Tuesday, February 19, 2013

AFOS Blog Rewind: Do the Right Thing (Part 2 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, 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.

(Previously on AFOS: The Blog: Part 1. The following is from July 1, 2009.)

Duel of the tapes
"I've been listening to 'Cool Jerk' by the Capitols. It's a real classic, fast and upbeat, and it brings to mind summer in the city. This may be the song for the opening credits sequence. I see Rosie Perez dancing to 'Cool Jerk' all over Brooklyn at the first heat of dawn. Rosie doing the Cool Jerk on the Brooklyn Bridge, on the promenade, and on various rooftops."

--Spike Lee, the May 17, 1988 entry in his production journal, Do the Right Thing (Fireside Books, 1989)

Do the Right Thing wouldn't have been the same without Public Enemy's rousing and confrontational original song, "Fight the Power." I can't imagine the film opening with Lee's earlier choice of "Cool Jerk." The series of excerpts from my 1999 A Fistful of Soundtracks interviews with African American Do the Right Thing experts continues with a discussion with S. Craig Watkins, a UT Austin professor of sociology, African American studies and radio-television-film, about one of the film's most powerful and effective elements, its soundtrack.

The Do the Right Thing soundtrack consisted of original songs by artists ranging from P.E. to Take 6 and a Copland-esque original jazz score composed by Lee's father Bill and performed by the Natural Spiritual Orchestra, which you can hear selections from on the Fistful of Soundtracks channel. For the film, Bill Lee assembled a septet that included saxman Branford Marsalis and trumpeter Terence Blanchard (who later became Lee's regular composer), as well as a 48-piece string section.


'This goes out to all the baby mamas, including the white ones. Much love, Amy Po-Po.'
Jimmy J. Aquino: Although Do the Right Thing was a pivotal moment in black cinema, the mainstream films directed by African Americans in the next couple of years were from the gangsta genre instead of being influenced by the Spike Lee Joints, which were more cerebral. Why was that so?

S. Craig Watkins: Much of black cinema, I would argue, tends to be influenced by what's happening in black popular music. In Do the Right Thing, you see Spike using a number of different kinds of black musical genres, styles and traditions. The one song that really, really drives the movie and I think is the most remembered is the song "Fight the Power" by Public Enemy, which is playing into this kind of hyper-racialized neo-black nationalist politics that were taking place during that time, and so he features that and uses that as the energy that drives his movie. But as that's happening, at the same time, we see in 1988/1989/1990 a new trend taking place within the field of black American popular music, more specifically rap music, in terms of the emergence of gangsta rap, and what we see eventually in the film industry, again tapping into that same energy, tapping into that same vibe, tapping into what gangsta rap was saying, doing and how it was resonating with consumers. So we see the movies also turning more and more in that direction...

JJA: Is there anything else that you find intriguing about Spike Lee's use of music in Do the Right Thing?

SCW: Yeah, one of the things I like to say in terms of giving Spike Lee some props regarding his movies is that he's always understood that black musical styles and traditions have a long history, a long legacy and are very diverse. Compare, for example, soundtracks that were typically associated with a lot of popular action ghetto-themed movies throughout the 1990s. Most of these soundtracks are most exclusively gangsta rap music, hardcore, harder-edged kind of music, which in some ways, don't necessary illuminate the complex and rich history of black music.

On the other hand, soundtracks that Spike Lee generally compiled for his movies--and Do the Right Thing is a perfect example--you've got your traditional R&B songs on there, a reggae-style joint on there, you have the rap music by Public Enemy, you have the black female rhythm and blues tradition... He did a jazz score for the movie and subsequently released a jazz score CD. So my main point is that Do the Right Thing, that soundtrack, as well as a number of his other films--particularly School Daze comes to mind--he draws from a broad cross-section of black musical traditions, tapping into an understanding, just how complex, diverse and dynamic black American music has been.


Not all the films we love are perfect. The Cambridge Film Handbooks volume on Do the Right Thing that UF Gainesville English professor Mark A. Reid edited is a compilation of essays that both praise and critique Lee's controversial film. The book also reprints film critics' reviews of Do the Right Thing from the summer of 1989. During A Fistful of Soundtracks' 1999 episode about Do the Right Thing, I wanted to hear from Reid what he thought were the film's merits and if there was anything that was missing from Lee's depiction of 1989 Bed-Stuy.


JJA: In the film's portrayal of Bed-Stuy and the interracial tensions... is there anything in this portrayal of racial politics that it overlooks?

Mark A. Reid: Well, one would have to know the Bedford-Stuyvesant area pretty well to be able to say that it overlooks it, but I think it gives an ample picture of the different types of African Americans that live there. You have the West Indians and the different types, and you have the African Americans. You have the fact that there are Korean shopkeepers. Perhaps when Spike was younger, they weren't Korean. They were probably either Jewish or maybe Arab. The fact that there's gentrification going on in Bed-Stuy. But gentrification isn't always white yuppie. It's also buppies. We can see that in Jungle Fever, when in fact, the people who live in that area--and I think it's Harlem--the people that gentrified that area, and they're all upwardly mobile African American couples. You do have the hanger-on who's probably been there a long time... and you have different types of reactions by this Italian American family. I think that's interesting.

'1989, the number, another summer...'
You don't get much of an art community around there, and I think there is a black art community that developed because they couldn't afford to live in Manhattan. You don't get the fact that there's drugs, and everybody has criticized him for that. I think if he introduced that, he'd have to develop it, and it would probably overtake the story he's trying to tell...

Do the Right Thing, although it's interesting and everything, I still think it's a very thin film. I think it's an important film because politically, how it was used when it came out and what is criticized in the film, not only Koch, but the brutality that some law officers--although that, I think, was an accident--they abuse their power. It does talk about the tension that was mounting, that would later erupt, and not only in Bedford-Stuyvesant, but in Los Angeles, the trial of Rodney King. It's like a marker. It sees certain things that are happening in the urban situation between blacks and other ethnics. Because ultimately, it did happen between the Korean businesspersons in Los Angeles.

JJA: And also, years before in New York, there were conflicts between the Korean shopkeepers and the blacks.

MAR: Right. But the thing is that what would have been interesting is that also--which is I guess it's hard to do in most films since you have a singular narrative that dominates a film--is that it's very important to understand who those Koreans are and their culture, and that's what we don't get. If Koreans come from a culture where you don't touch people when you're handing back the money or other things, and other people who aren't Korean read it differently, then there's a miscommunication, and it's on both parts, the Koreans and whoever the other community is, be it African American or Mexican American or whatever. It would be interesting to have a film that dealt with that and dealt with what Do the Right Thing did.


Watkins explains why even some black viewers thought Do the Right Thing fell short.


SCW: I would argue that the problem with Do the Right Thing in retrospect is that it also illuminated some of the limitations with the kind of racial politics, the racial ideology, that the movie both played on and used as a driving and narrative force. Some thought that it was a bit overdone, in terms of the black racial politics. Some thought that the black racial politics were articulated in ways that weren't either nuanced or very sophisticated, in terms of the kinds of characters who were the leading proponents of a prism of the black progressive agenda. Here, I'm talking about, for example, the character of Buggin' Out, who many argue--and I think accurately so--was basically more of a caricature than a character per se.


I asked Reid about some black viewers' gripes with Giancarlo Esposito's Buggin' Out character.


Mookie and respected black scholar Buggin' Out
JJA: There's this interesting criticism about Buggin' Out, that Spike Lee's portrayal of Buggin' Out is a mockery of black political activism.

MAR: It's a mockery in a sense that what Buggin' Out wants to do is boycott Sal's, as opposed to... In the history of African Americans, we boycott, and we also choose another alternative to Sal at the same time. What Buggin' Out wants to do is change pictures, which really doesn't mean that much. It's superficial.

JJA: It's about image.

MAR: Right. Why wouldn't he say, "Hire more people from the community"? Why wouldn't he help support somebody else who wants to build a small restaurant and teach them--an internship? That's what a boycott could do. A boycott to change photographs on a wall? "You put up Muhammad Ali and you put up a basketball player"? So what? That's decoration.

But even within the film, the characters didn't take Buggin' Out that seriously. Spike Lee using those characters and taking that not so seriously means that they're waiting for a more serious type of political activism than what Buggin' Out offers them. So I wouldn't look at it totally as a critique of black activism. I'd look at it as a critique of a certain type of black activism, which might, in fact, be a critique of Al Sharpton. That hasn't ever been discussed, but you could see that at that point in time. I don't know what "Tawana Told the Truth" means. Are we supposed to take it seriously or is it like a critique of the Tawana Brawley thing? That's the problem too... But the thing is that do we want a conclusive "Yes, this is what it's about"? Or do we want to be forced to think about these issues? I think that maybe that's what Spike Lee is doing.


Watkins offers his take on the film's open-endedness.


JJA: Another intriguing aspect about Do the Right Thing is the narrative techniques. What's unconventional about these narrative techniques?

SCW: What Spike does in Do the Right Thing in some ways is indicative of the way he approached film early on in his career--adopting and incorporating very stylized, very non-conventional kinds of cinematic techniques into his own narratives. One of the problems that a lot of people had with Do the Right Thing is that the narrative structure was very unconventional, both in terms of the way the story evolves, but perhaps more importantly, in terms of the way in which the story is concluded. That is how he goes about trying to engage in narrative closure, when in fact, he engages in a more open-ended kind of narrative structure.

Later, Domino's moved into Bed-Stuy after the end of Sal's, and the neighborhood pizza was never the same again.We as filmgoers are so accustomed to movies where there's a definitive beginning, definitive middle and decisive end. I think that Do the Right Thing threw a lot of people off and was perhaps part of what made it a sensational movie in 1989--sensational in the sense that perhaps more so than any other movie during that year, it attracted considerable media attention. It attracted considerable attention within the academic community. There was a very interesting and profound buzz about the movie, and I think part of that was because the movie ended on a series of question marks as opposed to definitive conclusions and definitive statements. It left people wondering, "What was the right thing?" Was Mookie right or justified when he threw the trash can through Sal's pizzeria window and then started the incident that ensued from that point on? What are the right racial politics and black political ideology? Is it Malcolm's version or is it Martin Luther King Jr.'s version? What are the best and most effective ways for blacks to deal with perceived racial injustices and real racial injustices?

So because the movie ended in that way, I think it caught a lot of people off guard and left a lot of people pondering a lot of different questions, which I actually liked because what it does is, unlike most films, which pretend that the kinds of issues, conflicts and crises that it might address during the middle of the film, instead of pretending that those conflicts, tensions and crises can be easily resolved through some heroic individual or some heroic stance, what Do the Right Thing suggests is that many of society's deepest and most profound social problems are in some ways almost unfortunately... very difficult, and you can't come up with a very tidy ending to address these issues. This is something that we need to leave open-ended. This is a debate that we need to have, an ongoing conversation. I think the movie, in terms of a narrative sense, provoked that kind of discourse, provoked that kind of conversation. When I was in graduate school at the time, I could remember a number of different panels and a number of different forums. Even one of the local theaters in the city where I was in school in Michigan actually screened the movie and then had a post-film discussion.


To be continued. In Part 3 of this series of excerpts from archived interviews about Do the Right Thing, Watkins praises the film's nuanced characters.

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