Thursday, 19 January 2012

FilmQuest 2012 (1/30): 'Do The Right Thing':

The first entry in my (generically named) "Film Quest 2012" column is Spike Lee's 'Do the Right Thing' - one of those big, famous movies I've wanted to see for ages but just never caught up with. I came to it with sky-high expectations (having heard it classified a seminal movie) and it comfortably beat them. It's hilariously funny and, at once, genuinely thought-provoking.

With 'Do the Right Thing', Spike Lee made one of the most intelligent and rounded films about simmering racial tensions in the United States. Looking beyond the problem as black versus white, Lee highlights a complex myriad of tensions that also involve Italians, Latinos, Jews and Koreans. It's a fractured, racially segregated community but, interestingly, it is a community. This isn't African American life as commonly depicted - with gangs, drugs and guns - but an affable collection of oddball characters (in the best sense) without malice.

As if carefully weighted social critique weren't enough, it's also full of inspired dialogue, full of memorable one-liners ("I want some brothers on the wall"), and shot in a distinctive, eye-catching way (lots of bright, primary colours). It's artful and very composed, without seeming too contrived or stilted. A contemporary tale about life on a predominantly black street in the late-80s, mercifully free of "urban" clichés and depicting a wide range of black characters far more subtle than the caricatures and paper-thin archetypes that remain prevalent to this day.

What's really interesting about 'Do the Right Thing' is that Lee seems himself torn between the militancy of Malcolm X (Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" is prevalent on the soundtrack) and the tolerance of Dr. King - even ending the film with two powerful, contradictory quotes from the two civil rights leaders. Likewise it's a film comprised mostly of patient discussion (notably involving John Turturro's bigoted and self-contradictory Pino) and high-spirited discussions about ethics - but which culminates in violence, death and destruction.

But you've got to feel for Spike Lee. In their infinite wisdom, Academy Awards voters saw fit to award Best Picture to 'Driving Miss Daisy' in 1990. That less confrontational/critical film, about a kindly old white lady teaching her kindly black chauffeur how to read, garnered four awards from nine nominations. Lee's masterpiece drew no awards from two nominations. None of the terrific black ensemble cast was nominated either, despite brilliant performances from Ossie Davis, Giancarlo Esposito and Lee himself.

One down, twenty-nine to go.

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