Sunday, April 23, 2006

Do the Right Thing

Universal City Studios
Director: Spike Lee
Length: 120 min.
Country: USA
Format: DVD
Date Viewed: 13 April, 2006

The people who confused Paul Haggis' Crash for a thought-provoking treatise on racism are in dire need of seeing Do the Right Thing, a serious and deep look at the continually important topic.

Hearing others' viewpoints on the film, ambiguous almost to a fault, is telling of how off the mark some audiences are to the film's message. Most (white) people who see the film, and this goes for myself the first time I saw Do the Right Thing years ago, seem to not notice that white/Latino cops murder a young black man, but certainly do notice that a black man throws a trash can through the window of a white-owned business leading to the destruction of said business. Most white audiences seem to lament the destruction of (white) property, but not the loss of (black) life.

[Spoiler Alert]
Interesting, too, that most white audiences seem to instinctively side with Sal above anyone else, including Mookie. They can accept that Sal would destroy Radio Raheem's stereo with a baseball bat after calling him a Nigger, but they cannot at all accept that Mookie, a close friend of the now murdered Raheem and the still living Sal, would throw a trash can into Sal's pizzeria as a direct response to the racist murder.

But all of these acts are the direct result of poor communication set up early in the film, and of subsequent venting of suppressed racist views and of miscommunications on all sides on the neighborhood throughout the second act. In the end, nobody save Da Mayor, played by the excellent as always Ossie Davis, did the right thing. In fact, Da Mayor is the perhaps only reason that Sal and his sons remained alive through the ordeal, giving the film one of its glimmers of hope in the promotion of level-headed, colorblind and non-violent persons who will work to save others about to be affected in times of violence.
[Spoiler Alert Over]

The heavy ambiguity of the film mainly comes in the contrast of violent and non-violent methods of self-defense. Lee, in the Cannes press conference supplement on the film's outstanding 2-disc Criterion DVD, says that he believes the violent self-defense of Malcolm X's teachings, but doesn't necessarily discount the non-violence preached by Martin Luther King, Jr. The two quotes at the end of the film that serve to put this conflict into words, whose purpose seemed fairly evident in explaining that there are multiple answers to all situations and that perhaps both are necessary for true change, seemed to confuse even the intellectual critics at Cannes, not to mention the American public. A couple of critics during the press conference made reference to the quotes, and seem to think that they gave an explicit call-to-arms, especially towards the black youth one critic was sure would terrorize New York with racially-charged violence later that summer as a result of Do the Right Thing's theatrical release.

But this heavy ambiguity, originally considered by me to be a flaw, actually seems like a positive aspect upon further reflection. Any mainstream white audience member who sees this film needs to see the realities of lower-class urban life, and that violence is sometimes the only recourse that an oppressed people have. We can see this in the Watts riots of the 60s, for instance, or more recently in the Paris riots last fall, for two examples. White suburban audiences (of which I belonged until a couple years ago) will no doubt be unable to comprehend urban unrest and the necessity of violence where non-violence quite simply doesn't work. This audience can use this film to begin to understand the reality of violence in times of social unrest. It is frustrating that this audience seems to have completely missed the lesson. So long as people really work to think deep about the reasons why everyone in the film acts as they do (and use the supplements of the Criterion DVD for further analysis), the ambiguity should not be as huge an issue as it has become.

Aside from this, the film on the whole is a outstanding achievement of acting, cinematography, editing and screenwriting. Lee was in complete control of his location shoot, and the film's beautiful woven tapestry reveals this truth in its fluid movement around the diverse neighborhood, always hinting at the inevitable third act conflict and at the economic and social realities of low-income urban neighborhoods.

The film stands in stark contrast with Crash's remarkably incompetent technical aspect and its contrived and mechanical character interactions that many people mistook for realism. Do the Right Thing fits Chikimatsu's definition of art as fitting between the real and the unreal, though its high stylization paradoxically allows the real-world situations at its core to stand-out more vividly than if Lee went for cinema verite; Crash spiraled far into the unreal for it to be anything but useless. It's nice that we have at least one film that adequately looks beyond the non-revelation that we (and the cops!) are all racist to some degree.


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