The director's movies aren't actually that incendiary, but media's reception of Do the Right Thing 23 years ago created an unfair image that persists today: that of a reckless provocateur.
Spike Lee doesn't pop up all that often in his films anymore, which is one reason why his brief appearance in his new film Red Hook Summer is so surprising. The other is that he's carrying pizzas and sporting a "Sal's Famous Pizzeria" t-shirt, returning to the role of "Mookie" that he played in Do The Right Thing 23 summers ago. Lee has gone out of his way to insist that Red Hook, in limited release now, is "not a motherfucking sequel to Do the Right Thing," but the pictures are very hard to separate, and not merely because of Mookie's return. Red Hook has polarized audiences and critics in a manner reminiscent of its predecessor (albeit on a smaller scale). "Lee's latest rambles through almost two hours of unfocused drama, burdened with endless didactic editorializing, before lurching out of nowhere into ugly revelations and violence," wrote The Hollywood Reporter, a quote which could well have been pulled from a negative review of Do the Right Thing.
Do the Right Thing marked the beginning of Lee's ongoing tenure as a controversial public figure. Before it, Lee was often seen (to his displeasure) as a kind of "black Woody Allen": a New York-based independent filmmaker and sports fan, small in stature, who appeared in his own films. The first, She's Gotta Have It, was an examination and subversion of gender roles. The second, School Daze, concerned skin-tone prejudice—but solely among the black community. Lee was far from a rabble-rouser. Quite the contrary; had even cultivated a consumer-friendly public image via his "Mars Blackmon" Air Jordan ads. But with Do The Right Thing, and after it, Lee positioned himself as one of Hollywood's most outspoken and polarizing opinionators on the issue of race relations, with subsequent interviews and public feuds (with Clint Eastwood, Tyler Perry, Charlton Heston, and others) cultivating a popular image of him having no love lost for white folks. It's an image that persists today. Right-wing blogs like Human Rights and Newsbusters dub him, respectively, a "Hollywood hatemonger" and a "notorious racial grievancemonger." Town Hall granted that "he's finally easing up on crying 'racist,'" but writer Katie Hicks made sure to add, parenthetically, "Not about you, though. You're still racist." (A look at the comment sections for those posts indicates her facetiousness may be misplaced.)
A close look at Lee's work, though, paints a more complicated picture. Specifically Do the Right Thing, which Roger Ebert wrote "comes closer to reflecting the current state of race relations in America than any other movie of our time," reveals an artist whose understanding of race is nuanced, thoughtful, and even-handed. Why has the white-hating image persisted, in spite of the work? While Lee's bombastic public persona doesn't help things, I'd argue the largest share of the blame lies with the (frequently white) media that played a role in the creation of that persona.
Do the Right Thing is one of the few truly great films of the 1980s: an intelligent, matter-of-fact examination of race in America and also a vibrant, funny slice of New York life. It all takes place (except for a brief but powerful epilogue) over the course of the hottest day of the summer, on one block in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. The center of the block's activities (and the film's) is Sal's Famous Pizzeria, owned and operated by Italian-American proprietor Sal (Danny Aiello), with the help of his sons Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson). Deliveries are made by Mookie (Lee), who serves as the pizzeria's ambassador, bringing news in and taking pizzas out to their primarily African-American clientele.
Lee's script marshals a rich cast of supporting characters, chief among them Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), who paces the streets, blaring Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" on a never-ending loop at full volume, and Buggin' Out (Giancarlo Esposito), the would-be revolutionary who sits down that afternoon to eat his slice and suddenly notices that the "Wall of Fame" in Sal's Pizzeria is inhabited only by Italian-Americans (Sinatra, DiMaggio, DeNiro, Pacino). He asks why "there aren't any brothers on the wall." Sal replies, not unreasonably, that it's his place, and when Buggin' Out gets his own place, he can put whoever he wants on his wall. Buggin' Out retorts, also sensibly, that there aren't a lot of Italian-Americans buying pizza in Sal's joint, so maybe the wall of fame should include some black folks. ("Two valid points," Lee maintains, on a recent audio commentary.) And with that conversation, and the minor confrontation that follows, a slow fuse is lit that, by the end of the day, will explode in violence.
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The way that Lee handles that scene shows the even-handedness of his writing and directing. Neither Sal nor Buggin' Out are obviously right or obviously wrong, and Lee refuses to do his audience's thinking for them. Much is made in the film's DVD supplemental materials of Lee and Aiello's disagreement over a fundamental fact about the character of Sal: whether or not he is a racist. Lee thinks yes, Aiello thinks no, but that's the beauty of the picture—it allows room for us to go either way, and that disagreement may, in part, be one of the reasons Sal is such a fascinating, complex character.
But these characters aren't just about prejudices. What is most remarkable about Do the Right Thing is how finely shaded each and every important character is, and how all of those shadings come into play by the time the film reaches its breathless conclusion. At the end of the day, Buggin' Out returns to Sal's Pizzeria with Radio Raheem and Smiley in tow, the boom box at full blast, the sounds of "Fight the Power" filling the tiny restaurant. Buggin' Out and Raheem want "brothers on the wall," and Sal wants them to "turn that shit down." Tempers flare and harsh words are exchanged; Sal loses his cool, pulls out his Louisville Slugger, screams epithets at them, and smashes the boom box to smithereens. A full-scale brawl breaks out in the pizzeria, which spills out onto the street. Police are called—and, of course, the NYPD goes right for the two young black men.
Radio Raheem is subjected to what Lee calls the "Michael Stewart choke hold"—alluding to the 1983 death of graffiti artist Stewart while in police custody. Raheem falls to the Bed-Stuy pavement, dead; he's tossed into a police cruiser, as is Buggin' Out. The police flee the scene, leaving the angry crowd fuming at Sal and his sons. As tensions come to a boil, Mookie picks up a garbage can and heaves it through the plate glass window of Sal's Famous Pizzeria. The angry mob descends on the restaurant, smashing glass, tearing the joint to pieces, and setting it afire. Sal and his sons watch, stunned (Sal: "That's my fuckin' place." Pino: "Fuckin' niggers"). Police return, along with fire trucks. The crowd, chanting "Coward Beach" (another historical allusion, to a 1986 race clash in Howard Beach, Queens that left one young black man dead and two more injured) won't disperse, in spite of police warnings. So the fire department turns the hoses on the black residents, Lee deliberately echoing the most iconic imagery of the civil rights movement.
The question a lot of people ask about the film, to this very day, is in regards to the climax: "Did Mookie do the right thing?" Then and now, it's a silly question—of course he didn't. But why is he singled out? (Probably because he incites the destruction of white-owned property, but that's another discussion.) In the broad scope of the film, nobody does the right thing: not Mookie, not Sal, not Buggin' Out, and certainly not the NYPD. In the blistering heat of that Brooklyn sun, people who are basically good do the wrong things at the wrong moment—and we believe all of it, that all of them would act that way right then, because they seem real people, and their tenuous character flaws have been so subtly but effectively teed up. "I believe that any good-hearted person, white or black, will come out of this movie with sympathy for all of the characters," Ebert wrote, when the film was released. "Lee does not ask us to forgive them, or even to understand everything they do, but he wants us to identify with their fears and frustrations. Do The Right Thing doesn't ask its audiences to choose sides; it is scrupulously fair to both sides, in a story where it is our society itself that is not fair."
Many critics disagreed. After the film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, Lee recalls, "there was this thought that when this film comes out in the summer of 1989, black people are gonna run amuck." In understanding the impact of those original reviews, it's important to remember that this was 1989: a pre-Internet, pre-Ain't It Cool News, pre-Twitter age wherein the initial reports and editorials set the tone and defined the conversation (perhaps disproportionately) that would surround the film throughout those summer months. And that's why it was so provocative for Newsweek's Jack Kroll to ask "in this long hot summer, how will young urban audiences—black and white—react to the film's climactic explosion of interracial violence? ... People are going to argue about this film for a long time. That's fine, as long as things stay on the arguing level. But this movie is dynamite under every seat."
David Denby, currently of The New Yorker, then writing for New York, also predicted a dire outcome. "Do the Right Thing is going to create an uproar," Denby wrote, "in part because [Lee]'s so thoroughly mixed up about what he's saying." He accused Lee of creating "the dramatic structure that primes black people to cheer the explosion as an act of revenge," and concluded, "If an artist has made his choices and settled on a coherent point of view, he shouldn't be held responsible, I believe, if parts of his audience misunderstand him. He should be free to be 'dangerous.' But Lee hasn't worked coherently. The end of this movie a shambles, and if some audiences go wild, he's partly responsible."