06 October 2009

Some Notes on Do the Right Thing

I really do love Spike Lee, and Do the Right Thing is still my favorite of his films (heck, it's one of my favorite films, period).

A lot of people--especially my students--complain that "nothing happens" in Lee's movies, by which I think they mean that his movies have "no plot."

I realized tonight that it really is true that my favorite Spike Lee movies don't have a clearly identifiable plot (with the rare exception, like Inside Man). But that's pretty much what I find so compelling about his films. Lee might not be all that into plot, but he likes telling stories, if that makes any sense at all. They're not stories like the kind you read in literature class--they're more like the stories you tell your friends, when you haven't seen them for a few hours or days. Lots of these everyday stories offer little in the way of plot; instead, they highlight moments in life that stood out among all the others for a host of reasons: they were funny, sad, infuriating, frustrating, revelatory, encouraging, beautiful, disgusting, exciting, etc.

What Lee does is more like fantastical cooking than conventional plot-making: he gets a big cauldron and adds the main ingredients at room temperature. In Do the Right Thing, the main ingredients are anger, violence, conflict, racial tension, and urban blight. Then he throws in a bunch of characters, props, sets, music, and maybe a few actual current or historical events; lights a huge fire under the cauldron; then stands back to see what happens. Of course, there's more orchestration than that--in fact, using rhythm to build and relieve and build tension is what Do the Right Thing is all about, when it comes down to it.

I don't know if this will sound like a change of subject or not, but I see it as an extension of this same idea: Spike Lee is the best filmmaker I know when it comes to adding a bunch of unrealistic or quasi-realistic ingredients together and producing realism. One film critic (I can't remember who--sorry) makes a distinction between stylistic realism and thematic realism, and it's a distinction that's important when considering Spike Lee. His characters are often stereotypes or at least strongly based on type characters, his neighborhoods are stylized and often heavily tinted with nostalgia, and his plot situations are contrived, but the movie constituted by all these "fake" elements ends up raising profound questions about the "real" world that audience members live in every day. I'm still amazed, even after seeing it soooo many times, at how Do the Right Thing asks such valuable questions about human conflict and all the hidden violence that forms the roots that occasionally blossom into public events--the Howard Beach incidents, the Michael Griffiths and Michael Stewarts, etc. The movie is about so much more than whether Mookie did the right thing--it's about all the various discourses of why black people populate the ghettos of American cities in such disproportionate numbers, why people of diverse ethnic backgrounds have so much trouble living peacefully as neighbors, how neighborhoods change from one generation to the next, and how best to achieve social progress.

To close this rather random set of thoughts based on Do the Right Thing, I wanted to provide some links to historical figures and events referenced in Do the Right Thing, just in case you're interested. Most of my links will be to Wikipedia--yeah, I know you could look them up there yourselves, but here are all the links in one easy, central location. Wikipedia at least offers an entry into each story, and you can explore further from there, as all of these news stories lend themselves to multiple interpretations.

  • Al Sharpton (Pino mentions him in his conversation with Mookie, cites him as one of the black leaders he [Pino] has been reading about)
  • Louis Farrakhan (Pino mentions him in his conversation with Mookie, cites him as one of the black leaders he [Pino] has been reading about)
  • Ed Koch (targeted during the "hate" montage, by the Korean grocer; his name is also spray-painted on walls and mentioned in news reports)
  • Tawana Told the Truth (spray-painted on the wall behind Mookie and Jade when Mookie tells Jade to stop coming to the pizzeria)
  • Michael Stewart (one of the neighborhood youth references his name when the people of the block confront Sal & sons after the murder of Radio Raheem; he's also one of the dedicatees listed at the close of the film)
  • Eleanor Bumpers [sic] (one of the neighborhood youth references her name when the people of the block confront Sal & sons after the murder of Radio Raheem; her name is really spelled "Eleanor Bumpurs" and she's also one of the dedicatees listed at the close of the film)
  • Howard Beach/Michael Griffith (during the destruction of Sal's Pizzeria, the crowd starts chanting "Power to the People," but it quickly morphs into "Howard Beach"; Michael Griffith is one of the dedicatees listed at the close of the film)
  • Birmingham, Alabama/Bull Connor (mentioned in passing when the police and fire department crack down on the people destroying Sal's Pizzeria)
  • Arthur Miller (one of the dedicatees listed at the close of the film; all I can find out is that he was a black businessman killed by police in 1978, under suspicious circumstances--can anyone offer more info?)
  • Edmund Perry (one of the dedicatees listed at the close of the film)
  • Yvonne Smallwood (one of the dedicatees listed at the close of the film)

And, one final word, from the classic movie, Night of the Hunter (I highly recommend it!)...look familiar?

(If the embedded clip doesn't work, you can go to this address: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X20XIg38GcE)

1 comment:

narmstead said...

Great blog Kevin, I had no idea that the Radio Raheem "love/hate" story was a reference to "Night of the Hunter. (I've never even heard of that movie actually.)

This movie is also my favorite Spike Lee "joint", and I must have seen at least 20 times. Even so, every time I finish it a different set of questions come to mind.

I paid more attention to the sub-characters this time around, and was impressed by the depth of Lee's commentary on the black social condition. (Specifically the sense of entitlement that often replaces a good work ethic.)

I was raised in a home by a father from the midwest who had experienced the depths of discrimination and a mother who is a professor of African-American history, so I feel somewhat more familiar with the issues Lee addresses.

The film is thick, so I can see why you advised us mull it over awhile before writing. It's difficult to take something away from this film on the first viewing.