Blog Directory CineVerse: Flashback to a flashpoint film

Flashback to a flashpoint film

Thursday, July 18, 2019

In many ways, Spike Lee's masterwork "Do the Right Thing" is more meaningful and profound today than when it was released 30 years ago. That observation is a sobering commentary on the fact that, despite progress made, America still suffers from a racial divide. Lee explored these sociocultural rifts in his 1989 film, which CineVerse discussed last week. Here's a recap of the major takeaways from that conversation.

Why is this movie worth celebrating all these years later? Why does it still matter, and how has it stood the test of time?

  • It matters because it attempts to show how all races are capable of racial intolerance. Consider that the diatribe monologue featuring rants to the camera by people of different races shows impartiality/fairness. We see how both Sal and Mookie, whom some viewers can relate to, sympathize with or understand, are each capable of racist, nonconstructive words and acts.
  • It also matters because it doesn’t give viewers any easy answers or solutions to the problem of bigotry and prejudice.
    • One could argue that there are no good or bad guys; some characters whom you sympathized with do some unsympathetic things (Mookie throwing the garbage can, Sal bashing the radio).
    • Mookie may be the main character, but he is flawed: He’s not a responsible father or boyfriend, and he’s lax in many of his duties on the job.
    • Sal demonstrates kindness and understanding to his black customers, but we see that he can also be gruff, impatient, violent, and bigoted in his words and actions.
    • Even da Mayor, who preaches doing the right thing and deplores the riot, is not perfect; he drinks a lot to escape his pain, and his well-intentioned messages often go ignored.
  • The film attempts to distill themes and situations reductively, condensing them into the space of one day: its primary focus is on race relations, and it doesn’t try to tackle every societal problem, like drugs, poverty, gang violence, etc.
  • On one hand, several of the characters appear to be stereotypes—possessing oversimplified characteristics that are broadly drawn and that conform closely to the idea of a preconceived type. But on the other hand, these sometimes stereotypical characters have nuances and shades of gray that make them more distinctive. For example, Sal shows that he can both tender and kind as well as judgmental and violent.

In what ways do you think this film was influential on cinema and popular culture or set trends?

  • This was arguably the most important and most widely reviewed and seen movie by an African American filmmaker to date.
  • It legitimized Spike Lee as a major filmmaking talent, and its box-office success ($37 million earned on a $6 million budget) proved that movies that more realistically depicted the African American experience and made by black filmmakers could be profitable, highly acclaimed and worth greenlighting.
  • It inspired and influenced contemporary African American directors and future generations of black filmmakers; this film paved the way for important works to follow, like Boyz in the Hood, Menace II Society, New Jack City, Friday and its sequels, Poetic Justice, Soul Food, Barbershop, and many others.

What’s the moral to the story here? What themes or messages are explored in “Do the Right Thing”?

  • Racial intolerance and bigotry
  • Violence and police brutality
  • We also get the important presentation of two different quotes at the film’s conclusion; one advocates nonviolence, the other condones violence as a means of self-defense:
    • "Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends by destroying itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers."--Martin Luther King, Jr.
    • "I think there are plenty of good people in America, but there are also plenty of bad people in America and the bad ones are the ones who seem to have all the power and be in these positions to block things that you and I need. Because this is the situation, you and I have to preserve the right to do what is necessary to bring an end to that situation, and it doesn't mean that I advocate violence, but at the same time I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don't even call it violence when it's self- defense, I call it intelligence."--Malcolm X
  • That begs the question: What is the appropriate for society to confront racism—Love, empathy, and pacifism? Violence and whatever means necessary? Cultural segregation?
    • Consider Mookie’s decision to throw the garbage can through his employer’s window. If you don’t feel like his action here was justified, remember that Mookie had just witnessed a black man getting killed by the police; ask yourself, is that more of an outrage than the destruction of property (not to condone the latter)?
    • The killing of Radio Raheem becomes a flashpoint that triggers violence; the people of the neighborhood contribute to the burning and looting of the pizzeria. But consider the repercussions of this act: they will suffer in that one of their favorite destinations will be gone.
  • This film argues that people of all colors and ethnicities need to be accountable for their personal actions.
  • The movie also examines what it means to “be a man.” The need for men take responsibility for their obligations (Mookie needs to be a better father) and the need for males to express (“you da man”), project (Radio Raheem’s defiant attitude) and defend (Vito’s need to stand up to his brother) their masculinity, which often leads to tense confrontations.
  • This film plays like a tragedy from classic literature, with the ending somewhat unresolved and conflicting; the 3 men on the corner serve as the Greek chorus of sorts.

What elements from this movie have aged well, and what elements are showing some wrinkles?

  • The movie’s depiction of police brutality and excessive violence toward African Americans by law enforcement remains relevant today, in the wake of many news reports about the police shootings of unarmed and/or innocent black men.
  • pointed highlighted several lessons learned from this movie that resonate today, including the prevalence of sneaker culture, the expansion of gentrification in black neighborhoods, the dichotomy of sports, entertainment, and race, and the intensity of black rage.

What is this film’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • One of its greatest gifts is that it appears to be fair and impartial in its criticism of people and their inclinations toward racism. We see how black, white, Asian, Latino and other ethnic characters in the movie all have the capacity for prejudice and racial insensitivity. Spike Lee doesn’t appear to be judging or favoring one side against the other, and his inclusion of the two opposing quotes at the denouement is proof that the film doesn’t attempt to answer everyone’s questions or present a perfect solution—it’s up to each of us to decide on what the right thing to do is, and how to do it.
  • The movie features fantastic color cinematography and creative filmmaking techniques to imply the sociocultural conflicts going on and paint a picture of a specific place at a specific time: Brooklyn on the hottest day of the year, 1989.
    • Lee uses extreme close-ups of sweaty faces; Brash, bright and hot colors in the costumes, paints, signs, etc.; canted/tilted angles, suggesting an askew universe; low and high camera angles and subjective POV shots to suggest conflict and power shifts: the scene where Buggin Out and Clifton confront each other; and different musical styles, suggesting racial and cultural diversity: you have a powerful rap song, and you have a jazz and classical music mixture score that brings out the varying emotions of the characters.

Do you think this movie will still be widely watched and considered relevant in another 30 years?

  • Probably. It has already grown in stature and become more accepted and revered 30 years after its release. However, one hopes that racial insensitivity and police brutality aren't among the top reasons why it may be relevant or worth revisiting in 2049.
  • Recall that this was a very controversial movie in 1989, with many critics, pundits, and politicians warning at the time that it would incite race riots, looting, burning, and violence. None of those fears materialized.
  • This remains one of the most important films that tackles the theme of bigotry and racial divides, and it will continue to serve an important purpose: to create a conversation and dialogue on these matters and force us to ask ourselves, can we “do the right thing?”

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