Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Review of Do The Right Thing (1989)

Might it seem like needless agitprop if I were to say that Spike Lee's 1989 masterpiece "Do The Right Thing" is an incendiary film? It's the only word that seems to fit. That, and "explosive". From the opening credits sequence where two young woman dance on an entirely red-lit street to Public Enemy's confrontational "Fight The Power" (a song which recurs throughout the film), to the finale in which race relations culminate in a literally scorching showdown, this was a word which constantly sprung to mind. This is a film that threatens to blow up, right in your face, from opening frame to last. It's exciting, funny, thrilling, a little scary, and never less than utterly compelling.

The plot is a loose, raggedy collection of snippets and vignettes centring around a group of people living in Brooklyn on the hottest day of the year. In places it resembles the film equivalent of an Ornette Coleman improvised jazz piece. We get to know a few familiar faces, such as Danny Aiello's "Sal", who owns a pizzeria, Ossie Davis' "Mayor", Giancarlo Esposito's "Buggin Out", and Lee's own "Mook" (a Lee trademark seems to be odd names, which I quite like. It's a further sign of his originality). Their relations are the core of this film, and in particular Sal's position as a white man (strictly speaking, Italian American) running a business in a predominantly black neighbourhood is the cause of some ire (to some, but by no means to all). When Buggin' walks into the pizzeria and asks why there are no pictures of "brothers" on the wall, only Italian Americans, Sal shoots back that it's his business, his ethnic heritage, and he'll do what he wants with the pictures on the wall. Lee details with equal ferocity both sides of the argument, and I understood where Sal was coming from, and where Buggin' was coming from.

To highlight this fraught state of affairs, Lee is careful to heavily underline the heat of the film, reflecting the political content. He shoots the film so we believe it; sweat, vests, melting ice-cubes, newspaper headlines, streets blurring like a desert mirage, parasols. See, it's incendiary. Lee creates such an immediate sense of place that from the very opening shot, we are hooked. We are there, and Lee has put us there.

His cinematic style reinforces this. As Roger Ebert once said, "[Lee] dances to his own music", and this is in evidence here with his method that is truly, only, his own, using a smorgasbord of techniques, such as tilts, zooms, fourth-wall breaking, moments where the camera resembles a tableaux, and other moments where the camera can't seem to contain itself. This film is wonderfully, thrillingly, alive. It's also populated with characters who are just that, larger than life, funny, and real. Exacerbated by the heat, the characters bounce about, shout and swear, and rub off on each other. Lee creates a friction that you know will only result in sparks later on.

Yet, to explain the technical merits of this film, and there are many, would only be doing half a job. Lee has made an inherently political film, about the state of race-relations in late 80's America, and to watch this film is to address that. Lee doesn't really give you much choice otherwise.

As an 18 year old, white, little-C conservative and big-L liberal living in the South of England, a place hardly known for its multiculturalism (UKIP are kinda popular here, although we do have some excellent Polish groceries), what I took from the film is this; harmony between races is a joint effort, and probably not something that can happen overnight. In fact, literally not overnight, which perhaps explains why Lee turns his "day-in-the-life" into a "day-and-morning-in-the-lifer" by the end. But it's not an impossible goal. The final scene of the film, where Mook and Sal, after arguing, convey a certain understated care for each other, is the biggest clue, and seems to indicate that whilst things can sometimes blow-up, it's all part of the ebb and flow of life and the journey towards assimilation of cultures.

Or maybe I've got it completely wrong. Maybe Lee is providing a depressing eulogy on the future of harmonious living. There's a telling shot near the close, as the whole neighbourhood descends into tumult, where Lee's character sits on a sidewalk, and simply looks tired. Being the director, you cannot overlook the significance of his moment. It could well be that instead of being hopeful, Lee is instead wistful, sad. Perhaps that's the overarching theme; that this situation is completely undesirable, exhausting, yet not going away.

It's certainly a film that can be argued over, and some people have even accused Lee himself of racism. I would disagree, although I would say that Lee is an angry film-maker, using that anger to direct a film that understands there are no easy answers. Yet his anger is justified, for me, because I do firmly believe that it is the right of every culture to have self-determination and representation in all media. I must thus confess to finding this film fascinating in a way that the best films are, because it showed me something I had never seen before, and something I may very well not see otherwise. It showed me a whole, living culture, a part of American history, and as a social document it allowed me to witness one of the most, well, incendiary situations in recent memory. Argue what you like about the film, but for me it highlights the greatest capacity that film has; education.

It helps, of course, that Lee proves himself an auteur with a style as distinctive as any of the greats I could name. The rest of his body of work lies before me like an adventure waiting to be had.

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