This week I want to take a short break from my usual blogging about product development for something completely different. If you have been following this blog over the years one thing you might know is that I enjoy watching movies. I recently joined a free online community on Letterboxd (you can connect with me here if you want to) and have been watching a lot of movies during the present shelter in place situation. This week, in part because a podcast I enjoy (that you can find here) is talking about it, I rewatched an old favorite of mine. My review is below. I hope you are finding some means of relaxation and distraction – as well as some ways to connect with other people – during these days. I’ll get back to regular blogging soon but in the meantime enjoy my thoughts on a movie.
On a burning hot summer day in Brooklyn, a cast of characters on a single block endures the sweltering heat until at last something breaks; here in all its chaotic glory is what happens to a dream deferred – when it can no longer dry up like a raisin in the sun it explodes in violence that touches every life we’ve witnessed on this long brutal day. Here is an opening salvo to the themes Spike Lee would explore across his movies, an introduction to actors who would grow into wider careers of their own, and a testament to issues still facing America. Somewhere between the optimism of Martin Luther King and the realism of Malcolm X, we all need to find a way to do the right thing.
When Do The Right Thing was released in the summer of 1989 I saw it twice in theaters during the first two weeks; on opening weekend at a large packed theater in Jenkintown, PA, where I was one of the few if not the only white person in the crowd, and again two weeks later at a small mostly empty theater in Brookline, MA, where all roughly 30 people in the audience were white. Both experiences were powerful.
This was Spike Lee’s third film (after School Days and She’s Gotta Have It) and really marked his emergence as a major film maker; though he and Ernest Dickerson (a regular collaborator) would debut more cinematographic tricks in the coming years, many of Lee’s signature shots appear in this movie. The clothing each character wears telegraphs aspects of their characters (like the white bike rider in his Boston Celtics jersey) – no surprise coming from costume designer Ruth Carter who would work on Black Panther nearly 30 years later. The story takes place over a single hot day in the Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn as both the cracked concrete pavement and the people’s tempers burn up and fray. The haunting score from Bill Lee (another frequent collaborator) is regularly punctuated by Public Enemy’s Fight the Power, blasting through the massive boom box of Radio Raheem as he walks the single block where most of the action takes place.
There are great character names in this movie – Radio Raheem, Buggin Out, Mother Sister, and Sweet Dick Willie are just a few – and a lot of great actors, many near the start of their careers – including John Turturro, Giancarlo Esposito, Samuel L Jackson, Rosie Perez, and a small part for Martin Lawrence – and some at the height of their brilliance – including Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, and Ruby Dee. Though some of the characters can feel a bit one-dimensional all of them are nuanced as the movie progresses, as is the portrayal of this Black community; there is no single ‘Black perspective’ and individuals sometimes agree on some issues while arguing on others. There are totally believable bits of dialogue and reaction, and the trash talk in this movie is outstanding and often hilarious.
There are many small and meaningful touches in this movie – like the roll call of Black musicians and the tenderness between Da Mayor and Mother Sister – as well as subtle call backs to films Spike probably saw as a film student at NYU – including the homage to Night of the Hunter as Radio Raheem explains his LOVE and HATE rings. There is the subtle (or not so subtle) graffiti on the wall when Mookie tells his sister Jade to watch out for the lecherous Sal: Tawana told the truth, a reference to a Black woman beaten, raped, and left in a garbage bag who accused four white men of attacking her and was not believed. There are the final quotes from Martin Luther King and Malcolm X (whose picture Smiley has been trying to sell throughout the film) that pose the question of when or if an oppressed people can protect themselves by force in a society that brutalizes them. And there is the final list of names of people murdered by police officers – an early declaration that Black lives matter, a cry as painfully relevant today as it was in 1989.
The film isn’t perfect. It is raw and its edges are frayed, and several of the conflicts – including the final one – seem to blow up more quickly than expected. But the film captures a moment, in American history and in Spike Lee’s career, when raw emotions bled on to the surface frequently. The scene mid film where characters simply face the camera and spout racial epithets crystalized much of that raw emotion that a hot day oozes out of people living on the edge. Spike Lee’s films got better at addressing many of these same themes more subtly when Spike himself was not the central character and Denzel Washington carried the film – from Mo Better Blues and He Got Game to the exceptional Malcolm X.
But for me at least the power of this film persists more than 30 years after I first saw it. The questions it poses with ferocity are still relevant: how can a community of people control their own economic destiny, what is the interplay between personal responsibility and social oppression, how can those collectively oppressed by a dominant group stand together instead of attacking each other, and what kind of society lets police officers kill an unarmed man over a radio? If you can look through the sometimes cracked frame there is a powerful portrait here waiting to be admired and learned from. And that’s the quintessential truth, Ruth.