Wednesday, February 8, 2017

My Favorite Spike Lee Joint

I spent a significant amount of time thinking of ways to justify writing about "The 25th Hour," before realizing that it was futile. I was going to spend more time explaining why I wasn't writing about "Do the Right Thing" than I was actually writing about "The 25th Hour." So I might as well just write about "Do the Right Thing," one of the most provocative, controversial, and exciting films of the 1980s. It has long been hailed as the magnum opus of Spike Lee, the first mainstream black auteur, and still one of the only major black directors with a list of credits extensive enough for me to write a "Great Directors" post for. Some of his films can be a challenge to watch, because they're so eager to tackle thorny concepts and confront social issues that nobody else talks about. At least, not in the fearless, impassioned way that Spike Lee talks about them.

So let's go back to Brooklyn in 1989, where a boiling hot summer day heats up the tensions among the predominantly African-American inhabitants of a multiethnic neighborhood. Spike Lee stars as Mookie, who works as a pizza delivery man for Sal's Pizzeria. Throughout the day he watches the tense interactions of Sal, with various figures in the neighborhood of different ethnicities. The day ends in a riot, where a man dies and the pizza shop is burned down. Race clearly plays a large part in why the violence occurs, but the film invites you to puzzle out who, if anyone, was really at fault. Was it Radio Raheem, for blasting his boombox at Sal in a deliberate act of defiance? Was it Sal for losing his temper and crossing a line? And when Mookie throws that trash can through the window, what are his intentions? Spike Lee has said that only white viewers ask him whether Mookie did "the right thing." Black viewers already know.

Well, as a viewer who doesn't fall into either category, my understanding is that nobody does the right thing. This is a story about identities, egos, and various forms of self-expression. Everyone is trying to express pride in who they are and where they came from, but some of those means of expression are misunderstood, clash, or aren't socially acceptable. There's Radio Raheem, whose boombox is an extension of his identity. There's Sal, with his wall full of photos. And then there's Buggin' Out, picking a fight with Sal over perceived disrespect, which boils down to Buggin' Out trying to assert his pride in his own culture. And what Spike Lee does that is so great is that none of his characters are bad people or wrong to want what they want. Sal is obtuse to this sensitivities of his customers, but genuinely likes being part of the neighborhood. Radio Raheem is driven to protest injustice, but his monologue reveals he is hopeful about the future. You're meant to empathize with everyone to some degree.

All of these characters loom larger than life, and are frequently in each other's faces. Spike Lee's cinematography puts them in the audience's faces too, especially in the famous montage of insults and epithets shouted directly into the camera. The tension and energy of the interactions are emphasized by the filmmaking, with its use of canted angles, bright colors, and a very mobile camera. Images are often slightly stylized, to capture the feel of Brooklyn and the too-hot summer atmosphere. The film opens with Rosie Perez dancing and shadowboxing ferociously to "Fight the Power," which sets the tone for a film where frustrations boil over and violent events can unfold at a breathtakingly fast pace. In the riot scenes, the camera is in the thick of the action, so close to the actors that it feels invigorating one moment, and suffocating the next. Watching the ending play out still makes me feel sick to my stomach.

But to really get an idea of what makes "Do the Right Thing" so iconic, you have to examine it in context, as most of Spike Lee's films demand. He was actively engaging with the social climate of the time, trying to get conversations started about the uncomfortable subject of racial violence, but some thought he went too far. Major reviewers wondered if the film might heighten tensions in black communities and spark riots. Spike Lee was labeled a dangerous Angry Black Man, a director who recklessly courted controversy, and was aiming to start trouble. Those reactions seem absurd, decades later, when the film has become a cultural touchstone and a classic of American independent cinema.

It's depressing to acknowledge that there's so little else in the cinema landscape that deals with race in such powerful, honest, and surprisingly evenhanded terms. And in the age of Black Lives Matter, these are films that we are necessary. While Spike Lee's career has had its ups and downs, I'm happy to find him still working. And more importantly, he's no longer the only major black auteur that most cinephiles can name. It'll take a while for Ava DuVernay and Steve McQueen and the rest to fill out their filmographies, but in the not too distant future, I'm looking forward to writing about their contributions to cinema too.

What I've Seen - Spike Lee

She's Gotta Have It (1986)
Do the Right Thing (1989)
Malcolm X (1992)
Crooklyn (1994)
4 Little Girls (1997)
Bamboozled (2000)
25th Hour (2002)
Inside Man (2006)
Red Hook Summer (2012)
Oldboy (2013)
Chi-Raq (2015)

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