My grandfather passed away a couple years ago. His funeral was strange, dull, and distantly depressing, in the usual way of funerals for people you aren’t particularly close to. It’s not that I didn’t love him: We hugged whenever I came by for dinner, usually around Christmas, and he was generally decent to me. (One time he made fun of my weight, which was sort of hilarious.) I sat at the funeral watching my grandma cry, thinking I should be more upset than I was. I was trying to think of something specific about the man, like it was a homework assignment to figure out a way to miss him.
Here’s what I came up with: We used to go on fishing trips, he and my dad and some of my dad’s brothers and me. They’d drink a lot of beer, I’d get to buy the sugary cereal for once, and sometimes we’d catch a fish and eat it. Oh, and there’d be a lot of farting at night when everybody was in the bunk beds and the fold-out on the porch, and I kinda wanted to die then.
One trip, my dad and grandfather started talking about the Rodney King trial. It was right after the L.A. riots, so May of ’92, and the whole thing was still all over the news. Dad was trying to be reasonable about it, but my grandfather was pretty upset. He didn’t rant, but he got that strident, half-laugh in his voice, that “Can you fucking believe this?” tone, and he kept saying “those people.” I was lying on the top bunk listening, and every time he said it—“You can’t trust those people!” or “This is just how those people are always doing things,” or “The cops know how to handle those people”—I’d shudder a little. I didn’t even know why I was shuddering, but I knew there was something wrong about what he was saying, and I wasn’t sure if I should do something about it. We’d talked about racism in school, but this was the first time I’d seen it in real life.
That was the only specific thing I could think of. So there I was, sitting at my grandfather’s funeral, thinking about how he was kind of a racist.
Before last weekend, I’d seen exactly two Spike Lee movies: Clockers and Inside Man. I wasn’t that impressed by either. Clockers was interesting but sloppy and at times distractingly stylized—I think. It’s been a few years. Inside Man just annoyed me because it had 40 minutes of plot crammed into a two-hour-plus movie. (I watched it again recently and had a change of heart. It still takes too damn long to end, but there’s a lot of fun to be had, especially for people who aren’t expecting a taut thriller.) Still, I was curious to see more. Lee has such an expansive reputation that I knew I was missing out on something by not knowing more of his work.
I probably should’ve made notes beforehand, because I’m not sure what I knew about Do The Right Thing—a 20th-anniversary DVD just came out—before I sat down to watch it. I knew there was a window that got broken, that Danny Aiello owned a pizza parlor, and that Spike Lee had the leading role. Oh, and that it was one of the few films in the past few decades to actually try and talk openly and honestly about race.
Whatever I knew, I wasn’t prepared for just how warm and joyous a movie it is. It hits right from the opening sequence, which has a young Rosie Perez dancing around the credits, as Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power” plays. “Power” isn’t exactly friendly, but combine it with Perez’s gyrations and the brightly colored backgrounds, and it’s hard not to get excited about what’s to come. There’s a thrilling sense of engagement, of stepping up and kicking ass, of having so much energy stuffed inside that it’s going to explode, even if that explosion is something about which Do The Right Thing and Lee remain deeply uncertain.
Right Thing takes place in a predominantly African-American and Puerto Rican neighborhood in Brooklyn, during a summer heatwave that’s threatening to hit 100 degrees before it breaks. Tempers have started to fray, and conflicts that usually stay submerged are about ready to surface, but not just yet. I think I’m going to have to watch Clockers again soon, because one of Right Thing’s greatest strengths is Lee’s ability to slowly build to a point without becoming tedious. Sure, we’re eventually going to have to think about the way racism and diversity define (and divide) American culture, but before we get there, why not spend some time embracing what makes that diversity so valuable in the first place?
There are kids on the stoops, shouting names, ragging on each other, and opening up a fire hydrant when the heat gets too much to bear. (I loved the bit where they scraped cans on the sidewalk to make them into perfect nozzles for the hydrant; small touches like that make the whole movie breathe.) There’s Mother Sister, played by Ruby Dee, who spends her time by the window, fending off the advances of Da Mayor, played by Ossie Davis. There are Korean grocery-store owners on the corner and Samuel L. Jackson on the radio. There’s Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) just looking to pick a fight, and there’s Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), who wanders up and down the street with a boom box four times the size of his head, blasting the same Public Enemy tape over and over no matter what looks he gets.
There’s Sal (Danny Aiello). With his two sons, Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson) run the local pizzeria, and Sal’s been doing it for decades. He’s settled into his place in the neighborhood, viewing himself as an institution—most of the local kids grew up on his food—but while Vito doesn’t have any problems with that, Pino is sick of it. He’s pissed off, he hates the locals, and he wants out. Sal’s happier letting things as they are.
And in the middle is Mookie, Spike Lee’s alter ego. He works as a delivery boy for the pizzeria, he knows everybody around the block, and he spends his time dragging out deliveries and dodging his girlfriend, Tina (Perez), and their son. While the characterizations never seem rote, everybody has a specific perspective, one that could be seen as representing a part of the dialogue on race relations in the wide view. Da Mayor is the face of appeasement, the father of the Magical Negro, the past of raised hats and bowed heads; Buggin’ Out is the young activist on the rise, eager to take offense, just waiting for a chance to make a point; Radio Raheem is the mountain that will not be moved. Mookie is caught between the lot of them, friends with Vito, arguing against Pino’s invective, taking advice from Da Mayor, and trying to calm Buggin’ down.
It creates a nifty world in miniature for a young man trying to figure out where he stands. The heart of the movie comes from the title, which is both a quote from Malcolm X—he and Martin Luther King, Jr. both loom large over the picture—and part of a quick dialogue between Da Mayor and Mookie:
Mookie: C’mon, what. What?
Da Mayor: Always do the right thing.
Mookie: That’s it?
Da Mayor: That’s it.
Mookie: I got it, I’m gone.
But what the hell is the right thing? What raises this movie above nearly every other film I’ve seen on the subject is that it’s willing to admit that racial tension isn’t a simple dilemma. Inarguably, racism is bad. But how to deal with it? How do you take an expression of one of the central fears of the human race—the terror of the unknown, the strange, the Other—and force it back in a meaningful way, when the conversations turn to shouting and shoving and the emotions are so high that neither side can break off without looking weak?
The tension in Do The Right Thing stays at a simmer throughout. In an early scene, Buggin’ Out gets kicked out of Sal’s for demanding some faces of color up on the restaurant’s Wall Of Fame, and it’s the starting point for the chaos that ends the day—at least, if you can overlook the heat that rises all week, Pino’s constant slurs, and the myriad of slights that Buggin’ has most likely been dealt his whole life. Again, what makes it work is that it isn’t really an easy situation to judge. Sure, all those white faces don’t make much sense when you consider that the majority of Sal’s business is African-American, and the contributions of African-American artists to popular culture have been historically marginalized for decades. But on the other hand, it’s Sal’s wall, in Sal’s business, and the pictures are all Italian-Americans—so why can’t he show some racial pride of his own?
The situation escalates, and the escalation feels terrifyingly organic. There’s hardly an off note in the picture, and it’s generally so easygoing and entertaining that when things do go off the deep end, it’s all the more affecting for being so plausible. When Mookie finally does make his choice to do something, it’s impossible to tell whether he’s doing the right thing, or even whether there was a right choice available in his situation. His moment of choice feels savagely triumphant, in that non-thinking way, like when a fist meets a face. Somebody had to pay for what happened to Radio Raheem, but was Sal really the best target? Even with his casual condescension, the way he busts out the n-word when he’s stressed, and that creepy vibe he had around Mookie’s sister—how much of what happened was his fault? How much of it was any one person’s?
And yet, for all the ambiguity, Right Thing never lets the audience off easily. Nearly everyone in the movie is treated with respect, but that respect doesn’t let us off the hook; something is still very clearly wrong in what happens, and it’s a wrong that needs to be addressed. Maybe the only real lesson you can walk away with is that there has to be conversation that everybody participates in, about all the stuff that’s been stuck inside people’s heads for too long, and that conversation stands a real chance of getting dangerous and upsetting and loud, but it has to happen anyway. Because if it doesn’t, this shit is just going to keep happening forever.
So my grandfather—the guy who took issue with the L.A. riots and thought Rodney King most likely had it coming—I don’t know what he would’ve made of Do The Right Thing. I can assume he would’ve hated it, but he watched a lot of movies, and when somebody watches that much, you can’t really assume how they’d take something that disagrees with them. It’s not something we ever would’ve talked about. I never said a word to him at camp, and I don’t think that was a bad call. (I was only 13.) At the funeral, I eventually gave up on trying to figure things out. I was there for my dad, and I hugged my grandma (who I really need to go visit), and when it was all over, I moved on.
But watching Do The Right Thing for the first time made me think about him again. Because the truth of it is, I think he was a good man. My dad’s a good man, for sure, and I do have some nice memories of Granddad. He wore flannel most of the time, and he smelled like burnt tobacco, and he had a spittoon by his chair in the den that I never saw him use, thank God. On one of our fishing trips, he and I sat out on a half-rotted wharf, and we didn’t say much and we didn’t catch anything, but it was a comfort to sit there and not have to speak. He could make me feel like it was the most natural thing in the world to wait for a bobber to go down, or for the sky to get so dark it was time to go home, and never have to say a word.
Also, he didn’t trust black people much. That’s what Spike Lee reminds us, and what we all can’t help forgetting, time and again: My grandfather could be all that stuff, all the good and the bad, combined. Being racist isn’t the only thing a person is—it’s just, more often than not, being the only thing anybody ever remembers.