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Looking for Columbus Day Plans? See ‘Do the Right Thing’ at the Brattle.
On Oct. 10, the Brattle Theater will play two showings of “Do the Right Thing,” at 1:00 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. If you’ve seen the film, there’s a good chance you’ll want to check it out again. If you haven’t, now’s your chance: Take it.
Most Harvard students I’ve spoken to haven’t seen the 1989 Spike Lee joint. I’m not sure why this is, given that Lee is one of the most acclaimed directors working today — no, of all time — and that the film’s themes resonate a good deal with the 2022 college-campus zeitgeist, as focused as that zeitgeist is on looking racism and racial tension straight in the face. Maybe on New Year’s Day 2020 or 2010, movies from the 1980s became consigned to the dustbin of the Old, and “Do the Right Thing” started to emit a pheromonal miasma of tedium and stuffiness. Maybe, unbeknownst to me, something about the picture was found at some point to be problematic, and it was sentenced to fade quietly into popular obscurity. And of course, there are always the old saws: Maybe Harvard students just don’t have the time.
Whatever the cause of the movie’s unwatchedness among Harvard students, the present state of affairs does a disservice not so much to the film, which will be just fine, thank you very much, as to the students themselves. “Do the Right Thing” is one of the most energetic, and energizing, movies I have ever seen (I’ll leave more objective superlative claims to critics who have seen more movies, of whom there is no shortage). It is a hip-hop picture not only on its surface, its Brechtian opening credits featuring Rosie Perez dancing furiously to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” (a song written for the movie) on a Bed-Stuy–backdropped stage, but also to its core. It paints the Bedford-Stuyvesant block on which it is set in colors so bright and observes its denizens from angles so Dutch as to be bombastic, so that the picture embodies cinematically the aesthetic spirit that Chuck D and Flavor Flav embody musically.
“Do the Right Thing,” however, is not an exact filmic analogue of “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.” Public Enemy is trying to start a revolution; if “Do the Right Thing” believes fiercely that a change must come, it is also profoundly ambivalent about how it should — or if, indeed, it can. The movie climaxes in conflagration, and as the radio host Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson) surveys the ashes of the dénouement, he asks: “Are we going to live together?” It’s a question to which “No” is a real answer.
And a devastating answer, in large part because of how lovingly “Do the Right Thing” has spent the previous two hours sketching its dramatis personae. For a picture that feels as powerfully forward-moving as it does, “Do the Right Thing” has astonishingly little in the way of plot. Its entire story can be more or less summed up thus: on a scorching summer day, the residents of a Bed-Stuy block and the merchants who work on that block confront racism, both personal and structural, as they try to make a living and stand the heat.
The story can be that simple because the film spends most of its runtime developing a cast of characters played by the finest ensemble of any picture I can name. The movie features half a dozen performances that, in almost any other picture, would be head-over-shoulders standouts, including those of neighborhood elder statesmen Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) and Mother Sister (Ruby Dee); budding representational politics activist Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito); “Fight the Power” blaster Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn); the almost omnisciently narratorial Mister Señor Love Daddy; the Greek chorus–like trio of ML (Paul Benjamin), Coconut Sid (Frankie Faison), and Sweet Dick Willie (Robin Harris); and protagonist Mookie (Lee himself), through whose eyes we see most — but not all — of the block’s dynamics unfold.
And then there is Pino Fragione (John Turturro), the film’s one overt and aggressive racist (in one particularly charming instance, he likens Bed-Stuy to “Planet of the Apes”). James Baldwin once criticized “The Defiant Ones”’s portrayal of “a kind of pathetic, unthinking racist” for flattening racism into a peculiar and somehow less-than-human vice. Baldwin, one imagines, would have liked “Do the Right Thing;” or at least he would not have lodged that particular complaint against it. Even Pino gets Lee’s boundless love, and though we do not like him by the movie’s end, we cannot despise him as we do an insect or a cartoon Nazi; he is too human for that.
Indeed, it is one of the film’s most impressive feats that, even as it immortalizes itself with every shot and every line of dialogue, it remains an unflaggingly human piece of art. Its characters are both personages and persons. This is one of several syntheses Lee pulls off with aplomb. Another lies in Love Daddy’s “Are we going to live together?” line, which embodies the film’s accomplishment not of skating between protest-filled outrage and elegiac sadness but of effecting both at once; and still another lies in the fact that the film is all at once a political meditation, a character study, and a propulsively told story.
In none of this is “Do the Right Thing” show-offish. It is political without being crudely moralistic and visually beautiful without being ostentatious. It is of the kind of verve that is confident enough not to need validation from its viewer, and its thoughtfulness is always partner rather than impediment to the effusiveness of its filmmaking (contemporary viewers might bear in mind Paul Beatty’s half–tongue-in-cheek theory of “unmitigated Blackness” as “simply not giving a fuck” and realizing “that there are no absolutes, except when there are”).
Which is to say that “Do the Right Thing,” in addition to being my pick for the Great American Film, is also just (“just!”) a really good movie; life and Harvard Square are unlikely to offer a better use of $12 and two hours of a three-day-weekend.
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