Tuesday, August 12, 2014

AFI Top 100: #96 "Do the Right Thing"

Spike Lee in Do the Right Thing (1989)

Slowly but surely, we're counting down the AFI Top 100 movies of all time... This week we've come to #96, the 1989 classic Do the Right Thing. Written, directed, acted—probably even gaffed—by Spike Lee, this controversial and racially charged film tells the story of an eccentric cast of characters living (or working) on a single day in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn.

There are many layers to this film that I, personally, can't relate to—I'll say that first thing. The majority of characters are racial minorities—or minorities to some extent. And while tensions are high, they certainly don't completely segregate themselves based on their race. New York is a melting pot, and so is this community. As the film begins, we meet Mookie (Spike Lee), as he wakes up to sweltering heat on the hottest day of the year.  

Oh yeah.  It's important for you to know just how hot it is the entire movie. It's a component of the story that Lee carefully cultivates, not just in the dialogue, but even in the way the film is shot. The colors are saturated to an extreme, everyone is glistening, and you can't watch this movie without feeling a prickling of sweat break out on your own forehead. What better way to set the stage for tensions to boil over?

Back to the plot. Mookie spends his days working just down the street at a popular pizza joint, Sal's Pizzeria. Sal is an honest, hard-working guy, who also employs his two sons. Youngest son, Pino, and Mookie get along great, but both are easily pushed around by Pino's older brother, Vito.

Vito is a racist, and he doesn't really care who knows it. Yet it's the kind of racism where the person knows their hatred is stupid. Racism acts as a weapon used to "one-up" other people; to try to stop them dead in their tracks. To say, "Hey! You can't get the best of me! I'll just have to knock you down first!"  It's a defense-mechanism. 

Most of the people Vito admires are black—Mookie even makes one of my favorite observations in the film. When trying to level with Vito, Mookie states, "You know deep down inside, I think you wish you were black."

Self-hatred and insecurity are cross-cultural and not race-specific, and they play a big part in Do the Right Thing.  Every character carries with them feelings of inadequacy: Mookie and his inability to provide for his girlfriend and son;  local drunk, Da Mayor, battling to find respect and acceptance;  even Buggin' Out, the instigator of a protest against Sal's Pizzeria for only hanging up pictures of famous white people—even he struggles to find a cause that would give him a sense of importance.

The world these people live in is very small—a narrow, unimportant block in Bed-Stuy. Their lives aren't flashy, even if they do try to prove otherwise by rocking pricey Air Jordan's or carrying around the latest and greatest boombox. Most of the characters just sit on their stoops and spend their days trying to matter to even one person.

And regardless of their efforts, big things are happening in the outside world—fights for racial equality, political struggles—and they can only stand on the periphery with an opinion and plenty to say.

Spike Lee composes a film that gives us the same voyeuristic view of peoples' lives that Hitchcock's Rear Window did. But instead of peering through apartment windows in secret, everyone's lives have just flowed out onto the street. They're out in the open, and just as vulnerable. 

The climax of the film is greatly debated. I won't spoil it for people who haven't seen it, but the boiling point is reached and everything comes to a head around Sal's Pizzeria. Mookie, normally calm, collected, and reasonable, allows his own anger and resentment to influence his decisions. Did Mookie 'do the right thing'? I can't answer this question. But it's undeniable that Lee's film starts this conversation—and no matter how uncomfortable the audience might be with the racial tone of the subject matter, there's no turning away from it.

Something unique that Lee does here (and something he's done frequently in his career since), is using racist language and mentalities to incite a laugh. This movie is really funny. And sometimes you laugh when you feel you shouldn't. By approaching racism in this way, he's not giving it the heavy-handed treatment (*cough*Crash*cough*)—instead, he's showing simultaneously just how ridiculous, and at the same time, deep-seeded, it can be.  

There's so much more I could speak to, but this isn't an essay on the film's perspective on race relations—or its influence (though it's hard not to see continued parallels, considering the tragic events in Ferguson, MO that occurred the same day we watched this film).

Solely as a motion picture, I absolutely believe Do the Right Thing has earned a spot on this AFI Top 100 list. Lee has been notoriously snubbed by film honoring committees—and while it can be argued that filling a cast with characters that can go from 0 to 60 and never land in the middle is only going to alienate viewers, I don't believe that should matter.  

As a director, Lee is a visionary and a true auteur. His style is unique and rarely duplicated—at least successfully. And Do the Right Thing was the start of it all. 

Rating:  ★★★★ / 5 stars

If you want to participate in this weekly movie countdown, feel free to follow along with me! Next Sunday's movie: #95, The Last Picture Show!

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