Do The Right Thing was written and directed by Spike Lee in 1989, and the plot is a bit too elaborate to summarize. I'm not sure I can, without just going on and on. It is, I guess, in a sentence, the story of a one city block in Brooklyn, and the racial tensions and conflicts that go on there.
There aren't good guys or bad guys. Everyone exists in an uneasy balance. Ebert observes in his essay that "we see no black-owned businesses on the street, and if it were not for Sal and the Koreans who run the corner grocery, the residents would have no place to buy food" (The Great Movies, 140-141). Maybe our view of the city block is purposefully stunted for emotional impact, but it doesn't matter, because it works so well.
It's hard to write about this movie without thinking about other films. Films that I hate, like Crash from 2004. What I hated about that movie is how everything seemed so...resolved. Everyone realized, clearly and cleanly, their wrong judgments and discriminations. It points out racism but in a stupid way, and only some races are portrayed in a positive light. I don't like this movie, but I liked Do The Right Thing. It felt more realistic. It seemed senseless, the hatred and violence. There was no right or wrong. It was just a way of life. It was tragic, as racism is. And all of the races are shown in an indifferent light - they all had points where they all meshed, and they all had points where they didn't. Like life, of course. But, I am white, and middle class, and I don't know if I could really comprehend realistic racism, because I haven't experienced it. I have seen it and I have been heartbroken when I saw it, but I have never been the victim of it. All I can say is that it felt true and real to me. It was moving, I was in tears. I can't really explain myself further.
I really thought what made the movie so effective was the tone. It starts out as a comedy, basically, where you get to meet all the characters and feel at home with them. You see their daily life, and you feel a sort of voyeuristic, documentary-style sort of intimacy with them. It shifts almost suddenly into seriousness and violence. The tonal shift makes it so much more moving and painful to watch. The fact that no one can really be blamed for what happened makes it more so.
I must nitpick one thing. I bristled when reading something Ebert wrote in a different Great Movies essay, where he called The Graduate dated in it's appearance. I love The Graduate. It seemed a bit...silly, I guess, to pick an dated looking 80's movie for his Great Movies and then disregard a dated looking 70's movie. For me, they may look dated, but the plots are not, and that is what makes them both so great. They have nothing to do with each other than the fact that everyone dresses stupidly, but I just wanted to mention it, since it was the first thing I thought of when I saw the title sequence - "Wait a minute...this isn't dated?!" I think that movies that are so visually strange and cliched to us are sometimes hard to watch, but it's important to see them, because they still tell brilliant stories that matter to us today.
If you haven't seen this movie, you have to see it. It's very 1989, but it works. It feels right, and the characters are brilliant. The story is sad and funny, and deeply moving and affecting. It will stay with you, in your head. I was telling Anthony just now about a scene that moved me to tears, and I started crying again just describing it. It wasn't that it was so out-and-out depressing like a Lars von Trier film or something. It was just so powerful and moving to see. Ebert notices this as well, writing, "he takes this story, which sounds like grim social realism, and tells it with music, humor, color and exuberant invention. A lot of it is just plain fun. He breaks completely away from realism in many places in the closeups of blacks, whites and Koreans chanting a montage of racial descriptions, and in the patter of the local disc jockey (Samuel L. Jackson), who surveys the street from his window and seems like the neighborhood's soundtrack" (The Great Movies, 141).
The film is streaming on Netflix right now, and it's really worth your time. If you watch this movie, let me know! It begs to be talked about.
Have any of you seen Do The Right Thing? Share your thoughts with me in the comments!
Ebert's Great Movie essay on Do The Right Thing