Ashley Clark on Do the Right Thing
On paper, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989)—a modestly budgeted comedy-drama that took place entirely on a single Brooklyn block on the hottest day of the year—might seem a curious fit for the label of “American Epic.” Traditionally, when we think of what constitutes “epic” cinema, we might imagine inflated running times, mega budgets, sweeping vistas, and the leap-frogging of decades. And, if we’re talking specifically about Lee’s oeuvre, isn’t Malcolm X (1992), his 201-minute, $33 million, continent-hopping biopic of the life and times of the eponymous activist and orator, a safer bet for the label in such a retrospective?
If we cast away such generic preconceptions, it soon becomes apparent that the earlier film is the bolder choice. Within the strict temporal and location confines of Do the Right Thing lies a work concerned with tackling the biggest of American themes—race relations, ambition, urban survival, economics, violence, and liberty—on a microcosmic scale. With its thrillingly unorthodox blend of Aristotelian unity and Brechtian artificiality, it locates the big in the small, and the national in the local. Over 120 swift minutes, it assails the viewer with a mixture of character drama, comedy, poetry, music, and then, in its riot finale precipitated by the cops’ murder of young Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), dares to echo SNCC member H. Rap Brown’s darkly diagnostic pronouncement in the 1960s that "violence is as American as cherry pie." (He meant “apple,” but he made his point.) Intended by Lee as an artistic response to the racial tensions in a New York City then under the Mayorship of Ed Koch, the film sparked huge controversy, prompting a host of misguided cultural critics to speculate that it would cause riots. It didn’t, of course, but it struck a nerve because it said more about the state of contemporary race relations, and with more complexity and brazen confidence, than any other film in the American cinema to date.
With so many sensitive, provocative themes and issues jostling for space in its bloodstream, how does Do the Right Thing cohere? The answers are myriad, but the most obvious stares us in the face; viewers seeing the film for the first time on the big screen will immediately notice its vibrant, unified aesthetic sensibility. Cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, a key Lee collaborator who shot the director’s first seven films, was tasked with making the results of an eight-week, often-rainy shoot look convincingly like one scorching day, and he succeeded beautifully. With visual nods to the boldly colorful tableaux of key twentieth-century African-American painters Jacob Lawrence and especially Romare Bearden, Dickerson crafts a poetically heightened version of a recognizable urban location (Bedford-Stuyvesant) through expressive use of space and light. Heat is conveyed through vivid oranges, yellows and particularly reds; the wall behind the triumvirate of squabbling corner men (among them the late, great Robin Harris) is one of the reddest reds in all of cinema, matching William Eggleston’s famous photograph Red Ceiling (1973) for sensory shock. Ruth E. Carter’s day-glo costumes add to the visual candy, though they are perhaps the single component which dates the film significantly.
It takes 20 fairly laconic minutes for Lee to introduce us to the film’s large, lively ensemble cast, but its serious political engagement is apparent from the very opening moments, in which an instrumental rendition of the Negro spiritual “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (the African-American national anthem) segues into the juddering clarion call of Public Enemy’s anthem “Fight the Power”—the effect a polyphonic bridge between old and new forms of protest. As best exemplified by the recurrent use of the New York rappers’ song, some of the film’s politics are unambiguous. With the film’s climax inspired by the 1983 killing of NYC graffiti artist Michael Stewart at the hands of the NYPD, there is no room for interpretation of the pre–closing credit dedication to the families of seven African-Americans murdered in preceding years. Neither can we doubt the genuineness of the call from local DJ Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson) for New Yorkers to get out and vote for mayoral candidate David Dinkins (who went on to succeed Koch in 1990); Lee was a vociferous supporter. Elsewhere, however, the director leaves the politics deliberately, provocatively ambiguous.
Lee is fond of a dialectical approach to addressing issues, the most obvious (and most critically chewed-over) example of which is found in the closing use of a pair of quotes from the two most prominent African-American political figures of the 20th century, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, containing their contrasting views on the use of violence. But this irresolution runs through the rest of the film like silk. Take agitator Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito), who could be seen as an avatar for the aggression and lack of political focus of the late ’60s Black Power movement (he wears a small Black Power pendant); then again, his plot-catalyzing fury at the lack of black faces on the wall of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, and subsequent wish to boycott the restaurant betray both a keen awareness of the importance of local cultural agency, and an adherence to Kingian forms of African-American protest (the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955-6). In short, he wants to hit Sal where it hurts: the pocket. Because the film is so deeply rooted in character, its Brechtian “epic theater” elements (including numerous fourth-wall breaks and political slogans placed strategically in the frame) are never allowed to override the human drama. One of the film’s most underplayed micro-tragedies concerns Italian-American pizzeria owner Sal (Danny Aiello), and the absolute disinterest exhibited by his sons in continuing his family business—a business he built 25 years ago with his bare hands, presumably the son of immigrants in search of the American dream.
Being an American epic, Do the Right Thing is necessarily preoccupied with capitalism—after all, money is the practical cornerstone of any serious bid for the attainment of that elusive, aforementioned American dream. To “get paid” is all Mookie (Lee, proving a surprisingly effective de facto leading man)—pizza delivery guy, feckless boyfriend/father, affable everyman—wants to do. Counting dollars is the first and last action we see the character perform. Here, Lee elides the boundaries between star, director and his public personae. Some sniffy pundits charged him with accusations of “corporate populism” at the time, the irony being that Lee, an unabashed capitalist who’d already developed a public brand and made many commercials with Nike, would never think to receive such slights as criticisms. Consider the playfully double-edged scene in which Buggin’ Out has his Air Jordans scuffed (in extreme close-up, no less) by a passing cyclist; it operates as a simultaneous sending-up of this vainglorious character and no doubt a lucrative spot of product placement. Lee, unlike, say, the filmmakers associated with the ‘L.A. Rebellion’ movement who made stark, poetic works about the travails of everyday life in the area’s African-American community (Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts), wanted, needed his films to be seen and discussed by the masses. A true American showman, Lee’s masterstroke with Do The Right Thing was to deploy all the characteristics associated with an uncomplicated good time at the cinema—it’s funny, has an attractive cast and a marketable soundtrack crammed with popular hits—as a Trojan horse for incendiary political content.
The passage of time has only seen Do the Right Thing’s status as an American classic increase. It’s referenced continually in popular culture, taught in colleges and universities across the country, and frequently appears on best-of-decade lists. Perhaps the key reason for its reputation lies in its prescience, a corollary of its honesty in not professing to know the answers to the urgent questions it raised about contemporary American life. Sadly, as exemplified by the 2009 killing by police of handcuffed black teenager Oscar Grant in California (now dramatized in Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station), that fact that contemporary filmmakers are still having to pore over the unresolved injustices of Koch-era New York (Ken Burns’s The Central Park Five), and the current division of a nation over the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman trial, it seems that America’s race relations may not be in a discernibly healthier state than in 1989, when Lee made his defining artistic statement.
Do the Right Thing showed at Museum of the Moving Image on Saturday, July 13, 2013, at 4:45 p.m., as part of the series See it Big: The American Epic.