fails to properly represent and support minorities working in the film industry.
Last week in an Instagram message, marked with the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, Spike Lee announced he would not attend the Oscar ceremony due to the absence of minorities in all four acting categories for the second year in a row.
Lee’s decision to skip the event was soon shared by actress Jada Pinkett Smith and many other prominent Hollywood personalities.
The purpose here is not to add more kindle to the fire, but merely to use it as a starting point for a discussion on a film that is considered a modern classic.
With its explosive mix of comedy, drama and racial politics, Do the right thing is Spike Lee’s strongest, angriest work and the one that brought him fame and fortune cementing his reputation as one of the most influential African-American filmmakers in the history of American cinema. In fact, it frequently features on lists of the greatest films of all time and in 1999 it was preserved by the US Congress National Film Registry as a “culturally significant” example of 20th century film-making.
Following the epic opening credit sequence featuring Rosie Perez dancing to Public Enemy’s anthem Fight The Power, we are introduced to DJ Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson), who provides commentary and musical soundtrack to the events of the whole film from the window of his broadcast booth.
The story takes place over the course of the hottest day of summer in one block of the multiracial neighbourhood in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant. The catalyst for the action is the heat. The use of colour by cinematographer Ernest R Dickerson with warm tones of yellows and reds is so effective that the audience can actually feel the heat on their skin.
The story is concentrated around Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, owned by Italian American Sal (Danny Aiello) who has been in the neighbourhood for 25 years. Helping him at the pizzeria are his two sons, Pino (John Turturro) who strongly despises blacks and wants to move their business to the Italian neighbourhood; Vito who would like to blend in and be accepted by the black community but is too weak to stand up for himself and young Mookie (played by the director himself), the pizza delivery guy who tries his best to move between the two worlds while keeping an eye on what he cares the most, his weekly pay.
Lee puts a lot of stories and a lot of colourful characters in motion bouncing one another like pinballs, often with hilarious results. This way he manages to give us a humourous, yet raw and realistic, portrayal of New York ‘ghetto life’. There’s Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), a friendly local drunk; Smiley a disabled man with severe speech impediment and Radio Raheem who blasts “Fight the Power “on his boombox wherever he goes. Linking them all together is Mister Senor Love Daddy who seemingly oversees everything in the area.
On such a hot day, the heat and the tensions begin to rise; the residents struggle to keep their cool in the increasingly boiling temperature. Black activist Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) questions Sal about his “Wall of Fame”, a wall decorated with photos of famous Italian-Americans, and defies him to hang some “brothers on the wall” since he is in a black neighbourhood. As might be expected Sal refuses his request and invites him to leave the premises, baseball bat in hand. Bugging Out tries to convince the black community to boycott the pizzeria. Most people are unwilling to do so but this episode still adds to the general discontentment as racial attitudes and prejudices begin to surface.
This is when Mookie and Pino begin arguing over race, leading to the famous “stereotypes” sequence in which the characters spew their worst racial insults into the camera.
Mookie: Pino, f**k you, f**k your f**kin’ pizza, and f**k Frank Sinatra.
Pino: Yeah? Well f**k you, too, and f**k Michael Jackson.
This surreal scene illustrates how racial/ethnic prejudice is something that can hide inside everyone and is not exclusive to white characters; Mookie himself expresses a lot of hostility towards the Italians he lives and works with.
Lee’s point in including this orgy of racist venting is to show how easy it is to spark a full conflagration out of a ridiculous argument in such a social context. This is the turning point of the movie and from here on everything degenerates in a spiral of climactic violence.
The movie runs on emotion, a highly questionable, highly flammable power source. Lee doesn’t take sides, he just shows the facts.
The brilliance of the film lies precisely in its impartiality; in Lee’s suspended judgment towards the actions his characters take. He does not ask us to forgive them, or even to understand everything they do, but he wants us to identify with their fears and frustrations.
The question after Radio Raheem’s death by the hands of the NYPD after Mookie starts the riot by smashing Sal’s shop window with a trash bin is: “Did Mookie do the right thing?” Of course he didn’t, but that’s not the point Lee is trying to make.
Neither Mookie, nor Sal, nor Buggin’ Out are obviously right or obviously wrong. The underlying moral of the film is that nobody does the right thing. However, coming out of this movie what you feel is sympathy for all the characters because they are flawed, like real people, regardless of their ethnicity.
Do The Right Thing doesn’t ask its audiences to choose sides; it is scrupulously fair to both parts, in a story where society itself is not fair. Lee’s agenda is not to incite trouble but to rouse debate and he clearly succeeded in his intention.
Few films have ever dealt with racism as powerfully or as thought provokingly as this one. Like a true artist he takes risks and managed to produce this outstanding piece of work, one that is still as relevant today as it was then.
The debate on Oscar diversity of the past week as well as the extraordinary season of racial tension of the last couple of years of the Obama administration, show that race in the US is still a very sensitive issue. If we compare the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner with the fictional scene where Radio Raheem gets chocked to death by a New York cop (itself inspired by a real incident) we see that not much has changed since 1989.
This is the backdrop of this whole lily-white Oscar furore. People died and keep dying because of race and Hollywood seems not to take notice of this.
The film ends with two diametrically opposed quotes by Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X. One, deprecating violence under any circumstance, while the other justifies it as “intelligence” when in self-defence.
Again it’s up to the audience to work out the contradictions.