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AFI List: Do the Right Thing – 1989 (96)

29 Mar

Movie: Do the Right Thing Year: 1989 Genre: Drama

Starring: Danny Aiello, Spike Lee, Ossie Davis, John Tuturo, Rosie Perez,

I saw this film about 4 days ago. I have this on-going joke with friends of mine that I “bake” my thoughts – in other words, I’m a pretty pensive person, really, especially when I want to comment on something that could be a sensitive topic. So, I sit here at the computer, trying desperately to organize my thoughts about this and I decide to just bake my thoughts… this is the reason *this* write up also took a while.

I remember this film from my college film class and I must say, I had placed the memory of it deep into the folds in the back of my brain and forgot all about it until I saw it on the list and said “oh yeah… I liked that movie!” as we were reading the titles at work. A few days in advance of watching it, I couldn’t even remember the plot line, I’m embarrassed to say. The only thing I remember is that I really liked the movie and it seemed to move me.

I remember now why I liked it… and yes, it moved me again. Probably more this time.

I think I took a lot more away from this film this time than I did before – partially because of my difference in perspective: I’m almost 20 years older than when I saw it the first time; I’m a mother now; I’m divorced; I tend to be a little more patient and empathetic than I used to be. I tend to be a little more grounded now. I was idealistic and probably pretty naive back then, which I believe shaped my impression of the story itself. As I watched the film, though, I began to remember some of the impressions I had about it the first time – I remember liking (and being impressed with) how he was able to weave that many characters into a story. I liked how the characters addressed each other (back then, that was the first time I had seen it). I remember liking the dialog. I remember thinking that Mookie’s act at the end of the film was more of protection than anger because, at the time, the idealistic me didn’t accept the true anger people sometimes feel.

Now, however, having the perspective of a few years behind me, I see things a bit differently. I know that anger now, and I understand it better. Maybe that’s why I saw two major plot themes in this story: social/racial and generational. This film is renowned and recognized for the social impact, but the generational part of the theme I didn’t catch the first time I saw it – and isn’t really discussed in the research I’ve done. And, frankly, I don’t remember that part of the film from the last time I saw it…maybe because, most of the characters in the film were all older than me. But, now that I’m getting older and I’m evaluating my own life and what I’ve done with this wonderful opportunity I’ve been given, I think I noticed the generational aspect of the film and that it helped me relate more to all of the characters. I am simply blown away at the sheer talent of Spike Lee for this film – he wrote the whole thing in about 2 weeks, he directed it and even starred in it as a pretty pivotal character in the story.

From a technical stand point, there were two things I really loved about how he shot and produced this film:

  1. the use of music throughout the film – in addition to being a running geek, I’m also a music geek – well, music lover really – I have only scratched the surface of what there is to know about music and I seem to have a pretty ravenous appetite for learning about it. I appreciate music done well of almost any kind, so I tend to be sensitive to how it is used in films because, in my life, the music that I tend to go to as my favorites help ingrain memories for me – a soundtrack to my own life, if you will. Music, to me, was integral to this film. The most obvious is the heavy use of “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy, which opens the film, is blasted from the boombox of one of the characters in the film, and is played in key parts of the film when the story reaches it’s climax. There was also the DJ, played by Samuel L. Jackson that narrates and plays a “soundtrack” to the day – starting with his emphatic “Wake Up! Wake Up! Wake UP!!” at the beginning, his begging folks to chill out and some of the commentary throughout the day… like having a narrator without actually being obvious about it. Finally, there is a score that is played (it was mixed a little too loud for my taste) but is key to a conversation Sal has with one of his sons.
  2. How he uses the camera – There were many ways that I took notice of the way he used the camera. All the shots were pretty tight – not a lot of background noise. He used a lot of bright, vibrant colors (and film to capture them) to illustrate different feelings and attitudes. I also loved the way he used light in his shots. Ok, so yeah, I’m a bit of a camera geek, too.

This film is set in Brooklyn, NY in the summer and is supposed to be one of the hottest days of the year. There are a lot of characters in this film… It opens with the neighborhood waking up to the DJ (Samuel L. Jackson) telling everyone to wake up – one-by-one, you are introduced to Mother Sister (Ruby Dee), the older woman who sits at her window and watches over the neighborhood; “the mayor” (Ossie Davis) the older man who is the neighborhood alcoholic; Radio Raheem who blasts “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy; Smiley, the mentally impaired man who tries to sell photos of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr; the four teens (one of which is a very young Martin Lawrence); the three gentlemen sitting on the corner evaluating the goings on in the neighborhood, Buggin Out, Mookie and his sister Jade; the Puerto Ricans, including Tina and her son Hector who live with her mother, the Koren convenience store owner, and finally Sal and his sons Vito and Pino, who own the local pizza shop. There are more characters, but these are the main ones that are most integral to the story.

Sal’s pizza shop has been in the neighborhood for years and his sons work with him in the shop. Mookie is their delivery guy. Mookie has a good relationship with Vito, the younger son, and with Sal, but his relationship with Pino is strained because, quite frankly, Pino is an asshole. He does not want to be in this neighborhood and makes that clear from the opening shot of the film and throughout constantly reminds us that he’s profoundly unhappy working in a “black neighborhood” and wants to work closer to their own neighborhood. The first interactions of Pino and Mookie set the tone for the remainder of the story as each character develops.

As the day unfolds, and gets hotter, you see many interactions with the characters: the teenagers open the fire hydrant to cool off the younger kids, but get an Italian guy’s car wet which starts a fight; Radio Raheem has a “blast out” with the Puerto Ricans, who eventually concede; we discover that Tina’s son Hector is Mookie’s son and that they are lovers in a quarrel over him not spending enough time with her; we hear Pino throwing racial slurs throughout to Mookie and all of the people coming in to the Pizzeria, and Mookie trying to talk sense into him (“who’s your favorite basketball player?” – “Jordan… but he’s different” says Pino).

Throughout the day, though, the story lines incorporated interactions between generations…

  • We have the septuagenarians The Mayor and Mother Sister (Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee) who have been through rough periods in their lives – rougher than what the kids are experiencing today – and tend to be voices of reason throughout the film. Both of them, but The Mayor in particular, act as protectors and parental figures in the neighborhood.
  • Next, we have the three on the corner as well as Sal – they appear to be in their 50s – still vivacious, reminiscent of “the good old days” and less patient with their children’s generation.
  • Then, we have Jade (Mookie’s sister), Mookie, Radio Raheem, Smiley, Buggin Out, Pino, Vito, and Tina – all in their late 20s or early 30s and a little high strung; all still a little angry.
  • finally the gang of teenagers (Martin Lawerence’s crowd) who are young, naive, think they know more than they actually do.

Then we get to the turning point when Buggin Out becomes annoyed that there are “no brothers on the wall” of Sal’s Pizzeria. Sal tells Buggin Out that he’s Italian and it is his place and he’s “putting American Italians on my wall”. The argument escalates to the point where Sal tells Buggin Out  to leave. Buggin Out decides to boycott Sal’s and goes throughout the neighborhood to recruit boycotters. Everyone declines: the teens because they love it (and have had it their entire lives – “I was raised on Sal’s pizza!” exclaims the girl), the Mayor because he wants peace and cooler heads to prevail.

Eventually, though, Buggin Out does find some boycotters in kind with Radio Raheem and Smiley. As the Pizzeria is closing, the teenagers ask for one more slice for the night so Sal lets them in. Behind, them, however, is Radio Raheem, Smiley and Buggin Out. Sal orders them to leave and tells Raheem to turn the music down. Raheem refuses, so Sal smashes his radio with a baseball bat. The two begin fighting and the fight spills into the street, Radio Raheem almost killing Sal. The police arrive to break up the fight, but end up choking Raheem to death. The crowd is stunned at the sight of their friend being killed in front of them – Mookie grabs a garbage can and throws it through the window of Sal’s Pizzeria. The crowd erupts into a riot – destroying the Pizzeria, finally, with Smiley setting it on fire. The fire crews arrive to attempt to put it out, but end up having to manage the riot instead.

The last scene is the next morning when Mookie returns to Sal’s to collect his salary of $250 a week. Angry, Sal throws $500 at Mookie. Mookie throws $200 back and says “I owe you $50”. Sal asks what he’s going to do and Mookie responds “You know… work… and get paid”.

My initial impression – when I saw this movie about 20 years ago – was that Mookie was protecting Sal by throwing the garbage can. I don’t think that today. He looked angry to me – and the crowd had not yet started to riot… they all seemed to be in shock. To me, it seemed like he felt a violent anger and, rather than directing it another person and risking more injury or death to a person, directed it to a building. The rest of the crowd followed suit. In a weird way, I think it did protect Sal a little – most of the crowd blamed him for Radio Raheem’s death – but I did not take away from that scene that Mookie was intentionally trying to divert attention away from Sal – he was dealing with his own anger and didn’t seem to think much about anybody else around him. The other thing I really caught this time around that I don’t remember thinking last time was the familial relationship between Sal and Mookie that was best displayed during their “reconciliation” the next day. Although it was quite strained between them, they still seemed to display a genuine affection for each other, in spite of the events from the evening before. Thus… to me, at least, showing more of a father-son relationship than anything – as though Sal thinks of Mookie as his kid – who screwed up – but he still loves him and cares about his well being.

I mentioned that the film moved me – I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve. That last scene moved me the most because of the father-son relationship I saw. The riot scene the night before made my heart break for the entire neighborhood, especially when you hear from The Mayor, having the benefit of wisdom, trying desperately to keep everyone calm and told them “let’s not do something now we’ll regret tomorrow”. My heart broke for Radio Raheem – to be murdered, basically, in such a way. My heart broke for his friends and neighbors – to see that. My heart broke for Sal – just trying to run a business and loving his customers – all of them – and to see one of them murdered broke his heart, too. My heart broke for the teens – so young to see all this violence.

I am really glad this film was on the list – it was really good to watch it again and I am still in awe of Spike Lee’s talent.

Next up: The Last Picture Show #95 – I had heard people rave about this one before, but I don’t know much about it… yet.

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Posted by on March 29, 2012 in AFI 100 Years List

 

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2 responses to “AFI List: Do the Right Thing – 1989 (96)

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