R, 120 min.
Director/Writer: Spike Lee
Starring Spike Lee, Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Richard Edson, Giancarlo Esposito, Bill Nunn, John Turturro, Paul Benjamin, Frankie Faison, Robin Harris, Joie Lee, Miguel Sandoval, Rick Aiello, John Savage, Samuel L. Jackson, Rosie Perez, Roger Guenveur Smith, Steve White, Martin Lawrence, Leonard Thomas, Christa Rivers, Frank Vincent, Luis Ramos, Richard Habersham, Gwen McGee, Steve Park, Ginny Yang
I’m sure I’ve written about this before, but since it speaks to the vast misunderstanding a good deal of people have about racism, I think it bears repeating. The first time I saw Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” I didn’t like it. I couldn’t understand Mookie’s choice in the end to throw the garbage can into the pizzeria and start the riot that destroyed a family institution that for the most part only served the community around it. I thought it was a betrayal of that community to allow racism to get the upper hand on one ethnic group by another, no matter which group it was. Mookie’s action seemed just as fueled by racism as Pino’s and the cops’ action against Radio Raheem. Of course, Mookie really was doing the right thing by letting the anger out before more people died.
I was pretty young when I originally saw the movie, and there were two things I got wrong. First, I didn’t understand that Spike Lee was crafting a stylized piece. This is not a realistic portrayal of a community or the racism found within it. It’s realistic in terms of what is bubbling beneath everyone’s unspoken and hidden beliefs, but the outer world of “Do the Right Thing” is highly stylized. Lee uses tilted camera angles, low angle shots, exaggerated colors, tinted and studio style lighting, even much of the set looks like a set that you might see on a show taped in a studio. Many of the characters are approached more as caricatures. Sam Jackson’s DJ acts in the same capacity as a Greek chorus, commenting and sometimes guiding the characters to their fates.
The second thing I got wrong was the notion that racism is a simple black & white issue, and I don’t mean black & white skin. I mean as a nineteen-year-old WASP from one of the least ethnically diverse states in the country I thought you were either racist or you weren’t. But, racism doesn’t boil down quite that easy, and that’s one of the main messages Lee is trying to get across in his film. In some ways, the racism on display in this film is almost tribal. Nobody really means anything against anyone else, but if anything goes against the tribe it is met with suspicion and aggression.
Take the character of Buggin’ Out for example. His insistence that there should be some pictures of black people on Sal’s pizzeria wall is an earnest request, but his suggestion is shut down harshly by Sal, and Buggin’s inflexion—because it has to do with his tribe—is confrontational. Despite the fact that Sal’s wishes are alienating, when Buggin’ approaches the black community about his boycott of Sal’s, he’s met with equal derision from his peers as he was by Sal because they recognize that his desire is not beneficial to the tribe if it causes a problem with Sal. As Buggin’ is further alienated, his opposition to the popular stance becomes greater to the point that he becomes militant about it. It’s only once he reaches this point that he can finally convert Radio Raheem as a follower to his cause. Then it is the extreme action of Raheem’s death that ignites the popular furor.