"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
Racism had been a much-neglected topic in American films up until the mid-1950s. Since then, the subject of racial prejudice and racial violence has been an oft-explored subject. However, racism has rarely been given such a raw, powerful, ironic, and controversial examination as the ones found in the films of acclaimed African-American director Spike Lee. Lee, who has been one of the few black filmmakers to receive the mainstream attention and critical praise that so many deserve, first made a name for himself in the late 1980s. His films were daring and provocative for the time and still are today. Not only does Lee attack racism and cultural prejudice in his films, but he also points out the social injustices that proliferate in our so-called "progressive" country, and he does so with a uniquely modern style all of his own.
Lee's 1989 urban comedy/drama, Do the Right Thing, has become a seminal film of contemporary American cinema. Focusing on inter-racial relations in a predominantly black community in Brooklyn, New York, the film reveals the hypocritical and discriminating attitudes that are so present in our country, particularly in large cities where people of varying ethnicities, religious creeds, and cultures come together in often volatile ways.
In one of the film's most divisive and memorable scenes, the film's characters look directly into the camera and spew out a litany of racial slurs. The scene, though deeply ironic, offended many viewers and also helped to attract many people to the film. Sometimes controversy, which is only just a form of intellectual conflict, is necessary because it possesses the potential for revealing long-concealed truths. What that scene showed audiences, whether they wanted to face it or not, is that anyone can be a bigot, regardless of race, religion, social class, gender, sexual preference, political affiliation, or cultural origin. Racism and prejudice are indeed everywhere and the only way to combat it is to expose it.
"For now, these hot days, is the mad blood stirring."
-Benvolio in William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet
It's the summer of 1989 and a heat wave has hit Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. As the temperature rises, so too does the tension between the white Italian owners of a family-run pizzeria and the frustrated members of the black community.
Mookie works as a delivery boy at Sal's Famous Pizzeria, despite the fact that Sal and his son Pino are bigots. Mookie's hard up for money to support his Puerto Rican girlfriend, Tina, and their child together, Hector.
When one of Mookie's friends Buggin' Out, who's a self-styled radical and black militant, complains about the fact that Sal's "wall of fame" in the pizzeria features only American-Italians and no African-Americans, he's kicked out. Buggin' Out accuses Sal of being a racist and begins a boycott of the pizzeria.
Meanwhile, Radio Raheem, who's known for carrying his giant boom box with him wherever he goes, is told that he must turn his music off when he enters the pizzeria. Incensed, Raheem joins the boycott along with Smiley, a mentally retarded man, who sells pictures of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. When their peaceful protest turns violent after Sal destroys Raheem's boom box, a riot breaks out and a racist police officer kills Raheem. As the violence and turmoil escalates, not even popular radio DJ Senõr Love Daddy or influential community members like Mother Sister, Da Mayor, or Sweet Dick Willie can put an end to it. It's not until Smiley, unaware of the consequences his actions will have, sets fire to the pizzeria and burns it down, that the fire department and the police force comes in and brings the chaos to an end.
The next day while everyone's trying to return to normalcy and pick up the pieces, Mookie returns to what's left of Sal's pizzeria and demands to be paid. In the end, he feels regret and anger about all that's happened. But his financial troubles are the least of his worries. The real problem is so much deeper than that and the question far more difficult to answer. "Are we going to live together?"
"I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood."
-John Brown, taken from his final statement on the day of his execution by hanging
Do the Right Thing features an amazing ensemble cast, including Spike Lee as Mookie, Danny Aiello as Sal, John Turturro as Pino, Richard Edson as Vito, Bill Nunn as Radio Raheem, Giancarlo Esposito as Buggin' Out, Rosie Perez as Tina, Samuel L. Jackson as DJ Senõr Love Daddy, Roger Guenveur Smith as Smiley, Ruby Dee as Mother Sister, Ossie Davis as Da Mayor, Paul Benjamin as ML, Frankie Faison as Coconut Sid, and Robin Harris as Sweet Dick Willie. Each member of the cast gives an explosive performance. Spike Lee, in particular, is rather remarkable in that he not only directed the film, but also produced it, wrote the screenplay, and starred in it and still he manages to give an impressive performance. Danny Aiello is wonderful as Sal, allowing him to be relatable and even likeable despite the racist remarks he makes. John Turturro is also quite good, playing Sal's older son, the obnoxious and very racist Pino. Richard Edson, who plays Sal's more tolerant son, Vito, is perhaps a little under utilized, but his presence and his character's essence are strong. Bill Nunn is terrific as the mostly non-verbal Radio Raheem, whose expressions are precise and give viewers great insight into his character, and though he has little dialogue, that which he does have speaks volumes. Rosie Perez, who opens the film in a notorious dance sequence set to Public Enemy's song Fight the Power, is quite literally a knockout as the feisty Tina. Samuel L. Jackson, who is credited as Sam Jackson, is perfect as DJ Senõr Love Daddy, giving the character the right level of charisma needed to be believable as a good radio personality. Roger Guenveur Smith is effective as the stuttering Smiley, whose love of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X is so strongly felt by viewers that it borders on being contagious. Ruby Dee is lovely as the spirited and outspoken Mother Sister, who acts as a sort of matriarchal figure to the community. Adding to her presence is the contrasting figure of Da Mayor, played to perfection by Ossie Davis, who serves a number of roles in the film being both the token drunken bum and the eccentric, pseudo-intellectual philosopher with a big heart, but a small wallet.
Do the Right Thing, which sparked some controversy when it was originally released, can now be seen in a number of ways. Though the film could be simplified and its message used as a calling card for better communication, racial tolerance, and general understanding between groups in conflict, it could also be seen as a rather prophetic vision of this country's future. Much of the story foreshadows actual events that have occurred since the film's making, particularly the Rodney King beating in L.A. and the riots that ensued shortly thereafter as a result. Also, in recent years there have been numerous cases of police brutality and acts of violence motivated by race and/or religion.
The film was also controversial because some critics felt that the story, which was intended to be anti-racist, used racial stereotypes to make its case. What Spike Lee was trying to do was comment on these stereotypes by (1.) pointing out that sometimes the stereotype is what it is because it's based on fact, and (2.) that each person in the community is in essence incomplete without the others. Each character has a role in the community, each plays a part and contributes in some way, but until they all realize that they can't function as a whole without fighting amongst themselves then they, as an urban community, and we, as a multi-cultural society, will never achieve anything but the creation of disdain and disorder.
"The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists will we be?"
-Martin Luther King, Jr.
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