Do The Right Thing

A part of this viewing list: Criterion Collection Spine #97: Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing.

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It might be a bit reductive to compare Spike Lee and Jane Campion [An Angel at My Table] in terms of minority filmmaking, but it is interesting to see how their films exert themselves in that sort of space. I think they can be called “minority films” because the directors’ engagement and identification with their minority status informs and directs what takes place on the screen.

I think Spike Lee is ultimately more successful at this. Do The Right Thing is still effective and contemporary because nothing in the film is contained; the experience of watching the film, and the action itself are just as messy as real life, while still presented in Lee’s unique subjectivity. Because of this, any person who watches Do The Right Thing has a point of access that is not alienating.

Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys a community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends by defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.

-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

They key point in the previous quote, as it seems to me, is: “it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding.” By providing such a varied and non-judgmental setting, Spike Lee enables King, Jr.’s words a chance to take effect. Whereas, in my experience of Campion’s films, points of access for understanding are much more difficult to discern due to her focus on a single protagonist’s subjectivity. In the Cut is a perfect example of this, but it is also present in Angel at My Table and to a lesser extent in The Piano.

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Bamboozled [if only I could find my Film Theory paper on it] is another Spike Lee Joint where multiple perspectives mesh together into a real-world mess of authenticity and subjectivity. It adds another facet to the milieu of Do The Right Thing. Everyone in Do The Right Thing is authentic, but in Bamboozled the characters have to confront the consequences of soul-selling and being considered a race traitor. I like Bamboozled more than Do The Right Thing, even if it is a less perfect and more troubling film.

I always seem to get to production values at the end. Do The Right Thing is a perfect film in this regard. Colors and film stock make the spectator feel the Bed-Stuy summer heat, increasingly prevalent dutch angles reinforce the precarious fire watch atmosphere, and when the confrontation finally comes it is still surprising how hot the conflagration gets. The aftermath is just as surprising. While Spike Lee is deliberately not specific with a Jerry Springer “Final Thought” the whole construction of the film is such that it encourages anyone with two neurons to rub together to think about what it means to do the right thing.

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Criterion Essay by Roger Ebert
• Screenplay
Spike Lee Interview
Salon article on the effects of Public Enemy’s Fight the Power. [Uncut and Uncensored YouTube music video]
• YouTube clip