Cabin Fever Film Festival: Do the Right Thing

We had planned to post another Cabin Fever Film Festival story a few weeks ago, but the killing of George Floyd made movies feel suddenly irrelevant. Then we realized how vividly movies as artifacts of popular sentiment present a history of racism in America. From “Birth of a Nation,” the 1915 silent epic in which the heroes ride with the Ku Klux Klan to “Queen and Slim” last year’s modern black riff on “Bonnie and Clyde,” the painful legacy of white America’s failure to live with all the other Americas—African, Native, Latin, Asian—has been recorded for posterity in our entertainments.

If you are a fan of old movies from the 1930s, 40s and 50s, one thing you must come to terms with is the shockingly casual racism present in even the lightest comedies. For decades in Hollywood an African American character was afforded little humanity and even less dignity. White filmmakers presented dogs and horses with more empathy. In the 1960s African American actors like Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Diana Sands, and Sidney Poitier broke new ground in portraying black people as real people, but it wasn’t until black filmmakers began writing and directing movies that black life from a black perspective began to appear on American screens. The pioneer in that breakthrough was Spike Lee.

“Do the Right Thing,” Lee’s 1989 depiction of a Brooklyn neighborhood simmering in summer heat and racial tensions remains regrettably topical today. Spike Lee plays Mookie, a young delivery man at Sal’s Pizzeria, one of the last white-owned businesses in a mostly black neighborhood. Mookie and Sal, played by Danny Aiello, get along okay, but the pizzeria is the focal point of ethnic disputes, small trivial beefs that are exacerbated by an undercurrent of racial animosity. The action unfolds over the course of a single day during which those beefs escalate. Police are called.

Though it moves inexorably to a tragic conclusion, “Do the Right Thing” is such a rich aggregation of characters it feels for most of its running time joyous. What made the film so much more exciting than the earnest dramas about race that white filmmakers were producing at the time was its up-front artistry. This was not just a black man’s treatise on racism in America. This was a black artist’s exuberant emergence as an important new voice—and eye—in world cinema. With its hilarious, everyone-talking-at-once soundtrack and its vivid, visual rendering of an obviously beloved neighborhood under stress, “Do the Right Thing” captured New York in rousing, poster-art style. To make the heat of the summer palpable Lee’s production team painted the block in shades of red and orange. Cinematographer Ernest Dickerson’s camera prowled the streets with nervous energy. The young people, the old people, the black, white, Hispanic and Asian characters lurched on and off screen like modern dancers, spinning into view to do their bit, then swooping off to make way for another ensemble.

In a signature set piece Lee put characters of various ethnicities in front of the camera and had them cut loose with elaborate racial insults—confronting racism, so to speak, head on. The effect was comic, raw racism exposed for the mental deficiency it is. Each rant diminished its speaker, made him ridiculous. In 1989 the sequence had a bracingly face-the-facts impact. It was saying out loud and straight into the camera’s eye what movies had been saying in coded forms for decades. But it also seemed an expression of hope, an assertion that if we can face our shortcomings squarely we can correct them.

It’s not clear today that that hope was justified. “The United States of America, racism—they do it better than anybody else,” Spike Lee told BBC News after George Floyd’s death. He said it with a rueful smile, mindful perhaps that this bitter twist on American exceptionalism has fueled his filmmaking for 30 years. Hope was as pervasive as anger in “Do the Right Thing,” but that part of it feels quaint now. In the wake of George Floyd’s death and Rayshard Brooks’s death and all the killings of black people by police in the years since 1989, we have learned that expressing racial animus out loud has not brought us to a better place.

Still new generations bring new sprigs of promise. Black elders have noted the diversity of this month’s Black Lives Matter marches—there was far less white support when they marched in the 1960s. And as a hundred years of movies document so well, popular attitudes toward racism have evolved progressively over the decades.

Even so what was true in 1989 remains true in 2020. We have a long way to go. When the neighborhood drunk (played by Ossie Davis) stops Mookie on that sweltering afternoon in Brooklyn the old man who has seen the baddest of bad old days wants to give him some advice. Spike Lee disguises it as drunken blather, but it turns out to be sound counsel for our times: “Always do the right thing.”