Friday, August 5, 2011

DO THE RIGHT THING


(June 1989, U.S.)

I suppose I'll start out by making one thing very plain, and that's this - twenty years ago, if you'd asked me what my single favorite film of the 1980s was, I'd have told you DO THE RIGHT THING. Ten years ago, if you'd asked me what my single favorite film of the 1980s was, I'd have told you DO THE RIGHT THING. And if you came up to me on the street tomorrow and asked me, "Hey, Eric, what's your single favorite film of the 1980s?", I'd still tell you "DO THE RIGHT THING"...and that's the truth, Ruth (that was corny, but effective!)!

If you know even just a little bit about Spike Lee's third film, then you know there's lots to talk about. First, take it's release into consideration; a small slice-of-Brooklyn-life film released during a summer dominated by the likes of Batman, Indiana Jones, James Bond and Star Trek. How it ever even got noticed during such a mix of blockbuster material is beyond me. On a more personal level, it was not an easy film for me to take it because it was around during a time when I was going to school in Brooklyn, and frankly, absolutely miserable in that city. Then, of course, there's the obvious controversy surrounding its racial content, which doesn't exactly rear its ugly head from the very beginning. It's a little more gradual than that. Spike Lee, in addition to director, plays Mookie, young man living in a black neighborhood in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn with his sister and works as a pizza delivery man for the local pizzeria. Salvatore "Sal" Frangione (played by Danny Aiello), the pizzeria’s Italian-American owner, has owned it for twenty-five years and has never had any trouble with the locals. His older son, Pino (played by John Turturro), "detests the place like a sickness" and holds racial contempt for the neighborhood blacks, which he's constantly referring to as n-- (I won't say it!). The streets of this Brooklyn neighbothood are filled with distinct personalities, most of whom are just trying to find a way to deal with the intense summer heat and go about their regular day-to-day activities. There's a very non-linear style used to learn about who each of them are and the social attitudes they have toward each other and other races in general. There's an unforgettable montage which depicts selected members of the community voicing their racial anger toward a specific group with an onslaught of successive insults hurled at the movie audience watching them. The montage abruptly ends when the local radio DJ, Mister Senior Love Daddy (played by Samuel L. Jackson) orders them to just stop. It's actually quite a brilliant thing to watch.

As mentioned, the hottest day of the summer starts off pretty standard. We know who these people are and we know which ones are filled with anger and hate. As the day wears on, the anger begins to manifest itself into more detailed circumstances and confrontations, particulary over a series of pictures of Italian-American celebrities that hang on the wall of Sal's. A local young man is demanding pictures of black people on the wall, too, since all of Sal's customers are black (personally, it doesn't sound like such an unreasonable request to keep peace with the neighbors). By nightime, all still appears to be normal in the neighborhood and it looks like Sal and his family may just close up for the day without incident. That is, until two angry young men storm into the pizzeria voicing their demands about the pictures. Anger turns to shouting, shouting turns to fighting, fighting turns to street brawling and street brawling results in the police choke-hold murder of a young man named "Radio" Raheem (played Bill Nunn). Even more frightening than the neighborhood riot that breaks out as a result of this is the moments of pause and tension before it actually starts. The residents are angered and outraged, and for a short time, we're not entirely sure of what they're going to do. One can almost assume or predict that they'll all get past this peacefully until the moment when Mookie picks up a garbage can and hurls it through Sal's pizzeria window. That's it! Civil humanity has just come crashing down and all Hell's about to break loose in the streets of Brooklyn. Whether it's justified or not is completely up to you. Perhaps you'll recall Howard Beach in 1986. Spike Lee does.

Finally, one particular question at the end of the film is whether or not Mookie actually 'does the right thing' when he throws the garbage can through the window, thus inciting the riot that destroys Sal's pizzeria. It can be argued that Mookie's action actually saves Sal's life by redirecting the crowd's anger away from Sal himself and onto his property instead. It can also be argued that Mookie's action is irresponsible encouragement to enact the violence that ensues. The question is directly raised by the contradictory quotations that end the film, one by Martin Luther King advocating non-violence, the other by Malcom X advocating violent self-defense in response to violent oppression.

I'll say it one final time - I consider Spike Lee's DO THE RIGHT THING the single best film of the 1980s!

Favorite line or dialogue:

Mookie: "Dago, wop, guinea, garlic-breath, pizza-slingin', spaghetti-bendin', Vic Damone, Perry Como, Luciano Pavarotti, Sole Mio, non-singin' motherfucker!"
Pino: "You gold-teeth-gold-chain-wearin', fried-chicken-and-biscuit-eatin', monkey, ape, baboon, big thigh, fast-runnin', high-jumpin', spear-chuckin', three-hundred-sixty-degree-basketball-dunkin' titsun spade Moulan Yan. Take your fuckin' piece-a-pizza and go the fuck back to Africa!"
Stevie: "You little slanty-eyed, me-no-speaky-American, own-every-fruit-and-vegetable-stand-in-New-York, bullshit, Reverend Sun Myung Moon, Summer Olympics '88, Korean kick-boxing son of a bitch!"
Officer Long: "You Goya bean-eating, fifteen in a car, thirty in an apartment, pointed shoes, red-wearing, Menudo, meda-meda Puerto Rican cocksucker. Yeah, you!"
Sonny: "It's cheap, I got a good price for you, Mayor Koch, "How I'm doing," chocolate-egg-cream-drinking, bagel-and-lox, B'nai B'rith Jew asshole!"
Mister Senior Love Daddy: "Yo! Hold up! Time out! TIME OUT! Y'all take a chill! Ya need to cool that shit out! And that's the double truth, Ruth!"

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