Sunday, June 28, 2009

Do the Wrong Thing: My experience watching Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing"

Michiana--It was twenty years ago this summer that I first saw Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" at a local theater. At the time, I was a pretty big fan of his film, "She's Gotta Have It" (1986), which miraculously came to a local theater, and it was projected in its original 16mm format, a rarity!

I never got to see "School Daze" (1988), it never came to South Bend, and that's probably a good thing since it sucks and doesn't hold-up very well.

Now, it wasn't as though I thought Lee was a racially progressive director by any stretch of the imagination, but it wasn't yet clear that he was (and I assume still is) a dyed-in-the-wool bigot, possibly even a racist. I'm sure that he still is a borderline racist, but he has bills to pay, so he's shut his big mouth about it over the years and that's good since the largest proportion of his audience is white (as opposed to Tyler Perry).

I went to see Do the Right Thing at a theater I'd seen more than a few great films at, including another one dealing with race titled "Mississippi Burning," and it was a very unique experience indeed. There was an old black couple there who had most definitely lived through the horrors of Jim Crow, the lynchings, the terror of white hate, and all the rest, because in the first lynching they could no longer take it and had to leave. The wounds were still very deep indeed in the late-1980s and it had been less than twenty years since the Civil Rights era as we know it had ended. Talk of the Vietnam War was still common as well, and it was equally contentious.

And so, 1989 rolled-into-place and I was finally going to get to see another "Spike Lee Joint" (a phrasing I still find stupid). I was excited, and the movie didn't disappoint...until the ending. OK, it was bad enough that Lee sloppily copped the "good hand," "bad hand" metaphor from Charles Laughton's "Night of the Hunter" (1956)--that was pretty close to plaigiarism. And the bigotry of several of the black characters was certainly offensive, with much of it going either unpunished or without much or any comment at all. That wasn't Spike Lee's greatest sin, but it was equally as intellectually dishonest as the ending.

1989 was the very end of the Koch era in NYC, and the allegations of police brutality at that time were flying. Many of them were reasonable. As is often the case, one specific incident is usually enough to spark protests, even riots, in NYC's boroughs, and it's safe to assume that police brutality is an ongoing phenomena not only in the Big Apple, but throughout America at any given political moment. Towards the ending of the film, Lee portrays a choke-hold death that actually occurred in Brooklyn not long before it was written and produced, it's a horror to watch, and it's as ugly as it should be--no arguments here.

The problem rests with the fact that his character "Mookie" (played by Lee himself, the author & director of the film) then decides to throw a garbage can through the window of his employer's Pizza joint because he's thinks they're to blame for the entire mess when they clearly are not within his own narrative. Not only is this wrong, it's dishonest and poor craftsmanship, bad writing.

The reaction by my fellow moviegoers who happened to be African-American was resounding: they cheered-him-on. But it gets worse. A number of young black kids kept milling around as the credits rolled, giving me the evil eye. It gets even worse from there. Outside of the theater, in broad daylight, several of them made motions that they were going to move on me and commit an act of violence. It was clear that they had been emboldened by the message of the film, and there's no excuse for this. To put it bluntly, I looked at them with a stance of, "If you touch me, I'm going to seriously hurt you," and it worked...but barely.

These kids were simply wrong. I had been scapegoated as a child by our educational system and was swept into the same shoddy classes as the black kids. Lee suggested by his act in Do the Right Thing that indiscriminate, racially-based attacks on others in retaliation for acts in-kind by others was and is preposterous, and those kids took his cue.

I know what it's like to be discriminated against, you bet.


  1. I also liked Do the Right Thing, but I thought it showed an interesting level of complexity that unfortunately probably went over most people's heads. I found most of the characters annoying, particularly Mookie, but that was OK because this was a story of real people, not of heroes and villains. When Mookie throws the garbage can through the window, it's in response to Sal's (Danny Aiello) explanation, "Hey, we do what we have to." Mookie isn't right or wrong for his outburst of violence. I think the message was simply that the violence was simmering under the surface of everyone in the picture, just waiting for something to bring it out. The most brilliant bit of irony in the picture was the scene near the end. Smiley, who has spent the entire movie trying to get Sal to post a picture of MLK Jr. and Malcolm X, two people who worked tirelessly for equal rights and (in the case of MLK) peaceful coexistence, finally triumphantly posts his pictures in the midst of the burning restaurant. It was an excellent ironic touch, and I wasn't ever sure that Spike Lee understood his own brilliance.

    Of course, I still think that Spike Lee, the MAN, is still one of the most annoying people on the planet. But, I forgive him a lot for 26th Hour, which I really liked.

  2. I don't disagree, but you're forgetting one very important thing: the patrons of Sal's Pizza joint came into his establishment meaning harm, it was a provocation, and it's unmistakable as such.

    If those morons in the story had a problem, it should have been with the cops, and I would have cheered them on in kicking their asses all over the place, it would have been appropriate.

    But I couldn't disagree more that what Mookie does is simply stupid and wrong, just as it was stupid and wrong of a bigoted writer/director to put it in the film, but that's his right just as it's anyone's to criticize him for being wrong-headed. He excels at it.

    The violence was definitely simmering, but none of that was Sal's fault directly, their actions were just stupid and base, moronic-at-best.

    I honestly think Spike realized this too late and merely attached the image of Malcolm X and MLK Jr. together to cover his ass, period.

    But I am a believer in peaceful coexistence. Spike probably does too, but out of practicality, or he would never be able to get a movie made, ever again.

    I wouldn't describe Lee as brilliant anymore. He had an opening at one point and blew it several times, beginning partly with this film.