Cons: I can't help feeling Spike Lee got a free pass despite rabid stereotyping.
The Bottom Line: Yes, I am an anti-PC libertarian, to answer your question.
So I recently saw Spike Lee's most revered movie, Do the Right Thing, for the first time. I have formed an opinion on it.
The opinion I have formed is not a politically correct one. Are you still interested in it?
Are you still reading? This is your last chance. Click the back button right now. If you don't, don't tell me you weren't warned.
Are you with me? Fine. Then here it goes: Spike Lee has been known as the director of racially charged work for as long as he's been famous. Do the Right Thing is regarded as his big breakthrough, the message that a brand-new director was at the helm, and that this new kid on the block wasn't going to pull any punches when it came to issues of race. Do the Right Thing is seen by nearly everyone as a movie with a clear message about racism. There is most definitely a message buried somewhere within Lee's admittedly excellent direction. Quotes from Martin Luther King and Malcolm X both precede the closing credits, plus there is a montage around the halfway point in which various neighborhood folk tell the camera the most vile racial slurs they can think of.
The problem is Lee seems very confused about the point he's trying to make. Do the Right Thing is probably the first movie since the days of DW Griffith in which a clearly racist white character can emerge looking like a hero while all the black people in the movie come off in comparative shame. Do the Right Thing follows a black neighborhood through a very hot summer day. Sal's Famous Pizzeria is a 25-year-old presence in the neighborhood. Sal and his family are all Italians and Sal knows the whole block by name. Sal's is the heart and soul of Do the Right Thing, and Sal himself has overcome any prejudices he may have ever had and is very proud of the fact that most of the neighborhood people grew up eating his pizza. One of Sal's sons, Pino, is another story. He actively talks about selling the place and moving to a neighborhood where there are less of, you know, them. Pino is supposed to be a villain. However, he is never seen attacking any of his black customers outright. He chooses instead to keep his prejudices off to the side in the name of business. Milton Friedman once said that the free market doesn't care about your color or your religion but only about whether or not you can produce something people want to buy. And so Pino comes off looking like an example of the free market doing its thing. Sal's son may hate black, but he loves green enough to forget that.
We're also supposed to hate Pino for his distrust of Mookie, arguably the central character of Do the Right Thing. But the more I got to know Mookie, the more Pino's distrust started to look less like racism and more like a lack of trust which came from actual in-the-know knowledge of what Mookie is really like. The second we get to know Mookie, we find out he is a lazy slacker who is constantly late for his job as a delivery boy for Sal's and who takes two-hour lunch breaks. Later on we also learn that he is an absentee father whose girlfriend places pizza orders just to get him to visit. Then during the famous riot scene at the end, it is Mookie who begins the riot by tossing a trash can right through Sal's front window - this after Sal tells him he'll always have a place at the pizzeria. Finally, and most galling of all, Mookie has the nerve to go back to Sal after starting the riot that left the pizzeria charred and burned and ask Sal for his money! When Sal tells him off, he concocts one of the worst BS excuses ever used.
An argument can be made that for the racial controversy surrounding Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee's script is the most anti-black thing about it. The overwhelming majority of characters are black, and all of them seem to exist to fulfill a negative stereotype quota. Three characters all get together to try to organize a boycott of Sal's: The one who sets it off is Buggin' Out, a militant who swears by Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. He is a regular at Sal's and can't quite accept the fact that he has to pay extra for more cheese on his pizza. Then he flips out because in this Italian joint, there are pictures of other Italians and no black people. Apparently this is racism to him. He tries to get a petition going to boycott Sal's but is constantly rebuffed under the perfectly reasonable rationale of "you could be doing something real for the community, but you're doing this?" It isn't until he finds Radio, a guy who was kicked out of Sal's for playing his enormous boombox too loudly, that he has an ally. Then Smiley, a stutterer who tries to sell postcards and is thrown off Sal's for chasing away business, joins him. The three go back to Sal's and cause a ruckus. While Sal's reaction to their antics was way over the line, I can't find a lot of sympathy for the actions of Buggin' Out, Radio, and Smiley. They were the ones who started it when they decided they couldn't accept very reasonable rules Sal had about his private business.
Beyond this, there is one character who drinks a lot and tries to act as a wise old sage. There is another character called Mother Sister who sits by her window dispensing tough love and advice and who also tries to act as a wise old sage. Mookie exhibits all the worst parts about the black stereotype, and it doesn't help that he is played very badly by Spike Lee himself, who tends to overannunciate the stereotypical black grammar his character uses. His girlfriend is annoying because she ordered a pizza to see Mookie - not to tell him to visit his son every now and then, but to complain about how she never sees him. Then she lets herself be seduced. Watching these two, I couldn't overcome the feeling that these two really should end up together - not because they're made for each other, but to keep their potential infections of the gene pool to an absolute minimum.
None of these characters do anything to particularly endear me to them. If there's a point in Do the Right Thing to be made about race, you have to first navigate around Mookie's laziness, Pino's embrace of capitalism, and Buggin' Out's idiotic political correctness. There is a whole other argument which could exist to say that Do the Right Thing is very anti-PC (which to a point runs hand-in-hand with libertarianism, which in its minimal-government nature could be called anti-PC). The parade of stereotypes in this movie is endless and had Do the Right Thing been directed by a white person, it would never be acceptable. In fact, it would likely be the white director's last film. You're reading this right; Spike Lee got a free pass.
As if you couldn't guess, I was annoyed by almost everyone in Do the Right Thing. This movie isn't exactly swimming in character depth, and that proves to be a HUGE problem when it comes to developing the audience's sympathies. Trying to develop the characters who tried to stage their demonstration/boycott would have really helped this movie out. But as Sal and Pino are developed and Buggin' Out, Radio, and Smiley aren't, the three of them come off looking like major jerks while Sal and Pino escape as the more sympathetic characters. Mookie has a whole other set of problems. The message I get from the direction is that I was being asked to like him above all others, but the script begs otherwise. Mookie deserves no sympathy, certainly not with the way he acts throughout the second half of the movie and especially at the end. Sal has two sons and one is more inconspicuous than the other. The developed one would be Pino, who written as a blatant racist. But since Lee wrote him as respectful in public and didn't have the teeth to give him any straight-up racial slurs to use, to the capitalist eye he looks almost - ALMOST - like a hero for the free market. And the other son? I can't even remember his name.
A good length of Do the Right Thing goes by very quickly and in an entertaining fashion. It plays three quarters as the type of ridiculous movie which chronicles a single day which changes everything for a select group of people. It isn't until around the last half hour in which Lee seems to remember that he was trying to say something important and gives us a climax which is, to Lee's credit, well-formed and well-shot and dare I say even exciting. But this is the only part of the movie in which racism takes even a remote side of a stage. What happens? Our boycotters visit Sal's and refuse to leave even though it's past closing time. Sal destroys Radio's boombox instead of calling the police. That could be racist! But another argument could be made that calling the cops would ultimately have been racist too since one ends up killing Radio. Any point Lee was trying to make is hopelessly muddled.
Give Spike Lee credit. He tried to give us something thoughtful. He did an excellent job directing it and performed double duty by playing Mookie, which didn't turn out well because he was busy using up all his talent for directing. But Lee overloads the movie with characters when only a few would have been fine and that fails to develop some of the more important characters. The message about racism is lost among more obvious messages about the free market being a great weapon to combat overt racism and political correctness being a straw man (both of which I tend to adhere to). While Lee had good intentions, the execution of Do the Right Thing is wrong, wrong, wrong.
**** out of **** It's the hottest day of the summer in an all-black neighborhood somewhere in Brooklyn. Residents search for beer in a blazing wasteland of heat, while others simply unscrew the fire hydrant and let the cold goodness flow out into the streets like uncontrollable rapids. In the middle of it all, the neighborhood shops have opened come morning; and both their employees and their respective owners have returned yet again for another hard day on the job, this one … more
There are a myriad of potential takeaways from a movie infused with the socio-political complexity of Do the Right Thing, many of which are greatly informed by the ideas about race and racial conflict in America that you bring with you to a viewing of the film. These are hot-button topics, dealt with pretty bluntly in this movie, and it's hard to have an opinion on the issues without either rubbing someone else the wrong way or getting bent out of shape by someone else's viewpoint on occasion. I … more
"Racism is when you have laws set up, systematically put in the way to keep people from advancing, to stop the advancement of a people. Black people have never had the power to enforce racism, and so this is something that white America is going to have to work out themselves. If they decide they want to stop it, curtail it, or to do the right thing… then it will be done, but not until then." -Spike Lee, in an interview taken from Roger Ebert's Home Movie Companion of 1990 … more