I’ve been thinking about Do The Right Thing. Saw it Saturday night at Cinespia’s summer screening series at Hollywood Forever (Questlove spinning before and after! Great night!). Lurking under the surface of that film has always been something for me that I’m finally able to understand–in my head at least. I’m going to try to articulate it here in words. Which is the strange representation of both time and space and the strange ways it elevates the allegorical quality of the narrative.
— Cinespia (@cinespia) June 14, 2015
Like many of Lee’s joints, the characters are archetypal. They stand for something. They stand in for something.
This quality feels stiltedly dialectical and burdensome in Get On the Bus–a particularly excruciating low point when the men discuss how they were raised by their mothers.
It reaches a profound, meta-critical apex in Bamboozled, the thesis of which is revealed exactly half-way through the movie: Pierre Delacroix’s (Damon Wayans) estranged father, a standup comic named Junebug (Paul Mooney), tells him with tossed-off frankness that lands with the impact of concrete that “every nigger is an entertainer.” One realizes at that moment–the film’s purpose has been to present a taxonomy of the ways black people must perform in America–and the main conflict for our lead characters has been, will always be–what role will each choose to perform? What will the consequences be for playing that role?
In Do The Right Thing, the characters are meant to stand in for the typical characters who might populate the Brooklyn Bed-Stuy neighborhood of the 1980s. Kindly Neighborhood Drunk. Street-Corner Philosophers. Crew of Goofballs. White Gentrifier. Responsible Older Sister speaking for positivity and responsibility. Pizzeria Owner, Minor Godfather of his Tiny Kingdom, all Italian paternalism, with his sons Hothead Malcontent and Spineless Patsy. Uptight Korean Shop Owners. They are introduced not as people but as leitmotifs over the first 10 minutes, in solos, pairs and trios, like dancers.
Don’t worry about getting what these characters are standing in for–Spike Lee doesn’t do subtlety here and their names do much of the work: Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito), Mother-Sister (Ruby Dee), Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), our narrator, our Greek chorus–the Love Doctor (Samuel L Jackson). Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith), the disabled jester trying to sell his Basquiat-like images–a stand-in for stuttering black rage. Lee’s own Mookie (a play on mook)–young, self-centered, stuck.
Lee presents racial tension in its full, daily complexity–not at something that can be solved. Every character’s desire and attempt to carve out his or her own place in this world–is a part of it. It’s a fable of intractability and contradiction.
And yet, in Do the Right Thing (rightly considered Lee’s masterpiece in this, its 25th anniversary year), there’s this incredible sweet spot between the allegory and these well observed performances of humanity–human, tender, flawed. But it isn’t just the stand-ins talking to each other that elevates the as modern-day allegory.
Famously, the film takes place on one block over one day. Meaning that at no point during that day is any character more than half a block from one another–these characters run into each other every 10 minutes. They are forever in each other’s peripheral vision. And yet, somehow, every time they encounter each other it’s like a new day–like a new surprise. Like everyone on the block has no short-term memory.
Geographically, the single block that extends endlessly, large enough to contain fully supported businesses but also all love, hate, death, rage. Radio Raheem endlessly walking the same block with his same song. Baby son Hector constantly asleep. Mother-Sister constantly watches. But it’s always new. Or at least always Now.
And every new encounter is a new opportunity to be having a Big Conversation, the ones that rumble underneath our daily lives with our loved ones and neighbors and colleagues, but rarely get spoken and usually perform themselves as subtext: Why are you unable to keep a job? Why do we stay in this neighborhood? Why are you so angry all the time? Why do you take shit from your brother? How dare you live in this neighborhood? Why can’t you be more positive about the struggle? Why aren’t there brothers up on the wall? Do you love me? What is it about race, anyway?
It is that radical collision–between the suffocating intimacy of one day on one block–next to the heightened stakes of these conversations, ones that we usually don’t have–that saves the film from dialectic bathos, that rather stretches the viewer’s head out of shape in the attempt to absorb what’s going on.
In the early oughts, my cousin Vered Tom and I translated Hefetz, a play by Israeli legend Hanokh Levin. Levin’s worlds were like this–large-scale consequences played out in tiny intimate family stages. Similarly, the action of the play moves comes from the characters speaking in subtext–speaking out loud what cannot be spoken. It gives it an undeniably raw, forward propulsion.
All of eternity, all the great questions, all our major human conflicts are squeezed into one house, one family. One block. One pizzeria.