Packer Collegiate Institute Staff Writer
The weather is sizzling hot and tensions are slowly coming to a boil in this Bedford-Stuyvesant Brooklyn hood. Slowly but surely we see the heat melt away the barriers that were keeping anger from rising to the surface. The pizzeria is owned by Italians, the corner deli is owned by Koreans, the streets are owned by the Blacks (and the Spanish) but the Cops prowl around on this turf anyway. Toes are stepped on and apologies are not made. All in all, Spike Lee creates the perfect set-up for drama, while in the process letting us glimpse into the lives of real people in a real neighborhood. If you come to this movie for simple entertainment, be warned- you may come out with a little less ignorance. After all this isnt just some flight of the imagination ghetto. Its real life, people and in the words of Mr. Señor Love Daddy its time to, Waaaaake up!” and see what this real life is all about.
Our main character, Mooky, (Spike Lee) works in Sals Famous pizzeria, run by Sal (Danny Aiello) and his two sons, Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson). Sal is one of the very few white business owners remaining in this predominately black neighborhood. Despite obvious tensions (at the very start of the film, Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito) makes a huge scene about the lack of African American heroes on Sals wall of fame) Sal holds his ground in the neighborhood and remains proud of the fact that “these people [the kids of Bed-Stuy] have grown up on my pizza.” Along the way we meet other characters such as Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) who is a neighborhood fixture with his colossal radio and the symbolic love and hate decorating his fingers. Smile, a mentally disabled individual and later a catalyst for further chaos, runs around the streets selling the one existing photograph of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. The conflicting messages of the latter two leaders are obvious through the entire film, right up to the end when Lee lets two very opposing quotes from the two men run with the credits. There is Mookys Puerto Rican girlfriend (Rosie Perez), raising their son and constantly nagging at Mooky. We also meet Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) an alcoholic who at times seems to be the only sane individual out of the whole cast of characters. Lees choice of both characters and actors seems peculiarly faultless.
Each character is full of life and more importantly each is an individual. There are no generic good or bad guys. Mooky, who could have been the ideal good guy later commits an action that confuses the viewer and causes the viewer to re-evaluate Mookys motives and intentions. Buggin Out, who with his extreme activism can appear as the ignorant cause of unnecessary trouble, is also portrayed as a friend of Mooklys and a member of the community, thus forcing us to at least see him as an individual surrounded by friends rather than a dislikable extremist. All in all when we try to understand why the characters act as they act and what drives each of them, we inevitably are drawn to the conclusion that they are just like us. We realize they are human; they have both good qualities and bad qualities. We understand that at times they may make terrible mistakes, and that at other times they may display admirable heroism, and that sometimes they simply act without knowing why.
Spike Lee does more than try to show us that despite tensions, this Black neighborhood is a community. What Lee does is he makes us think. He isnt the sort of director who tries to tell the viewer what conclusions to draw and how to feel about each character. In contrast, Hitchcock used his movie, Psycho to creep into the mind of his audience and build and break their attachments to various characters for the purpose of achieving a universal reaction to that film. Spike Lee is on a different mission. He doesnt set up the plot so that we all draw the same sort of conclusions from the course of events and from the way the characters act. What Lee does is he gives us no easy answers. He simply presents events as they are leaving us to figure out the motives of the characters and the why behind the course of events. Lee doesnt really put a positive light on any particular race while shadowing the other ones. He doesnt try to make conflicts have an obvious solution. Lee simply re-creates a piece of life, with a little twist of extreme (yet realistic) drama for deeper effect, and by doing this he tries to simply make us think and question. Maybe well come out a little less racist because we saw that Bed-Stuy isnt a ghetto but a community. Maybe well come out with more sympathy for the struggles of the African-American, Italian, Korean, or even Puerto-Rican communities. You see the film doesnt claim to be an answer to anything. It reveals a small piece of current life (if we were in 1986) and it leaves the answers up to you, the viewer.
Perhaps there is somewhat of a message in Do the Right Thing. Perhaps a part of it has to do with the confused or conflicting messages the Black community must struggle with. Both Malcom X and Martin Luther King wanted the same thing: peace. Yet their paths towards achieving that peace lay on opposite sides of the galaxy. Perhaps the reason why Lee made everyone just as guilty and just as innocent as anyone else is because there is no right thing to do. Or if there is one right way to act perhaps it isnt the only right way. Everyday we struggle with eachother and ourselves. We want to live happily but we cant decide on one method of achieving this. Consequently we end up dealing with endless conflicts and sometimes acting in a way that does more harm than good. It becomes clear then that although Lees message is up to interpretation, what we know for a fact is that his film does not lack purpose. His purpose has many aspects to it. One of them is to show that there is more than one way of getting something, and that each way has its own benefits and pitfalls. Another aspect is that there is never one single person or group to blame, we see this when we start to think about who really is to blame for the chaos that erupts near the end of the film. Perhaps Lee is asking us to simply judge people as individuals and not as representatives of an entire race. This is apparent when we come to realize that each character belonging to a certain racial group has a counterpart who is very different in his or her views. For example the Italian Sal who shows some slight racist tendencies is nowhere as ignorant and angry as one of his sons. The calm and seemingly rational Mooky is balanced out by the jumpy militant Buggin Out. Even the cops are split between the really racist and angry to the more compassionate (pay attention to the end of the film).
So why should you go out and spend some of your hard earned cash on this little urban flick? Aside from possibly learning something new and seeing a part of life that you may not come into everyday contact with, Do the Right Thing stands out because it is different. How many times do we walk into the theater already knowing the plot the conflict and the end before the opening credits are even over? We watch the same characters act out the same storyline over and over again. We root for the good guy we despise the bad guy, we sit back and watch mindlessly as explosions and high-speed car chases and wild sex takes place on that big screen. We come out happy because good things happened to good people and the bad characters were avenged. Yet when it comes down to it the truth is we are leaving these movies empty. We learn little about ourselves and even less about others when the entire storyline is a fantasy world aimed to entertain and not to educate or reveal. Spike Lee obviously wasnt following the typical Hollywood Blockbuster formula when he wrote, directed and starred in his flick. Go out and see it because its refreshing. Go out and see it because its not something you have seen before. Go out and see it because this may be your final chance to Waaaaaaaaaaake up!