Spike Lee the Classicist

I rented Do the Right Thing last weekend. I hadn’t seen it since it came out back in ’89. Hard to believe that movie is twenty years old.

Apparently Spike Lee made the movie in response to the Howard Beach incident that had occurred a couple of years before. A lot had been said about the movie before I saw it the first time and after that viewing I was a little disappointed. I didn’t get the point first off. How was Mookie changing the world by trashing Sal’s store? Sal was a little ineffectual player in the game. Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” theme running through the movie (complete with “I Shot the Sheriff” sampling) seemed to refer to a real power struggle not the one between the little guys. The whole scenario in Do the Right Thing seemed futile.


But Lee has always been a neighborhood kind of guy. His stories are not about the wider world, but the intimate world of our real lives. The one that counts.

I’m still confused as to what Lee was saying about the Koreans getting it and the old-school Italians not. The message seems to be if you’re going to cling to your culture you need to do it with your own people. Sort of a when-in-Rome-do-as-the-Romans-do idea. That might be the right thing to do, but I thought we wanted cultures to be mixing it up. But then, maybe that’s Lee’s point: Hurray for intermingling, but every once in a while something’s going to happen if there is no respect. Maybe somehow the Koreans got it. He also had the Latino/Black confrontation with little to no effect so it’s just this one particular cultural group that is not with the program.

At any rate, watching it a second time doesn’t necessarily help me completely figure out the ideas behind the action, but I did catch a lot more artistic nuance this time. In this movie, Lee channels the classics: Shakespeare, The Greeks, and The Wizard of Oz.

From the Greeks he borrows the chorus. He’s got two in this movie. First there’s the three guys loafing across the street from the deli. They sit under a half-broken umbrella and talk trash. Then there’s Samuel L. Jackson, the dj who sits behind a big glass window in a brownstone on the end of the Bed-Stuy street where the movie action takes place. Both these characters comment on the action without taking part in it.

From Shakespeare he gives us the famous Lee monologues. Soliloquies if you prefer. I love when Lee goes off. It’s like poetry. My favorite is Ed Norton’s talk to himself in a mirror in the movie 25th Hour. It has a lot about New York City in it and I’ve always felt it was a love letter from Lee to his favorite town. Pure poetry of the slam variety and riveting to watch. (Best line: And while you’re at it, fuck JC! He got off easy! A day on the cross, a weekend in hell, and all the hallelujahs of the legioned angels for eternity!)

In Do the Right Thing, he’s got Radio Raheem describing the battle between love and hate (Love wins). He’s also got a section of slam dunk shots that race between several principles spewing venomous racial slurs. Sort of a group monologue. Very effective.

From the Wizard of Oz he gives us the phony yet beautiful backdrop of a Bed-Stuy neighborhood. It looks like a stage set instead of a location shoot. Kind of has the feel of the back stoop scenes of All in the Family: They’re outside, but they feel like they’re enclosed somehow. On a stage. And the buildings are brightly painted and pretty in a way that Bed-Stuy actually isn’t. Even the one scene with the “Tawana was telling the truth” graffiti backdrop is artistically pleasing. All the elements of the scenario are there but they seem brighter or polished than real life in some way.

And having Rosie Perez doing break dancing during the beginning credits is a masterful touch. She’s not the greatest of hoofers but the intensity on her face is a marvel. She’s really buying into the melting pot thing.

I never noticed all that stuff the first time around. At that time, I was just watching the tension build. I knew it would because of all the hype around the film. I knew what was going to happen with the garbage can and all ahead of time. The racial showdown came and went as expected with no surprises. Did the movie change the world like they thought it would? Probably in some small, unmeasurable way that these things happen. For one thing, as a black director, taking risks and making great creative decisions, Lee has proved that African Americans are not just fodder for the front of the camera. They can be the geniuses behind the camera as well.

Spike Lee, at least, can Do the Right Thing.

Sue Lange
Sue Lange’s Bookshelf at BookViewCafe.com

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Spike Lee the Classicist — 2 Comments

  1. It’s been way too many years since I saw “Do The Right Thing,” and my memory could be faulty, but as I recall the story, Mookie threw that garbage can through the window to defuse a situation that might otherwise have ended in murder. Angry people got into property destruction and didn’t kill anyone.

    Spike Lee is unquestionably a genius and his films always have lots of layers, so it could be on one hand Mookie was saving Sal by destroying his business and on another he was making a choice of where he was going to stand.

  2. From one of Roger Ebert’s essays on the movie:

    Lee says he has been asked many times over the years if Mookie did the right thing. Then he observes: “Not one person of color has ever asked me that question.”