Sunday, March 9, 2014

DO THE RIGHT THING: The 25 Year Anniversary by Joshua Triliegi

Twenty - Five Year Anniversary 

by Joshua Triliegi

Motion pictures that are created at the end of a decade 
tend to encapsulate, envelope and regurgitate that time 
and place. Sometimes, they throw the entire experience 
back at us, either in celebration of it, or, as is often the 
case, rebelling entirely against the values of that time 
and of that place. These films, for some reason or another 
are important, they are the ' punctuation mark ' at the 
end of a stylistic sentence. Sometimes a simple period,
other times a question mark and, rather effectively, every 
now & then, the ever defiant: exclamation point ! Looking 
at the decades in a linear fashion allows the viewer to put 
in perspective the decisions being made by the film maker.

In 1939, films like Gone with The Wind, The Wizard of OZ and 
The Hunchback of Notre Dame expressed a certain something 
of the decade that was.  In 1949, it was,  All The Kings Men, 
The Third Man & Twelve O'Clock High. 1959: North by Northwest,
Imitation of Life & Some Like It Hot. In 1969, Midnight Cowboy, 
Easy Rider, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. 1979 gave us: 
Apocalypse Now, Being There and Norma Rae. In 1989, we were 
given films such as Sex, Lies and Videotape, Batman & My Left Foot. 

Though, the film we are discussing is Spike Lee's, opus feature, 
Do The Right Thing. An exclamation point film that entirely coughs 
up the indulgent artifice that we now know as the Nineteen Eighties. 
A completely retro progressive time and place, a decade for the so-
called white man. Conservative values, commercial qualities and 
a return to the 1950' s America, which, deep down inside, was a big 
step backwards from the cultural and ethnic advances made in the 
1960' s and 1970' s, especially for a young African American such 
as Mr. Spike Lee. An outspoken Brooklynite through and through. 
The son of a Jazz purist, raised in the 1960' s & '70' s in New York 
City. The center of defiant cultural celebration and often upheaval.  
" I was raised in a household where we were all encouraged by my 
parents to speak your mind. ", the film maker admits and indeed in 
Do The Right Thing, that is exactly what most, if not every character 
does. A speaking of the minds often leads to some form of friction, 
and with the melting pot experience, the mix of origins, ethnicities, 
values and the long hot summer in the city, friction leads to fire and 
fire leads to ashes, with ashes, there is closure and then a rebirth. 

Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing is indeed an American landmark film.
I recall viewing the film on opening weekend with a rather light skinned 
audience on Wilshire boulevard in West Los Angeles, by the end, there 
was indeed confusion. By the time the ever famous trashcan scene 
ensued, even I was a bit embroiled in a recognization [ new word ] of 
values. Did Mookie, the pizza delivering protagonist, quote-unquote : 
Do The Right Thing ? We had to ask ourselves, what happened here ? 
A man was killed, there was an injustice, no one in authority seemed 
to care, there was a 'cover up' of the facts. There was a history of this 
type of act and someone, somewhere, somehow needed to make a 
statement, Mookie, [ played here by Spike Lee] made the statement. 
Even to this day, it can be debated, wether Sal' s Pizzeria should have 
bit the dust. Which is exactly what makes this film important. All too 
often, films answer the questions that we as humans need to ponder. 
Original, author style films don't answer questions, they ask questions, 
leaving the viewer to delve, wonder and eventually ask and maybe,
even answer, for themselves, what the right thing to do actually is. 

For a film to stand the test of time, there are several criterion. Does the 
film hold up to audiences today?  Does the film still speak to any social 
truth or endearing value ? Does the film encapsulate a time and a place 
as a historical document which is worth preserving ?  Yes.  Yes.  Yes. 
Do The Right Thing is not a 'perfect ' film, in terms of balance or so - 
called structure, or narration, but it is a very original, truthful and 
heartfelt film with a certain ' energy ' that is difficult to describe here.
The film has a visual style not unlike, West Side Story, with rich colors, 
costumes, ensemble cast choruses & of course the clashing of cultures 
on the streets of New York City.  African, Italian, Puerto Rican, Asian 
and indeed White or Anglo Americans vying for their own space to live, 
to walk, to inhabit in equal parts. Add to that rules, mob mindset and 
one long hot summer and you have a great drama with many touches 
of humor, slice of life moments and heroic situations: Such as Da Mayor 
saving the life of a young boy recklessly crossing the street. 

Spike Lee has Woody Allen on his left: humor, love of women, 
family story telling & a 'do it your own way' style. On his right, he 
has Martin Scorsese : bold visual style, muscular camera movements, 
music appreciation & a 'this is the way it really is' style. But no one 
can say he is overly influenced by any director, writer or film maker.
Nor is he the 'first African American director' to have success. Spike 
often sites Charles Burnett and Gordon Parks, but like any great 
director or artist, Spike Lee has an appreciation for film history . 
In that way, he is like Mr. Scorsese, a sort of encylpedic like mind 
for his craft, it's rich history and why we love, make and celebrate 
the art of film making. 

The question rises here as to wether Spike Lee would have received 
the kind of accolades that he did not receive [ Canne Fim Festival ] 
for instance, had he not played the character of Mookie, the person 
who is ultimately responsible for the demise of Sal' s Pizzeria ? The 
connection audience members make on a visceral level can often effect 
the judgement on a larger level. Spike Lee is a writer, director playing 
a character in a movie that he has written and directed. Something 
that he has in common with Woody Allen, another influence on Lee, 
specifically his first film, She's Gotta Have It. Film makers take what 
they know, film history, life experience, social concerns, story telling
and when they step up to the hoop, walk into the ring, take the bat, 
the utilize the skills from previous players / directors and give it their 

So what if Spike Lee  is outspoken ? Since when has that become 
such a big deal, to speak your mind ? Is that not what we are all 
about here in America ? Did we not, originally enter onto this 
beautiful continent, to have a few more freedoms? And did we 
recently forget that, also brought on ships involuntarily, were a 
group of people who had no say in many of the goings on here ? 
That after a few hundred years we finally have an African American 
President ? And at this years Oscar ceremony Best Picture went to 
Twelve years a Slave directed by Steve McQueen, an African-English 
director. Sometimes it takes an outsider to tell the inside truth. 
So Spike Lee is outspoken, good for him, what's your problem ? 
Cat got your tongue ? People often tell me that I am too outspoken. 
Well, I guess I am in good company then. My people went through 
a form of slavery, years of oppression, even an attempt at extinction. 

Spike Lee's films are inspiring, energetic, funny, outrageous, risky,
engaging, sexy, socially relevant, even dangerous: that's the stuff 
of good story telling. If Spike Lee had been Latin, Asian, or Swedish 
& still made the films he had made, this appreciation of Do The Right 
Thing would still remain the same, with the exception of the previous 
paragraph. I did not graduate from film school, though I am a film 
maker, screenplay writer and film critic or historian, if you will. One 
of my teachers, informally speaking, is Spike Lee. His books & diaries 
published after making, She's Gotta Have It, his first feature, were 
instrumental in helping me to overcome any obstacles that ever stood 
in my way. For many of us, his career is our career, someone from the 
so-called neighborhood made it happen, one of us got to tell our stories.  
Do The Right Thing is turning twenty - Five this year and it is time 
for a new generation to discover this film and ask themselves those 
important questions. 

The film also has a cast of actors that will go on to have careers that 
include: Samuel L. Jackson, Rosie Perez, John Turturro, Martin Lawrence, 
Roger Guenveur Smith & Giancarlo Esposito. Many already had stalwart 
creds such as Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, John Savage and Danny Aiello .

Another way to test a film for longevity factor is: Do the characters 
still exist in your minds eye ? Where are they today, when you think 
of them ?  Mookie, Da Mayor, Senior Love Daddy, Buggin-Out, Smiley, 
Tina, Sal, Vito, Mother Sister, Jade, Ahmad, Ella, Sonny and much more 
importantly, Radio Raheem, where would Radio Raheem be today ? 
That is the real question. Do The Right Thing doesn't claim to answer 
that question. You have to answer it.  Like Da Mayor tells Mookie 
early on in the film,  " … Always Do The Right Thing. " , and Mookies 
answer back ?, " Thats It ?, I got it, I'm Gone. "