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Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Retro Review: Do The Right Thing (1989)

Do The Right Thing
Cast: Spike Lee, Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, John Turturro, Rosie Perez, Martin Lawrence
Genre: Comedy-Drama
U.S Box Office Gross: over $37 million

Plot: One scorching inner-city day, racial tensions reach boiling point in a tough Brooklyn neighbourhood

'Fight The Power' 

It's hard to argue that Spike Lee has been the staunch figurehead and known as the powerful voice in not just African American cinema, but culture as a whole as his movies have a more resounding impact as they are revisited and rewatched, time and time again, 3 decades later. Most of his movies deal with the African American experience and what it is like for these characters and the stories that they are in. Lee's third motion picture coming off the back of 'She's Gotta Have It' and 'School Daze', in contrast, & unlike those efforts, Do The Right Thing took on a much more ballsy and bold approach & with that, it was one that made waves on the mainstream commercial front. 

When the film's opening credits have Rosie Perez dancing & doing the running man dance, I knew I was going to be in for a fascinating movie. Do The Right Thing is a film that attempts to explore race relations in late 1980s New York through the vignettes and various snapshots of the main characters involved. The internal conflict in Do The Right Thing is centred on the presence of these racially diverse set of protagonists who all operate within and are situated in a predominately Black neighbourhood area of Brooklyn. A lot of them don't seem to get along with others, whilst Mookie is pretty much a guy who chooses not to get involved himself. 

Spike Lee is Mookie: a pizza delivery boy
 who has a Hispanic girlfriend, who is also the mother of their child. Mookie works for Sal, the owner of the pizzeria, who also has two sons in the fiery-tempered and not-so-easy-going -yet whining Pino, who is racist and hates Blacks, as well as his job and Vito, who isn't racist and of whom doesn't have a problem in working with Mookie. Mookie's friend is a political activist who becomes incensed when he sees there are no famous Black faces that adorn the walls of the restaurant that he and Radio Raheem team up with several other people to smash it up and loot the Pizzaria place. Other characters include Radio Raheem, who carries with him a massive booming boom box & blasting out rap songs, as well as an elderly gentleman whose presence attracts Mother Sister played by Ruby Dee & Mookie's sister, Jade. There are also appearances from Samuel L. Jackson as a disc jockey, Martin Lawrence as one of the gang members & Rosie Perez as Mookie's girlfriend, Tina.  

Don't get me wrong, this was still a fantastic movie in many ways and it took me on the second viewing for me to get into the story, fully, but I was a little baffled at the lack of progress being made by Spike Lee's character, Mookie. Besides Lee's performance, which was sufficient, despite being the lead, I was disappointed that Mookie never fully took charge and rather in this character, it appears as such his attitude and actions just led me to believe he didn't become the character to make the impact this film should have warranted. 

On the flipside of that argument, notwithstanding, it's great that Lee wanted to incorporate the different perspectives of the different characters who hail from various cultural and social backgrounds. From Italian Caucasians to African-American Blacks, Asians through the Koreans, Latinos and even a mentally handicapped person in Smiley, I liked this diversity aspect and these melting pots of cultures really made Do The Right Thing more substantial and self-fulfilling. The characters are also not one-sided, one-dimensional cardboard cutouts: each one of them encompasses depth and personality. Somehow Rosie Perez's Tina makes me laugh whenever she gets annoyed or loses her temper. Every central character who has a role to play in this movie through their individual subplots, all make the required effort. This film is basically a series of binary oppositions, where different qualities, themes, categories which are opposites, when there is a common connection, these are paired together to create further meaning. African-American Blacks/Italian Whites, the police, who are presented here as casual racists versus everyone else.

The film came out and it caused controversy in 1989, which when I look at it today, it seems that all the points Lee made look affable, but at the same time, it was quite a daring and bold statement that he made here: did it endorse and perpetuate violence and racism, or did it exist for Lee to make a point that these things did and do exist & those ethnic minorities are victims of 'White power'? Whichever position you take up, one thing is for certain as I sat through Do The Right Thing, and that is, it doesn't pander to one side, go down the preachy route, nor does this movie take either side. It presents things as they are and as equally and fairly as possible, in a straightforward way. Spike Lee's approach, thankfully, does not repeatedly hit you on the head so many times for the viewer or audience to understand and contemplate what is exactly happening in each scene. It is also thought-provoking, amusing, witty, straight to the point and is a tale of two or be it four halves: the Blacks, Whites, Asians and Latinos and the lives of all of those living in a multicultural area, as they share their experiences

As the film went on, Lee cranks up the pressure, slowly and surely, one by one and when it all implodes during the final third, it gets better. 

Final Verdict:

Roger Ebert, who I disagree with on many occasions, said Do The Right Thing is the most important film of 1989, which I fully agree with, but not only that, I'd go as far as saying the story, the characters here are far more potent and significant than something like Dead Poets Society, which by taking away Robin Williams's performance & which was heavily dependent on it, would have so easily been throwaway and not as memorable. This movie is one of the best to come out of 1989 & I prefer it over the Peter Hyams effort, by far and as it took more risks and chances. 

No matter how old you are, every person has to see this film, at least once in your lives and having finally got round to it, I understand now why Do The Right Thing is so highly and well received. 

Beneath the subtle humour and individual vignettes of the characters spouting playful lines of dialogue, that underlying message about racial and social tolerance, unity and diversity couldn't be any more further from the truth. Because in many ways, Do The Right Thing, manages to tell the truth- as skewed as some people think it is through Spike Lee's eyes-, and it does so with realness and authenticity. 



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