I, like many others, do not like Spike Lee as a public figure. I have listened to his complaints about racism time and time again. Rather than being enlightened and concerned, I start to roll my eyes. Before I get hundreds of emails calling me a racist, let me clarify. Of course there is real racism in the world that is damaging and hurtful. There are people who still judge others as inferior due to the color of their skin and the origin of their birth. Such people are disturbed and this mentality must be eliminated. But complaining about Clint Eastwood’s WWII films as being racist is such a bizarre complaint that it barely even registers with the real problems of racism. Also, it demonstrates that Lee was not paying attention very well. There were black characters. Indeed, the central theme of Flags of Our Fathers was racism. Lee did not seem to grasp that.
That is just the beginning. This is the same Lee that tries to present himself as an oppressed individual yet maintains court side seats to every New York Knicks game. He is not the first person to present himself as something he is clearly not, but when Lee goes on a rampage and tries to promote social change through it, it becomes that much more grotesque and ultimately detracts from, not just him, but from the real issues of racism in the nation.
Of course, some of these statements do make more sense and deserve more credit than is given. For example, I completely agree with Spike Lee that Malcolm X could only have been made by a black filmmaker. But such statements are few and far between.
It was with this mentality that I went into Do The Right Thing. And it was this mentality that was completely destroyed. This was a film of amazing depth and complexity. It is about race issues. But it treats race issues with surprising intelligence and, in some cases, wit. This is among the best films about race and one of the best ensemble films of all time.
Do The Right Thing takes place in a single Brooklyn neighbor on the hottest day of the year. There are several plots and characters who come together to discuss life, race, racism, and love. The main character is Mookie (Lee himself) who works for a pizza place owned by Sal (Danny Aiello). One of Mookie’s friends, Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) constantly complains that the wall on Salls has no black people, only Italian Americans. He tries start a boycott, and can only find support in one man, Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn). This boycott somehow leads to an explosion of violence in the neighborhood against Sal.
The film works on far more levels than Lee could have imagined. Yes, it’s effective discussion of race relations must be seen to be believed. It is not merely white vs black. It is black vs. Korean, black vs Italian, black vs every conceivable permutation imaginable. In one memorable scene, Buggin’ Out hassles a white man biking his way home for riding through a black neighborhood, never stopping to consider that the man might actually live there. The final moments of the film are equally chilling, the culmination of misunderstandings and people reacting based on their darkest emotions.
What does this ultimately mean? It means exactly what was stated above. Race and racism are quite complex and cannot simply be categorized as “I am right, you are wrong.” The most rational people in the world can be lead to do the most horrendous things imaginable. Seeing the characters progress to that point is quite a journey.
As far as the ensemble film goes, this is another shining example. Too often (although there are some exceptions) ensemble films tend to focus on specific characters to the detriment of all others. That is fine in the average film, but when the film’s strength is supposed to be the multitude of characters, then such a lapse is almost unforgivable. Paul Haggis’ Crash was spectacularly bad at capturing this. Spike Lee does it. No character feels underutilized. No character feels like a caricature. The result is a tapestry of characters and a tone that could very well have been found in a documentary. Few filmmakers have ever done what Lee has.
The film does not look at the issue as black and white (literally and figuratively). Every person in the film is just that: a person. They each have goals in their life, they each have opinions about their way of life. That is the way to portray complex issues: with equally complex and wonderful people.
Spike Lee, the filmmaker, understands this. I wish Spike Lee, the public figure, did as well.