Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Most of my heroes don't appear on no stamps (Do the Right Thing)

I’ve been at this whole 1001 Movies Blog Club pursuit for a couple years now, and yet I still feel that same kneejerk reaction almost every time I review a movie that was widely released in the U.S. any time after I turned 12: how did I originally miss this flick, and how did it take me so long to get around to it? The answers never really change, revolving around never considering myself a true cinephile or behaving like one, and my viewing habits being constrained more to the fantasy/sci-fi/geeky end of the spectrum by dint of my predilections and there only being so many hours in a day. Formal education broadened my horizons with respect to literature, and made me more likely to pick up novels and non-fiction books that were outside my wheelhouse (and, somewhat synonymously, respectable) but movies steadfastly remained my pure escapist form of entertainment. Hence the massive amounts of catching up I have to do.

So, here we are, taking a look at Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing nearly 25 years after its theatrical release. I kind of, sort of, vaguely remember some of the cultural ripples that the movie caused back then, when I was a freshman in high school. Growing up in the Jersey suburbs orbiting the star of New York City, I was certainly immersed in the ongoing consideration of that city and its significance, so a movie about Bed-Stuy’s ethnic communities and how they related to one another was bound to garner some attention. The fact that the movie was written and directed by a young black man, which in and of itself was (and is today) a novelty, only fueled the public interest more, if not in actually paying for a ticket and seeing the movie, then in discussing what impact it would or should have.

Again, this is all kind of hazily distant for me to give a good firsthand account of, and it’s no doubt greatly distorted by my adult perspective and a good bit of intervening history (both personal and national), but I do remember it being somewhat shocking that anyone would make a movie which was directly, unapologetically focused on racial interaction (or more pointedly, racial divides) and which furthermore was not altogether positive and did not have a happy, status-quo-affirming ending. I’m speaking in generalities here, but I can’t possibly overstate how sheltered and relatively unpolitical I was at age 14. I knew racism was bad, and I didn’t think of myself as racist, and I assumed most people were like me, and I assumed America was on balance (if not entirely) a virtuous civilization. Any more nuanced understanding than that was pretty much beyond me. I got the gist of Do the Right Thing being controversial, somehow, but I probably couldn’t have articulated why, exactly.

I am (one would fervently hope) a little more aware of society’s shortcomings (and my own) these days, and I can understand a little better what Do the Right Thing represented. We were a full generation past the civil rights struggles and while the laws on the books had changed, the attitudes in people’s hearts were slower to evolve. Child of privilege that I am, I’m forever hesitant to attempt a claim at understanding the minority experience, even if I intend it as a sign of simple human solidarity. But I do imagine there must be an incredible amount of frustration, especially at a moment in time like 1989. Well-intentioned progressives wanted to keep patting themselves on the back for what had been accomplished already towards the goal of racial harmony, and continue working towards modest incremental gains. Conservatives, as always, felt that things had already changed too much and all for the worse. And along comes this 32-year-old firebrand using a major motion picture (distributed by Universal!) to express an overwhelming feeling of being sick of it all, that things hadn’t changed enough and weren’t necessarily getting any better any time soon. However much truth there was in that (and I suspect the answer is a lot) it was still horrifying to both sides of the white population, with bleeding hearts afraid that it was rocking the boat in a counterproductive way and reactionaries seeing confirmation that it’s always us versus them, they insist on perceiving themselves as victims, and they are now advocating violent riots.

It’s all more than a little sad, that people on all sides would lose their mind over a movie, particularly a movie which goes to great lengths to establish that its narrative takes place over the course of the hottest day of the year, which provides a great deal of cover for everything being exaggerated as everyone is tense and on edge, literally overheated in a physical way that spills over into rhetoric. Young, brash Spike Lee wanted to explore some of his own ideas about his hometown, his country, the world and times he lived in, and everyone freaked out. Because he was black? Because of what he was saying? Both? Other, more complicated factors? How far beyond all of those questions and their disturbing answers (or lack thereof) have we gotten over the course of yet another generation? Maybe not very far, which is also more than a little sad.

Going into viewing Do the Right Thing, I assumed that it’s inclusion as a Must-See was due mainly if not exclusively to all of the above. Black directors are too rare, films with mainly minority casts are too rare, films that deal explicitly with race in America are too rare, and thus a representative sampling of cinema should include those things whenever possible. I had previously seen Malcolm X and 25th Hour, so I knew that Spike Lee could deliver a great movie, at least when someone as rock-solid as Denzel Washington or Edward Norton was in the lead. Directing and starring in the movie himself I was less sure about, but by virtue of the fact that Do the Right Thing came early in Lee’s career and launched him into the stratosphere, I could buy into its canon-worthiness.

So what surprised me the most about the movie was how distinctive a stylist Lee proves to be behind the camera. There’s a consistent look to the shot composition throughout the film that gives Do the Right Thing a lot of unique personality. Three kinds of shots stood out to me: crazy canted angles (or, as I like to think of them, Batman angles); two characters talking to each other, both in profile, one on the far left side of the screen and one on the far right; and shots from the POV of one character while they are being addressed by another, so that the speaker is talking directly to the camera. And these aren’t just visual flourishes for their own sake, they each serve in their own way to underscore the themes that the script is trying to convey. Everyone has their own perspective, and even if someone else’s way of looking at things might seem skewed by several degrees to me, that doesn’t mean we aren’t both looking at the same thing. When two people are talking, you can take sides and give one more weight than the other, or you can try to put everything on a level playing field with some equanimity. And if you are the person talking, supposedly exchanging ideas with another human mind in conversation, are you really open to that exchange? Or are you performing a monologue?

Do the Right Thing is aptly named. Whether the title comes across as a gentle, sensible reminder or a scolding rebuke probably rests on the person reading or hearing it. It’s not a fun, feel-good movie; if anyone can relate to Mookie or Buggin’ Out or Radio Raheem (or pick a character, really) then they may find it a source of catharsis or validation, and if not, then they may feel alienated or even attacked, or else feel a certain guilt in recognizing their own shortcomings. But I think it’s important to remember that it’s not intended to be a definitive statement about anything, to be judged as a success or a failure based on what it proves or disproves on its own. It’s intended to be part of a discussion, one which our society isn’t particularly good at having and doesn’t necessarily want to have, but a necessary one all the same. When two mindsets meet, they can wall themselves off from one another, or they can engage and change, and the latter option is the only way that growth is possible. Promoting that vital idea in and of itself gives Do the Right Thing its deserved place in any kind of positive talk about cinema.

P.S. To My Fellow Blog Clubbers: I’m still not a big fan of Night of the Hunter, but I was entirely grateful to have that movie under my belt when encountering the scene in Do the Right Thing where Radio Raheem does an extended riff (yet another direct-to-camera monologue) homaging the story of the Right Hand of Love and the Left Hand of Hate. All of pop culture’s a chain, and everything’s connected.

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