In Do The Right Thing (opening on June 30), filmmaker Spike Lee does the right thing, the wrong thing, and finally everything. This immensely skillful, humane, and richly detailed movie about racism in New York suffers from trying to satisfy everyone - black, white, middle class, and “street.” It’s a comedy that ends in tragedy; a spectacle of black victimization by whites and white victimization by blacks; a demonstration of the pointlessness of violence that is also a celebration of violence. Confusing? Do The Right Thing is going to create an uproar - in part because Lee, a middle class black hoping to capture the anger of the underclass, is thoroughly mixed up about what he’s saying.
Much of the movie, which is set on a single block in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant section, is genial and fond-hearted. But Lee, who both writes and directs, lays the groundwork, in many small, sandpapery confrontations between black and white characters, for disaster. The explosion at the end of the movie, an outburst intimate in scale but truly frightening, should divide the audience, leaving some moviegoers angry and vengeful, others sorrowful and chastened. Divided himself, Lee may even be foolish enough to dream, alternately, of increasing black militance and of calming it. But if Spike Lee is a commercial opportunist, he’s also playing with dynamite in an urban playground. The response to the movie could get away from him.
After making the lovely erotic comedy She’s Gotta Have It in 1986, Lee could have pleased a great many moviegoers by cultivating his charming satirical talent in a series of small, fashionable pictures. But instead, two years later he tried something messy and ambitious - School Daze, a sort of race-consciousness musical in which groups of dark- and light-skinned blacks at a southern black college danced and sang out their arguments over assimilation. School Daze was disorganized and muddled; I found it hard to sit through, yet I admired Lee’s courage and also his determination to find some flexible and open-ended form for what he was trying to say. He rejects the stiff earnestness of most politically “engaged” filmmaking. He wants to become - if such a thing is possible - a lyricist of racial tension.
In Do The Right Thing, Lee doesn’t mount musical numbers, but, allowing for a didactic or sentimental line here or there, the first three quarters of the movie has the jumping vitality and buoyant, light touch of a good musical. The single-block setting recalls the tenement plays and studio-bound movies of the thirties and forties, though this movie was actually shot on an actual Bed-Stuy street with brownstones and rubble, and features language never heard in those entertainments. Through a long hot day, the neighborhood regulars come out of the background, make a few jokes, blow off steam, then recede. Cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, whose black-and-white work made She’s Gotta Have It so elegant to look at, shoots this time in bold, bright colors, producing the look of a glaring, reddened summer light. And Spike Lee weaves his anecdotes together in a casual “simultaneous” structure, so that at any one moment we seem to be taking the pulse of the entire neighborhood. All the same, the movie builds inexorably to its climax.
The center of Do The Right Thing is a corner store, Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, run by Italians who drive in from Bensonhurst in their old Eldorado. Sal (Danny Aiello) is a tough patriarch proud of the business he has built up over the decades and unafraid of the black hostility gathering in the neighborhood. A big, solid man, he feels a rough affection for black people, and not just because they are his customers. “These kids grew up on my food,” he boasts. The imposing, heavy-browed Aiello has blustered his way through some of his movie roles, but this time he gives a full-scaled, emotionally expansive performance; he makes Sal a hot-tempered but generous man who’s been through a lot and doesn’t panic easily. Sal dominates his two grown sons. The older, Pino (John Turturro), is an Italian tribal racist, venomous, soulless, irrational, a man humiliated by working among “niggers”; his brother, Vito (Richard Edson), has black friends and is ready to accommodate.
Sal and his two sons run a thriving business in a black neighborhood where many people are just barely getting by. Among the loafers and unemployed, there are three middle-aged clowns - the Corner Men - sitting at their post, chairs against a wall, beached, immobile, excoriating one another and themselves with the scandal of their defeat. The great powerhouse Ossie Davis also is on hand to play a philosophical old drunk, “da mayor” (i.e. the neighborhood conciliator), a ponderously sentimental role that only Davis could have saved from embarrassment.
Lee doesn’t caricature the whites, and in his treatment of the older black characters he shows an appreciation for rumpled and messed-up people - people who have lost something or failed but still have good words to say. The younger men on the block, however, are stupider - fools, really. Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), a bruiser with a woodblock face, carries his boombox everywhere, refusing as a matter of pride to turn the thing down; his whole life is his blaster. Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito), a yammering, high-pitched advocate of “black consciousness” is obsessed with the pictures of Italians - Frank Sinatra, Al Pacino - on the wall at Sal’s. Why can’t there be pictures of blacks? His voice burns the air like hot electric wires.
These young black men are meant to be infantile, and so is Mookie, played by Lee himself, who delivers Sal’s pizzas to the neighborhood, racing around in his Brooklyn Dodgers jersey and shorts. Mookie, who gets along with everybody, cross-pollinates the block, visiting, revving up, carrying information. He’s also a minor league trickster and liar, playing games with his Hispanic girlfriend, Tina (Rosie Perez), who raises his little son and who scorches him with foulmouthed scorn whenever he drops in for a quickie.
Mookie cools her down by running an ice cube all over her body (the camera shares his enjoyment). He’s a good natured man looking for a little pleasure around the edges of his irritation. All the characters live with dissatisfaction; life may not be great for them, but it has its moments. The worst thing is that people get on one another’s nerves, though Lee’s version of a poor neighborhood is considerably sanitized, without rampaging teenagers, muggers, or crack addicts. The block has its chronicler and its troubadour, an FM disc jockey, Mister Señor Love Daddy, who broadcasts from a brownstone facing street (and who serves the same unifying function as Wolfman Jack in American Graffiti), and it has a kind of a village idiot, too, a retarded man selling pictures of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X shaking hands and smiling. Spike Lee wants to put on the screen a black neighborhood that is stable, benign, even organic, like a medieval town. But in 1989 this is a form of false nostalgia (in real life, the film crew cleared out crack dealers so it could shoot the movie).
The heat turns petty grievances into choking rage. In a startling and funny sequence, one character after another (white, black, Korean) let loose an aria of racial slurs, right into the camera. The slurs are almost quaint, but when Buggin’ Out, with his pictorial obsession, and Radio Raheem, with his boom box, descend on Sal’s, all hell breaks loose. Trivial matters - noisy music, some pictures on a wall - lead to a violent fight. The triviality is Lee’s point. By temperament, he is a comic and a satirist, and most of these characters are seen as slightly ridiculous. The tragedy in the movie - and the source of its power - is that such silly-ass, affectionately observed people are dying to lay hands on one another. Once the facade of civility collapses, we watch, aghast, as they bite, kick, punch, and strangle.
When some white policemen arrive and kill a black boy, the crowd, enraged, riots, taking revenge on the nearest white property. Rather than attacking the police, the rioters attack a symbolic target, and that part of the movie is hard to justify. Defenders will say this is what happens in the ghetto after a police atrocity, but Lee appears to be endorsing the outcome: His own character, Mookie, starts the riot (unbelievably, I thought), by hurling a garbage can through a window, and as the violence gathers steam it’s presented as a form of deliverance; nor does anyone in the community express repentance the next day. Though there’s been plenty of police brutality in New York, Spike Lee the writer and director invented this particular crime; he also created the dramatic structure that primes black people to cheer the explosion as an act of revenge. It’s his fiction; it’s not life.
At the end of the film, Lee runs balancing quotations, the first, from Martin Luther King Jr., attacking violence, and the second, from Malcolm X, praising violence in self defense as a form of intelligence. But the crowd doesn’t commit violence in self-defense, it trashes a neighborhood institution that it has always liked - an absurd, self-defeating act (no one points this out). Only the willfully deluded will take the riot as an attack on the white power structure.