Movie Review: Do The Right Thing (1989, directed by Spike Lee)

Note: There are spoilers throughout the review. This review assumes you’ve seen the movie and do not need a basic review of the plot.

I had no idea what I was getting into when I watched this movie. I was charmed by the opening credits, which might just be the best I’ve ever seen, by the way — but by the end of it, I was stunned, and like “Cabaret,” I couldn’t get it out of my head for days afterwards.

In my quest to watch all of the movies on AFI’s Top 100 Movies list, I had “Do The Right Thing” on my to-watch. I had never seen it before, but I was vaguely familiar with it — I knew about “Fight the Power,” Spike Lee, Danny Aiello, that it was set on a hot day in Brooklyn. That was about it.

After having some time to think about it, I think this movie really hinges on Radio Raheem (played by Bill Nunn). While Spike Lee and Danny Aiello are the main stars, and main characters, it is Radio Raheem who provides the thematic thrust of the film and is the character with the biggest impact.

When I got to that scene, I could not believe what I was seeing. When the police officers were choking Raheem to death, all I could think of was Eric Garner and “I can’t breathe” — and of the innumerable black men and women killed by police brutality over the years — Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Amadou Diallo, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, and on and on and on and on.

The movie came out almost 30 years ago, and we’re still having this conversation? We’re still dealing with these issues? When Barack Obama was elected president, and there was talk about a “post-racial society,” I’m pretty sure sensible people didn’t buy that for a hot second, but I did hope that there would be at least some progress. Not a lot, but, y’know, at least an incremental step forward. Just for things to be a little bit better. Like not-worrying-if-this-traffic-stop-is-going-to-kill-a-man better. Or maybe-we-don’t-choke-a-dude-to-death-for-selling-cigarettes better. I didn’t think that was asking for very much, but apparently it is.

The sad truth is that Spike Lee’s film is just as relevant today as it was when it was released.

Let me pause my own review here real quick to point you to a review by Film Crit Hulk, which stands as the definitive review of “Do The Right Thing” (clicky here to go to new window). That review is insightful and profound, and even Spike Lee himself thinks it’s the best one out there. So, go read it. Seriously, I’ll wait.

My own contributions are much more modest. I wanted to explore Radio Raheem’s Love/Hate monologue. It is, obviously, a fantastic reference to a similar monologue from “The Night of the Hunter”:

And here is Raheem’s version:

Radio Raheem says that Love will ultimately win out against Hate, but “Do The Right Thing” seems ambivalent about that. It has been argued by some that Love wins at the end, but I don’t think that’s really the case.

Yes, it is Mookie (Spike Lee) who shouts, “Hate!” when he hurls that garbage can through Sal’s (Danny Aiello) pizzeria, setting off the destruction of that shop. But it’s not Mookie who is filled with Hate — it is Sal. Although Mookie and Sal come to something of an understanding in the ruins of the pizzeria the next morning, it sure doesn’t feel like Love winning to me. For example, if Sal’s son Pino (played by John Turturro) was at that scene the next morning, it would have gone very differently.

Pino had been overtly hostile towards Mookie throughout the movie, to say nothing of their customers and the people on the street. If Pino was there when Mookie asked for his money, there would have been another explosion of Hate. Pino would have only seen Mookie as the guy who threw the trashcan at their shop and destroyed their livelihoods, and nothing more. Pino, frankly, doesn’t have the mental capacity to understand the series of events that led to that confrontation, and thus, represents the outwardly racist segment of the American population. In a way, it’s easier to deal with Pino’s overt hostility than it is Sal’s own complicity.

But let’s back up for a second. In the course of reading reviews and reaction pieces to this movie, I realized that there was a lot of discussion about why Mookie threw the trashcan through the window.

Why did Mookie throw that trashcan? I’m a white person, and I was raised in a white suburban neighborhood in a fairly conservative part of New Jersey, so I get why white people ask that question. And just to be clear, I asked that question, myself, when thinking about this movie.

After all, Sal had just told Mookie that he was like a son to him. Sal cares about Mookie, doesn’t he? But, as we’ll see, Sal didn’t truly Love Mookie as much as he thought he did. I have no doubt that Sal liked Mookie in his own way, but Sal was engaging in a little bit of self-deception about how he really felt about being a pizzeria owner in a black neighborhood, and thus his relationship with Mookie is colored through that lens.

In large part, this “why did Mookie throw the trashcan” reaction from white audiences is compounded by the fact that Sal’s Pizzeria feels like a character — if Mookie had thrown that trashcan at Sal himself instead of his store window, it would have felt just as assaulting. But asking why he threw the trashcan means not asking “why” to a million other little things that came beforehand.

Why didn’t Sal just put up a picture of a black person on his Wall of Fame? That would have cost him literally nothing (well, maybe $2). Smiley (played by Roger Guenveur Smith) was right there — all Sal had to do was say, “Hey, lemme buy one of those photos of yours” and put it up.

Would putting up one of Smiley’s pictures have satisfied Buggin’ Out (played by Giancarlo Esposito)? Probably not, but it would have gone a long way towards defusing the situation. Instead, Sal flew off the handle, calling Raheem, Buggin’ Out, and Smiley n-words and destroying Raheem’s radio.

Other “Why” questions include, but are not limited to: Why didn’t Sal rein in Pino (more on that in a bit)? Why did Sal immediately go for the baseball bat when Radio Raheem came into the restaurant? Why was Sal so threatened by Raheem? Why didn’t Buggin’ Out ask a little more politely? Why did that one cop not let go of Radio Raheem, when everyone else was telling him that he was killing him? Why are we asking why Mookie threw a trashcan instead of asking why the cops killed Radio Raheem?

Sal’s portrayal is an excellent one, and shows the problem of white relations with the black community in America. Sal seems like a nice guy, but look at Sal’s inability to integrate with his neighborhood. He spoke of the black community as “them”:

I never had no trouble with these people. I sat in this window. I watched these little kids get old. And I seen the old people get older. Yeah, sure, some of them don’t like us, but most of them do. I mean, for Christ’s sake, Pino, they grew up on my food. On my food. And I’m very proud of that.

Note how he doesn’t say “us” or “we” but “these people.”

It would have cost him literally nothing to hang up a photo of Martin Luther King Jr or Malcolm X or any of the people Mister Senor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson) mentioned during his radio roll call (73 different artists, unless I counted wrong). It would have cost him literally nothing to listen –really listen — to Buggin’ Out and Radio Raheem and Smiley when they came to make their request.

Instead of reining in his son Pino, who is openly hostile and racist towards their customers, their employees, and their community, Sal half-heartedly tells him to shut up. If he really felt like he was part of that community, he wouldn’t have put up with Pino’s antagonistic behavior.

It’s not the murder of Radio Raheem, or Mookie throwing the trashcan, that started the riot at the pizza shop. The throwing of the trashcan was the culmination of a series of infractions, large and small, that created the tensions between Sal’s Pizza and the neighborhood.

The pizza shop was doomed from the start, but everyone had been living in denial about it. They papered over the Hate: Pino’s overt racism, Sal’s buried racism, the way Sal and Pino alienated themselves from their customers. Once Sal used the n-word, it was game over. Instead of Love, Sal turned to Hate. There would have been no coming back from that. His true feelings towards his customers was exposed at that moment.

Am I disappointed with Mookie for doing what he did? Yeah, I am. But would I have done differently in his position? I honestly don’t know. He just saw someone kill one of his friends, in his neighborhood, and because it was a cop who did the killing, he knows from black experience that there will be zero repercussions for the murder. Think about that for a second. A guy kills another guy in front of 30+ people andĀ will get away with it. If that sounds insane, then you haven’t been reading the news.

Of course Mookie is going to feel angry, and helpless, and afraid. Who wouldn’t be? What was he supposed to do? Throw his hands up and say, “Well, I guess them’s the breaks, huh?”

And remember, it was Sal who initiated the violence by destroying Raheem’s radio.

The title of the movie, I realized, is ironic. How can a person “Do The Right Thing” when nobody has any idea what the hell that’s supposed to be? Further, how can Mookie be expected to do the right thing when just about everyone else, up to that point in the movie (including, it must be said, Mookie himself), has been doing the wrong thing?

The fact that it doesn’t end neatly, where people Learn Lessons, shows the movie’s commitment to how people really react, how they really behave. The two quotes by King and Malcolm X at the end of the movie are, as many reviewers have said, both true. They both co-exist within a person. It’s contradictory, and it’s messy, because real life is messy. There are no easy answers; the right hand of light and the left hand of darkness might be dishing out damage, but at the end of the day, when you’re getting punched in the face repeatedly, does it make any difference if it’s the right hand or the left hand hitting you, when all you feel is pain? Love can defeat Hate, but that’s exactly the point — Sal never truly Loved Mookie or the community he lived in. Had he done so, he would still have a pizzeria. He would have reacted to Buggin’ Out’s request very differently. He would have had black portraits on that wall. And Radio Raheem would still be alive.

Hate only won in “Do The Right Thing” not because it was stronger than Love, but because there was an absence of Love.

And that’s the truth, Ruth.

Movie Review: Cabaret (1972, starring Liza Minnelli, dir. by Bob Fosse)

Note: While this blog was originally intended to focus solely on books (book reviews and writing advice), I’ve decided to broaden the scope to storytelling in general.

I can’t get “Cabaret” out of my head.

Let’s rewind a second. Back in high school, I used to write a weekly movie review column with Scott*, and for the most part, we were pretty much on the same page for the vast majority of movies we saw. More recently, we’ve been going through the AFI Top 100 movies list, and we’ve been talking about the ones we’ve seen so far. Our opinions are generally the same these days.

When it came to “Cabaret,” a movie I hadn’t seen yet, he told me he didn’t like it. At all. Too much focus on personal drama and Liza Minnelli’s vaudeville performance grated. Given that we’ve been pretty much identical with our views, I expected to come out hating the movie when I finally watched it.

Instead, I loved it.

The opening sequence, a slightly disturbing performance from Joel Grey as the Master of Ceremonies (and featuring the introduction of the surprisingly hot Michael York) was unsettling. The cuts to those wax-like audience members, and the jarringly unemotional and un-seductive appearance of the Kit Kat Girls, was not at all what I expected, and the movie only grew more interesting from there.

Throughout the movie, there are quick, seemingly random asides that focus on life in pre-Nazi Berlin. Those snippets, as well as a minor subplot featuring secondary characters and two certain songs (more on those later), show the rise of Hitler’s Germany. Yes, there was Liza as Sally Bowles in all her vaudeville glory, and there were overdramatic proclamations of love and lust and angst and personal issues, and the main characters are self-absorbed narcissists. But those two themes are not disconnected.

If those little asides (and subplot/songs) weren’t there, then I’d be inclined to agree with Scott, that the movie focused too much on personal drama to no effect. But because of those little asides, “Cabaret” turns out to be much darker, much more cynical, and pessimistic than I expected. See, all that personal drama is the point – it’s the subtle message that while Liza and Michael York’s characters of Sally and Brian are wrapped up in their own lives, there’s something much bigger, something much uglier, that’s rising and threatening their world, if only they’d take the time to notice and do something about it.

When I looked up who wrote the music, I realized why this felt a little familiar.

Kander and Ebb pulled off this same trick in spectacular fashion in another production, “Chicago.” That play, and movie, is a deeply cynical look at the nature of celebrity worship in America, about how a person can literally get away with murder and be celebrated for it, if they just make the audience laugh. Sure, tap your toes while listening to “All That Jazz” or “Cell Block Tango” but pay attention, and you’ll realize that Kander and Ebb are showcasing our darkest whims and making us cheer.

Take “Money,” for example. It’s catchy as hell, and it got stuck in my head for days, but what a deeply cynical message this is. To the Master of Ceremonies and Sally, it’s not love, it’s not human kindness, it’s not empathy or decency or charity that moves the world – it’s money. Cold, hard cash. For all of Sally’s declarations that she wants to be a big movie star, and for all the Master of Ceremonies’ enthusiastic celebrations of having a good time (read: sex and booze), they’re driven by nothing more than simple greed. Sally’s ardent pursuit of a wealthy Baron underscores this point.

And all the while, outside the Kit Kat Club, there’s an uprising going on. The tide of hatred and antisemitism is creeping over Berlin, casting a shadow the main characters can’t see, because they’re too busy focused on drinking, lovemaking, and chasing money – they’re too self-absorbed to be any other way. And even those who are aware of the rise of Nazism (like the Baron) are deeply underestimating its potency – flippantly dismissing the Brownshirts as a tool to be used against Communists.

Besides the aforementioned snippets, there’s also the storyline featuring secondary characters Natalia and Fritz, who are Jewish, and are suffering the effects of the rise of the Nazis (graffiti, the murder of a pet). The Master of Ceremonies also performs “If You Could See Her,” a meta performance describing his romance with a gorilla, a not-so-subtle allusion to how the Nazi propaganda machine depicts Jews as subhuman creatures. Like everything else Joel Grey does in this movie, it’s unsettling and disturbing.

The point is that none of these things are in there by accident, and one of the strengths of “Cabaret” is the knowledge of what’s in store for Nazi Germany, the fact that tens of millions of people are going to die, many of them horribly, and usher in a bleak era of suffering, pain, and destruction, and if only our main characters could just open theirĀ  eyes and look at what’s going on around them, maybe, just maybe, something could have been done to stop all of this. Instead, they’re too busy navel-gazing and worrying about their own problems, their own drama.

But even when they are reminded of how things are going outside the Kit Kat Club, it’s probably too late, as this gut-punch of a scene shows. “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” is the masterpiece of this movie. The only song set outside of the Kit Kat Club, in a bucolic beer garden drenched in sunshine, it’s a brightly lit, optimistic scene that’s sinister only because of the viewer’s knowledge of what comes after (and, of course, because of Joel Grey’s knowing, chilling smirk at the very end). It’s a breathtaking scene, precisely because of what it doesn’t contain – it doesn’t contain any sign of things to come, but the horrors are all there in the viewer’s mind. And that’s enough to make this scene one of the most potent in movie history.

As Michael York’s character, Brian, leaves, he asks the Baron, “Do you still think you can control them?” Already, there are hints that the world is spinning beyond their control, but with a shrug, they simply drive away. Only Joel Grey is there to remind you that the bright, sunny scene is a harbinger for the horrors of the Holocaust.

Like “Chicago,” “Cabaret” has some great music in it, and some over-the-top performances. They’re both awash in booze, blood, and sex, but both movies are deeply cynical and dark. In the case of “Chicago,” it’s a critique of celebrity culture. In “Cabaret,” it’s a reminder that no matter how indulgent or decadent the times seem, there’s a world outside the Kit Kat Club that’s on the verge of crashing down on them and wiping the stage clean, shutting it down in an instant – a foregone conclusion that might not have been so foregone after all. It’s a theatrical sleight of hand, and it’s only the viewer’s knowledge of history that allows us to look past the razzle dazzle to see the true heart of “Cabaret,” that it’s not really about Sally Bowles trying to have a good time, but whether the course of history itself could have been nudged ever so slightly in a different direction if any of our characters were a little less self-absorbed. As Sally sings in the titular song:

What good’s permitting some prophet of doom?
To wipe every smile away
Life is a cabaret, old chum!

In the end, the whole point of this movie is that life is not a cabaret, old chum. None of the main characters understood this, at least, not until it was far too late. And that is the real tragedy behind the movie.

* Scott, by the way, has a terrific blog himself, called ReelHeartWork. He’s an aortic dissection survivor and has been doing a lot of soul-searching since. He’s also a storyteller, and talks a lot about movies too. You should give his blog a visit.