For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock will watch all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film will be recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!
This movie is awesome, and it’s why I’m glad I’m watching the AFI list.
I had not seen “Do the Right Thing” in a while. I remember really enjoying it and just being blown away with the imagery, but goodness. If it’s been more than a few years since you’ve seen it, it’s been too long.
“Do the Right Thing” is the perfect example of a film that starts with an argument, but moves away from straw men or simple solutions. It doesn’t finger wag or shame. If it implicates anyone, it implicates us all. The focus is racial tension, but it never lets anyone off the hook for their portion of the responsibility. The scene that pushes this to its breaking point is the one where a character from each ethnic group goes through a litany of racial slurs. Each person is trying to up the stereotype ante, before Sam Jackson steps in and tells everyone to chill.
By handling this scene in this way, writer/director/star Spike Lee shows us what this level of racism and hatred really is. It is frustration and powerlessness. This is epitomized by Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito), who lashes out at Sal (Oscar nominee Danny Aiello) for the having no black people on his Wall of Fame, only Italian Americans. On the one hand, it is Sal’s restaurant, on the other hand this restaurant serves mostly black people. So which is the right answer?
This is what “Do the Right Thing” does over and over. It pushes us to explore what each choice means and that often there are no right answers. There are only people and the struggles they face. We can choose to be like Buggin’ or Jade (Joie Lee), and we’ll end up either in the back of a police cruiser or sidelined while the rioters burn down a beloved restaurant.
The fulcrum of this film is Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn). He is the one that tells us that love and hate are locked in battle. Hate seems to be winning, but love is making a come back. When Radio Raheem is killed during the fight, the struggle that had been in tension breaks, and hate takes over.
I once had the opportunity to see Spike Lee speak, and someone asked him why Mookie throws the trashcan. His answer was flippant and dismissive. He said that no person of color has ever asked him that. I think it would have been better and more constructive for him to have answered the question. Once Radio Raheem has died, all paths are set. There is no choice but to put a trash can through the window. When a person dies because his music was too loud, there is no other option. Hate’s got love on the ropes.
But the movie doesn’t end there.
Once again Lee stirs the pot just a bit. Mookie returns to Sal’s Famous and interacts with his boss one last time. Perhaps the fervor behind the riot wasn’t the clear cut righteous rage we thought. And in this moment between Sal and Mookie something of a balance is regained. Perhaps love will make a comeback after all. We can hope, but with so many forces at work it can be hard to follow instructions from Da Mayor (Ossie Davis): Always do the right thing.
And if you haven’t had enough social tension in your film viewing lately, check out my blog entry on “La Haine” (1995). It was inspired by “Do the Right Thing” and is a fantastic movie that is not on the AFI list.
Next up #95 “The Last Picture Show”