The Evolution of Spike Lee : ‘Do the Right Thing’ is a triumph of filmic maturity for a young writer-director-editor
In his pungently funny trailer for “She’s Gotta Have It,” Spike Lee, its mosquito-legged writer-director-editor, was discovered on a street corner in his trademark baseball cap, hightops and oversize glasses, peddling “Tube socks, tube socks, three for fi’ dollahs.” His rap was simple: You bought a ticket to his movie, you kept Lee off the streets and maybe he could stop selling these tube socks.
With the arrival of his preternaturally assured “Do the Right Thing,” Lee’s third feature, even those whom the movie riles up will have to concede one thing: Spike Lee is safely out of the tube sock business.
Each of Lee’s films has been a progression, however nothing he has done before quite prepares us for the richness of “Do the Right Thing,” for the picture-puzzle interlocking of its characters, for their organic, explosive humor or for Lee’s enormous assurance. It is one of those leaps that are sometimes called quantum, but may be simply the broad strides of a man born to make movies, which Lee, quite clearly was. The leap that “Do the Right Thing” represents from the two earlier features is roughly equivalent to the one Martin Scorsese made from “Who’s That Knocking on My Door?” to “Taxi Driver.” It was only eight years in time, ’68 to ’76, but light-years in the director’s power, his focus, his visual and story-telling sophistication.
Scorsese? Spike Lee? The accepted comparison, I suppose, would be to Melvin Van Peebles (the early 1970’s Van Peebles of “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song”) or to Woody Allen, for their comic stance and their work as writer-directors, or writer-director-actors. Yet there’s something seditious and Scorsese-like to “Do the Right Thing,” something about heat and intensity and a purely New York, faintly surreal vision. And something in the beautiful camera work of Ernest Dickerson, Lee’s customary cinematographer, may recall the opening of “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” or moments from “New York, New York.”
What is stunning to consider is the speed with which Lee’s technique has matured. Certainly having more money to work with is part of the equation, but Lee’s control seems to have increased a hundred-fold with each film. It seems impossible that “She’s Gotta Have It,” shot in 12 days in 16mm black and white, was made only three years ago.
A brash sex comedy, it made money for its distributors, which, considering the fact that it had cost $175,000 to make and had been invited to the New Director’s corner at Cannes, shouldn’t have been hard.
To look at it in the light of “Do the Right Thing” is to to wince at some of the other male performances, to groan at that dud color dream dance sequence and to see how Lee sometime killed his own jokes with undue fussiness. Nevertheless, some of his concerns were already in place: he was interested in different types within the same strata, and humor was clearly going to be his weapon.
“School Daze” (1988) was set in a college not unlike Lee’s own Morehouse. It took on color and class, apartheid and divestiture; perceived caste differences between dark- and light-skinned blacks; skirmishes between the college kids and townies, and political differences between young radicals and faculty members. It was a lot to do in a light vein, and it confused some audiences.
But its final dreamlike sequence, in which all segments of a divided campus are brought together by an alarm bell and told to “Wake up!” “School Daze” was a clear precursor to the issues of “Do the Right Thing.”
“Do the Right Thing” is certainly about the black community’s need to come together, but Lee wants everyone, not just the black community who knows it by heart, to understand the simmering mess that race relations are in right now. It’s a situation that has been papered over, avoided, denied or lied about during eight years under the Reagan Administration. The inner cities seem a remote part of the Bush agenda.
So Lee’s way of ringing that alarm bell is a 24-hour visit to the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn on the hottest day of the year, shot in colors that look like a reflection from hell itself.
“Do the Right Thing” is complex, bravura movie making. It is also hugely entertaining, since fortunately for us, Lee’s seditious method is to use humor to carry his biting message. The film’s enormous amount of humor is satiric, physical, sometimes inside, sometimes throw-away, but pervasive. It is attitude as much as anything else; a wry philosophical bent that has let more than one race get the best of the seemingly unendurable.
As he has before, Lee works with a cross-section but, more ambitiously this time, he writes from different ages, voices, races and attitudes. What gives the film its flint is watching those attitudes strike up against one another.
Lee forces us at every point to readjust our opinion of characters, to question them, to see that within even the most seemingly simple person are contradictions and shadings. The pizzeria’s Sal (Danny Aiello), so proud that over 25 years, the kids in this neighborhood have grown up on his food, can be looked at as solid and sincere in what he says, or, I suppose, as a man paternalistic as a plantation owner, whose slaves fed at his table, too.
Ossie Davis’ unofficial Mayor and Ruby Dee’s Mother Sister are the block’s sages--yet the Mayor, who’s also a genial alcoholic, is not exactly revered by a quartet of teen-agers on the block. In reply to an almost sentimental speech by the mayor about the pain of listening to his hungry children cry (its written sentiment stripped away by Davis’ innate power), one of the teen-agers tells him it isn’t gonna be that way for children of his, because he’s going to have a job.
Mother Sister can, for one instant, be caught up by the excitement of a looting spree, and in the next, screaming in soul-deep pain over what that really means.
Mookie, much of whose appeal comes from the fact that Lee plays him, is at the same time a lover and an absent father, a calming presence in his job at Sal’s Famous Pizzeria . . . and the igniting factor in the riot. And even there, his actions can be interpreted two ways. Sal might believe that Mookie’s lobbing a garbage can through his plate-glass window just at the moment when a mob was advancing on Sal and his two sons was diversionary. Mookie might see it as his expression of pure fury over the death of his friend, minutes before. If “Do the Right Thing” is about racism, it’s pan-racism. This once-Italian neighborhood is now mostly black, partly Puerto Rican; it has a pizzeria built and owned by Italian-Americans and a flourishing fruit and vegetable deli owned by recent Korean immigrants. Least we look on this as the melting pot in action, about mid-way through the heat-wave, everyone suddenly lets loose.
In one of those customary Lee moments when characters address the camera directly, there’s suddenly an orgy of invective: a black slanders Italians, an Italian turns on blacks, Puerto Ricans defame Koreans, a white lets loose against Puerto Ricans and a Korean derides Jews. The effrontery of it will remind you of Lenny Bruce, Lee’s use of it is almost calmly reportorial. You think things are going well here? Think twice.
In Lee’s view, there are no clear-cut heroes or villains, only multi-layered men and women with intensely human frailties, a point that reportedly worked against the film at Cannes with the jury’s president, Wim Wenders. Frankly, having seen (and hugely admired) the Cannes winner, “sex, lies and videotape” and “Do the Right Thing,” the scope, the complexity and the accomplishment of the two films is in no way comparable. “Do the Right Thing” wuz robbed.
Some people are complaining that Lee should be less ambiguous than he is with his film’s last 10 minutes. Well, defending “Da Butt,” a dance number in “School Daze” that cheerfully celebrated pride in anatomy, Lee replied to his critics at that time with a prickly open letter printed in Harper’s Magazine, the most moderate part of which read: “Just because I present problems, some people expect me to solve them. That’s really unrealistic. It’s a burden I won’t assume. I am 30 years old. I don’t have all the answers, and don’t pretend to. That’s not my job. We intended this film to provoke discussion, which is what it’s doing. . . . If we don’t address problems, they don’t get talked about and solved.”
At the very least, “Do the Right Thing” is going to get important things talked about. It would be a shame if, in the process, people lost sight of the fact that it is also blisteringly fine film making.