Since seeing Straight Outta Compton, I’ve taken an interest in the subject of racism and in particular, that era of racial tension in cities like LA and New York in the late 80’s and early 90’s. I watched Boyz In the Hood and then moved onto a Spike Lee classic, Do the Right Thing. And while one thinks we’ve come a long way the last 25 years, it seems like many of the issues are the same. As a Canadian, things are a less tense up here than in the States, but I would be naive to say that race isn’t an issue. Seeing movies like this put some things in perspective for me. Life as a straight white male isn’t overly challenging, relatively speaking. I felt some racism when I lived in Chinatown a few years ago, but paying a little extra for pork buns is not the same as being afraid for my life when I encounter the police.
Do the Right Thing opens with several women dancing to “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy, the unofficial theme song of the movie. This artistic choice is one that’s still a mystery to me, but it does at least remind the audience what time the film was made. There are plenty of neon exercise clothes and flashy neon titles to go around. Geez, I remember when people dressed like that. It was a real thing. But to be fair, this film isn’t a timeless classic. I don’t even mean any disrespect by that. It’s not timeless, it’s a snap shot of a single day, on a single urban block, in a particular era. This was a movie made for the time about that time. If anything, it’s a shame that it is still so relevant today.
There isn’t really a very clear story. It’s about the people of the block, focusing mostly on an Italian family who own the Sal’s Famous Pizzaria, which happens to be in a black neighbourhood. Sal (Danny Aiello) is a little rough around the edges, but appreciates that his business is thriving in the community. His son Pino (John Turturro), however, is harbouring a deep resentment toward the people of the neighbourhood. His other son Vido (Richard Edson) actually gets along well with their additional staff member, Mookie (Spike Lee). Mookie is their delivery boy and we see the neighbourhood through his eyes as he wanders from place to place, often meandering back to work in his own time. Things get a little tense though, as Mookie’s friend Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) makes a scene at Sal’s, protesting that Sal’s Wall of Fame has no pictures of black people and he should put some up because he’s in a black neighbourhood. Sal winds up kicking him out, so Buggin’ Out calls for a boycott of the pizzaria, which no one wants to participate in because they actually like pizza.
This is the heart of the movie, in a sense. While at times it feels like Spike Lee is filming an essay in defence of black people, for the most part he actually takes a very even handed approach. First, he shows how racism and intolerance works both ways. So many characters just don’t know how to stop and think about what they’re saying until it becomes a shouting match. Tension gets so high and it’s no single person’s fault. But if any one side of an argument just stopped, listened, and discussed, the story would have ended very differently. Next, he paints a very real picture of the neighbourhood. Many characters say how it’s a ‘black neighbourhood’ but even that does them a disservice. We get to know a lot of characters and so many of them have different stories and different points of view. When we over simplify and classify groups of different individuals, well, we get issues like racism. It wasn’t a ‘black neighbourhood’, it was a community.
I liked Spike Lee’s approach to this film, but you need to get through it all to understand it. I don’t want to ruin the ending, but it’s a very slow burn to the more satisfying blaze of this Spike Lee joint. There is a lot of time spent on nothing but chatter and characters, some of whom are important to the story and some others that aren’t as much. It can be tedious, admittedly, because it’s hard to lock onto any actual story. But that’s the thing, the story is in the characters and how they relate. It needs the chatter and the day-in-the-life feel to it to succeed. That’s not going to work for everyone. My brother fell asleep and stayed asleep. I fell asleep, woke up 20 minutes later, finished the movie and caught up on what I missed later. It wasn’t crucial, but what was interesting was that when I reached the point where I initially woke up, I wanted to keep watching. I think that it rewards multiple viewings because once we get to know the characters more, the more time we want to spend with them. And perhaps after we know what all of this leads up to, the more purpose we can find in scenes that may seem trivial at first.
As piece of entertainment, it doesn’t engage. As a piece of culture, it works well. Do the Right Thing had the gumption to confront the issues of racial prejudices when it was a tough subject to tackle. I suppose it still is, which is why it’s as good a time as any to watch it… if you can get passed the dated hair styles and the neon. Oh the neon!