Wednesday, February 20, 2013

AFOS Blog Rewind: Do the Right Thing (Part 3 of 5)

Paul Benjamin, Robin Harris and Frankie Faison as the Statler and Waldorf, and uh, Statler of Do the Right Thing.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: Parts 1 and 2. The following is from July 1, 2009.)

Do the Right Thing caused quite a stir at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival, dividing the audience, the jurors and the guest filmmakers. German filmmaker and Cannes juror Wim Wenders complained that Mookie was not enough of a hero for throwing the trash can in the film's climax. Later on, star/director Spike Lee would say that somewhere in his closet is a baseball bat with Wenders' name on it.

When the film was first released, some critics feared it would incite black moviegoers to riot or start fights in the theaters, while more open-minded critics praised it for its ambiguity. Desson Thomson of the Washington Post called Do the Right Thing radical filmmaking at its best, and Roger Ebert said "it comes closer to reflecting the current state of race relations in America than any other movie of our time... this movie is more open-ended than most. It requires you to decide what you think about it... Do the Right Thing doesn't ask its audiences to choose sides; it is scrupulously fair to both sides, in a story where it is our society itself that is not fair."

The Los Angeles Film Critics Association was as equally awed by Do the Right Thing, and they awarded the film with Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (for Danny Aiello as Sal) and Best Music honors. Meanwhile, the Oscars acted like the film didn't exist, although it was nominated for Aiello's performance and Lee's screenplay. In one of the most memorable moments from the Oscar telecast that year, a nervous and trembling Kim Basinger criticized the Academy for snubbing Do the Right Thing, which she called "the film that might tell the biggest truth of all." Barely anybody applauded, but Lee, who was in the audience, passed on a note of thanks to Basinger after her shout-out.

This week, Do the Right Thing makes its debut on Blu-ray with a few more extras than the already fully loaded 2001 Criterion DVD. This series of partial transcripts of segments from A Fistful of Soundtracks' 1999 episode about one of my favorite films concludes with more comments from S. Craig Watkins, the author of Hip Hop Matters: Politics, Pop Culture and the Struggle for the Soul of a Movement (Beacon Press, 2005), and Mark A. Reid, the editor of Cambridge Film Handbooks' volume on Do the Right Thing (Cambridge University Press, 1997), whom I interviewed separately for the show.


Jimmy J. Aquino: Let's talk about Spike Lee's portrayals of the white characters in Do the Right Thing. What fascinates you about these characterizations?

S. Craig Watkins: What's really interesting about Spike's representation of whiteness is a number of things. I think that was the first of his feature films that actually involved white characters. Prior to that, most of his movies had been all-black casts, all-black-themed types of movies. So one of the questions that was actually posed to him as Do the Right Thing was being released was "Spike, how was it trying to direct white actors? How was it trying to write characters who are white?" The presumption for having that question was that a black filmmaker really had little of any knowledge or familiarity with whiteness, so therefore, he or she would have difficulty imagining, creating and directing white characters. Obviously, there's some sort of racial implications embedded in that in terms of... It's okay, I guess... White filmmakers are never asked, "Well, how is it creating or directing a black character?" So the question then is "Why is it that black filmmakers should have difficulty?," particularly given the sort of savvy ways in which blacks see, experience and understand whiteness in our society today anyway.

The annoying government agent from Transformers hates both robots and black people.
The other interesting thing about Spike Lee and his representation of whiteness and the white characters in the movie is that Sal is by far the most fully developed character in that movie, in terms of being a well-rounded, three-dimensional character. We see multiple sides of whiteness, multiple kinds of conflicting values around race, class, community, pride and ethnicity that are articulated via Sal's character. In that sense, it really showed how Spike on occasion is able to create very interesting, very nuanced types of characters.

The other thing too that I thought was very important about his portrayal of whites in that movie is I think it would have been very easy for Spike Lee and later African American filmmakers to play on what we might call counterracial stereotypes of whites, and that is depicting whites as the villains, in very one-dimensional, flat ways. I think what he was able to do in Do the Right Thing is to show and suggest that there are multiple ways in which whiteness gets expressed. There are multiple racial attitudes that white Americans develop. So in that sense, the way in which each of the white characters in the movie--and I'm talking specifically about Sal the father and his two sons--they all in some ways represented very different kinds of white racial sensibilities, white racial experiences and white relationships to blacks and blackness.


Reid explains why Lee's perspective gave Do the Right Thing an edge over other films about race relations.


JJA: How does Do the Right Thing succeed in its portrayal of racial animosity and racism, whereas other films about racism have failed?

Mark A. Reid: Like what other films would you say have failed?

JJA: Not so much as failed, but more problematic. For instance, films that portray tumultuous episodes in African American or African history, but it's really the story about the white friend of the black leader.

MAR: Oh, those types of films. I see. I think it's very important that a black directed the film. I'm not saying that any film directed by a black is going to be successful about portraying racism, but I think it's very important that Spike Lee's an African American. I think it's important also, to add on to that, that he's an African American that is aware of racism. In his film, the active characters are not just white people. It's very important to have a large swipe of different types of blacks that are involved, as opposed to one unique black and maybe two or three whites. I think that's what Spike Lee films do. They activate those blacks who are involved...

When you think of... Who Killed Vincent Chin? I don't think a white person could have made that film. I know somebody's going to call me an essentialist. I think at that point in time, when that film was made, I think it was very important that an Asian person made the film--and an Asian person who's talented, just like Spike Lee. Although he has a lot of flaws, he's a very talented filmmaker, and his language is well-versed in black culture.

'Aiiight, Radio Raheem, I feel ya, man. Now can you take it easy on my hand? I need it for delivering this pizza.'
I think it comes down to that--who the director and the writers are, when you work in a collective where you have mixed people, and you listen to all their different cultural stories and languages, to create a film... Because when Spike Lee made that film, his Italian American stars wrote a lot of what they'd say, and if they didn't believe in what they were doing, they'd say, "You know, we should do it this way." Spike Lee was a strong enough director to accept that. I think that's very important. Although I think he had a problem dealing with that in Jungle Fever, when Annabella Sciorra... I think he was unable to accept her reading of that relationship. But I think he's a director that's able to work with actors and be led by them sometimes.

JJA: Mark Reid, thank you.

MAR: Oh, you're welcome very much, and I enjoyed this. I learned something.

JJA: What did you learn?

MAR: That I didn't know that much about Spike Lee's films. [A woman in Reid's office can be heard laughing in the background.]

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