Monday, February 18, 2013

AFOS Blog Rewind: Do the Right Thing (Part 1 of 5)

It's Black History Month, so all this week, I'm reposting every single past AFOS blog post about one of my favorite films (and one of my reasons for wanting to get into showbiz), Do the Right Thing, the timeless (except for Radio Raheem's boombox and "Dump Koch") and still-bracing 1989 Spike Lee Joint. You can hear original score (or original song) selections from Do the Right Thing on AFOS.

(The following is from July 1, 2009.)

Radio Raheem entertains Mookie with his two-minute recap of The Night of the Hunter.
When I first saw Do the Right Thing in high school--this was a couple of years after the film debuted on VHS--I was more of a fan of Public Enemy than Spike Lee, whose films were too artsy for this kid who was more into Tim Burton's Batman and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. P.E.'s "Fight the Power" theme from Do the Right Thing and their earlier track, the Yo! MTV Raps staple "Night of the Living Baseheads," got me hooked on hip-hop and made me interested in seeing the much-hyped movie that introduced "Fight the Power."

Lee's film floored me. I had never seen anything like it before. The open-ended and complex screenplay about Bed-Stuy racial tensions introduced me to a more cerebral and mature kind of cinema, where there are no clear-cut heroes and villains, and like life, not everything has a tidy ending. Do the Right Thing helped improve my tastes in film. It was my gateway to Lee's other films, then to GoodFellas and Martin Scorsese's other films, and then to Chan Is Missing, Dog Day Afternoon and so on. Movies didn't have to dazzle me with just explosions and tits anymore. I learned to become dazzled by adult ideas and themes and--in the cases of Do the Right Thing and GoodFellas, another great late '80s/early '90s New York movie that was also robbed at the Oscars--brilliant dialogue and astonishing editing.

I first saw Do the Right Thing at a time when I became aware of the racism around me and embraced hip-hop because in their lyrics, rappers were anti-establishment, and they spoke to me about topics I was dealing with at the time--and in some ways, still do. As a teen of color, I identified with the anger and frustrations Lee's younger black characters--and P.E.--expressed in Do the Right Thing. I dug how Lee helped change African American cinema (as well as indie cinema) and empowered black viewers and would-be filmmakers with his bold, angry, funny and complex cinematic statement, and it made me want to someday create something for my community that would be equally bold, angry, funny and complex.

Because this week marks the 20th anniversary of the release of a film that influenced me (June 30, 1989), I thought it would be the perfect time to transcribe excerpts from a couple of Do the Right Thing-related phoners I recorded for a 1999 A Fistful of Soundtracks episode about the classic Spike Lee Joint. The Do the Right Thing ep was part of a series of 1999 AFOS eps called "I'm Gonna Party Like It's 1989."

Two decades after Do the Right Thing's release, even members of the film's cast and crew still can't decide on how they feel about Mookie throwing the trash can. The countless questions that the film raises have fascinated African American Do the Right Thing experts S. Craig Watkins, the author of Representing: Hip Hop Culture and the Production of Black Cinema (University of Chicago Press, 1998), and Mark A. Reid, the editor of Cambridge Film Handbooks' volume on Do the Right Thing (Cambridge University Press, 1997), whom I interviewed separately in 1999 for the show.

Almost all the pre-2000 broadcasts of AFOS were pre-recorded on audiocassette, and I don't have the equipment to transfer audiotape content to computer--the audio quality would suck anyway--so I'd rather just post text of the interviews below.


S. Craig Watkins: I think the movie struck a chord with a lot of young African Americans in particular, in terms of the way in which it played into the kind of neo-black nationalist politics that were being articulated in a variety of different ways across the African American community, particularly by young African Americans who were rediscovering leaders like Malcolm X, Black Panthers and even to some degree, a more militant version of Martin Luther King Jr. So I think this film tapped into the racial discord that was going on during that time... So in that sense, it represented the degree to which black filmmakers, black artists, were able to successfully tap into a lot of those mood shifts and social and political sensibilities that were taking place within the African American community.


'Wake up! Up you wake! Up you wake!'
In a separate interview with Mark A. Reid, the UF Gainesville English and film professor discussed some of the events in New York that shaped the film.


Jimmy J. Aquino: One interesting comment that you made in your book about Do the Right Thing was his ties to his family. He uses his family a lot in his movies. [Spike's father Bill composed Do the Right Thing's original score, and Spike and his sister Joie played siblings Mookie and Jade in Do the Right Thing. At one point in the film, a disgusted Mookie thinks his pizzeria boss Sal (Danny Aiello) is putting the moves on Jade. When Mookie tries to warn Jade, she laughs off her brother's suspicions.]

Mark A. Reid: In fact, sometimes, it's interesting to see how it's played out in Do the Right Thing, where he's trying to protect her, even though she seems like she's much more mature than him. He's trying to protect her against Sal and his Italian sausage. Anyway, uh...

What's interesting also is how he used the Fruit of Islam, how this film can also be taken as a critique of New York City politics. Some people even have argued that the film also helped to bring New York's first African American mayor...

JJA: For those listeners who aren't really aware of New York City political history, can you explain the resentment towards Ed Koch? [In Do the Right Thing, "Dump Koch" graffiti can be seen on a wall, and Sonny, Steve Park's Korean shopkeeper character, expresses his dislike of the then-mayor during the film's famous racial slur montage.]

MAR: Well, one thing is that Ed Koch divided the city--ethnic and racial lines. One thing you have to think about when you think about New York City is it's made up of boroughs, and Manhattan is not the only borough. There's other boroughs that are largely dominated by certain ethnic groups, and sometimes, those ethnic groups are in competition for space and jobs. With Ed Koch, although it was a city that... wasn't in bankruptcy, it was in bankruptcy when you think about the type of racial and ethnic conflict. It led to a lot of deaths during Ed Koch's administration. So I think that that's one of the things that brought together a group of people from different ethnic and racial communities to dump Koch. It was written on the wall.

Another thing about Koch is that he's the type of... Giuliani, right now, is mayor, but after this beating of the Haitian guy by the police officers and the murder of this African, Giuliani at least met with the Haitian and African community to discuss matters, whereas Koch would not do that. He's very flippant after these things happened...

With Giuliani, I think he's at least trying to alleviate that, although I don't think he's going to be successful with that because of the fact that these police officers seem like they're overdoing... He's not critical of the police force...

That's Miguel Sandoval from Repo Man and Medium as one of the NYPD patrolmen. The fact that not all the adversarial cops in Bed-Stuy were white was another nice touch in Do the Right Thing.
I recently did visit New York, and it's much a cleaner place, but it seems that the cleanliness... and the lack of much theft and everything, it's taken its toll on how the police deals with the people who pay their wages, the citizens.

This is why perhaps Do the Right Thing is necessary because it's still important when you think of the politics of New York right now. You see how the police are acting, and you see this scene where the police, in fact, accidentally murder this guy, suffocate him. It's interesting because you always will have in New York City struggles between ethnic groups. That's shown there. And it's beautiful in a sense because you also see ethnic groups that can work out their problems.

In Do the Right Thing--it's kind of humorous--the portrayal of the Korean shopkeeper, who's very interesting because he's able to talk to Radio Raheem on the same level, cursing and everything. It's interesting in the sense that he doesn't back down. It's interesting that Radio Raheem gives him a wink, saying "Yes, you're one of us," whoever "one of us" means to Radio Raheem.

It's also interesting, the relationships between the African Americans and the Puerto Ricans... They battle it out with music as opposed to using physical force. The only physical force that's played out is Sal and the police officers, and it's kind of interesting because the people who are considered of color don't do that. It's through language or music.

There's one instance of Savage...

JJA: John Savage's yuppie character...

MAR: ... who is gentrifying the neighborhood... It's kind of interesting because he is part of that neighborhood too. He's not a threatening figure even though he dirties...

JJA: ... Buggin' Out's Air Jordans.

MAR: He's not a person of color, but he's not a threatening figure. And if you think about the people who are threatening figures, they're the ones who pick up the bat or use physical force. They're authority figures...


To be continued. In Part 2 of this series of excerpts from archived A Fistful of Soundtracks interviews about Do the Right Thing, S. Craig Watkins discusses the film's incredible original music.

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