RogerBW's Blog

Do The Right Thing (1989) 16 February 2022

1989 drama, dir. Spike Lee, Danny Aiello; IMDb / allmovie. On the hottest day of the year, on a block in Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn, nobody was planning that the day would end with a death.

I should disclaim: I am a reasonably-well-off white English man, and this culture is entirely alien to me. This film wasn't made for me. But it was given a general release; and I still found it profoundly impressive.

For a start, in an era when The Bad Part of Town was typically portrayed as a non-stop parade of gun battles and overdoses, these people are just trying to get by. They're a community. Presumably there would in reality be dealers and the things that go with them – there certainly were on the filming location, making threats about the disruption to their business, until Lee hired the Fruit of Islam to supplement the regular security – but nobody here is interested in that.

And this is one of the few films to be set during a hot day that doesn't let one forget it: in an era before digital colour correction, it was achieved by repainting the entire block of Stuyvesant Avenue on which the film was shot (as well as some careful lighting), and as a very technical person I find I have more admiration for practical effects that need real physical effort than for digital ones which, even if they're complex to set up, are at least subject to version control and quickly trying multiple things until you hit on the one that works.

The big-picture stuff, the way the racism in all directions continues and feeds on itself, is well-handled (a Marxist would say that encouraging fear of the other is the point, that the lower classes must think of other lower classes as the enemy so that they don't work out who's actually keeping them down and how few of them there are). Where it falls down for me is in the translation to the small scale, when we're actually talking with Sal and Mookie and Vito and Buggin' Out; they feel as though they're having to stand for everyman of their type as well as for themselves as individuals, and that's never quite a comfortable fit.

On the other hand… all right, getting into spoiler territory here, though I think the plot of the film is reasonably well-known by now. Does Mookie "do the right thing" when, having seen his friend semi-accidentally killed by the terrified police, he turns an angry mob into a rioting mob? The film doesn't have a pat answer: it just shows you the situation. As far as he's concerned, setting aside any ethical questions, the immediate consequence is that he loses his job and won't get another one; it's not a sensible thing to do. And yet, on the hottest night following the hottest day, when a man has just died and been taken away like the garbage, and absolutely everyone has run out of fucks to give… one can absolutely see why it might seem like perhaps not the right thing to do but the only thing to do.

As usual if you want more of my witterings you should listen to Ribbon of Memes.

Tags: film reviews

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