Early in the film a character named Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith) appears in front of a church, struggling mightily to express himself through an uncooperative stuttering voice. He is selling postcard photos of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. and trying to give voice to what those images mean to him, a black kid trying to survive. It is a stunning evocation of the inexpressibility of black lives these days, or any days. After he appears, all that is articulated throughout the film takes on additional layers of frustration.
Only one character in the film escapes the miseries of being downpressed over food, clothing, shelter, and respect — Mister Señor Love Daddy (Sam Jackson), an omniscient, 24-hour, knows-no-sleep block radio jock, a Brooklyn love Baba, chanting hip sutras that usually end “and that’s the truth, Ruth!” The heat doesn’t get to him either. His very 24-ness there in a storefront window is one of the touches of mojo, or Yoruba bush magic, that identify Lee’s vision as a step outside the melodrama of many naturalistic black films. Lee nods to those films, too, with the inclusion of two Mom and Pop characters, “Mother Sister” and “Da Mayor,” played by Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, that will be familiar to everyone. Like the coach and the college president in School Daze, they are staples from movie iconography, in this case surrounded by a whole block of folk you almost never see.
DTRT is also very funny. The film’s humor is Lee’s most effective tool, embracing the characters and cajoling the audience. It allows us to deal with the disagreeable in ourselves, as humor should; it does not sell people off while selling jokes. The film is perhaps most provocative, though, for breaching its narrative to show you the perverse but common kinds of prejudice harbored by characters from all sides of the story. They literally face the camera as talking heads, just as the “dogs” gave their raps in She’s Gotta Have It, and recite the racial slurs lurking in their minds before those feelings come spilling out in the heat of conflict.
It is part of the etiquette of race relations in this country that film does not do this. Whites who are prejudiced are characterized in such a way that their views seem the products of illiteracy or poverty. Blacks who are shown as prejudiced usually have only one operative mode — extreme rage — or they are crazies. In fact, lots of people who see the film will probably get into discussions about whether different characters are racist.
In St. Clair Bourne’s documentary, Making “Do the Right Thing,” there is a preproduction meeting between Lee and Danny Aiello about whether Sal (Aiello), owner of a pizzeria on the Bed-Stuy block, is racist. Lee thinks he is, Aiello thinks not. The white actors in the film do not view the characters they have to play as racist. That is hardly surprising; it’s psychic survival on the job. But they do seem unaware that Lee shows everyone as racist, even Sal — and Lee’s obvious determination to undo a few stereotypes of American film, including the grumpy white guy behind the counter of the local store in a “changing” neighborhood, who really is okay, really. There are two “Sals” in West Side Story, for instance — a candy store owner and a well-meaning social worker. People will want to decide if it is justified for Sal to be ruined, based on whether he is a good guy or a bad guy — that’s the way we’ve been taught to think.
But DTRT, perhaps even in spite of Lee’s intentions, suggests another way to look at the emergence of violence in a community. While Lee clearly believes that race views result from acculturation rather than economic stress, and he shows us the commonly acquired varieties of racism that we all have, the film itself makes clear that the pressures that can create violence are often responses to generalized frustration or fear, unrelated to any clear analysis of individual culpability. This fact was learned or relearned when insurrections erupted in the ’60s. That the pressures still exist is the film’s raison d’etre. This is the link to Howard Beach. In the real-life incident, of course, lawyers and media people attempted to pin various kinds of guilt on the victims of the violence. Those sympathetic to the perpetrators tried to take the edge off the deed by suggesting it could somehow by justified. Look, those guys were bad guys, even if they hadn’t done anything.
Talking about Sal being a racist or not is irrelevant. If Lee’s Mookie, a black who is just trying to get by, as Lee says, “while doing as little work as possible,” harbors untapped rage against the society he lives in and is capable of starting a riot, that is one of the underpinnings of everything that goes on between people in our society. That is the point. Again, I don’t know that Lee meant to say that, but it does get said in the movie. If you leave the theater wondering about the troublesome, seemingly ambivalent ending and the apparently contradictory quotes cited from Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, it is because you are looking for good guys and bad guys.
To show these layers of racism in the interaction between people in a place like New York, Lee had to show his own — our own — forms of race hatred. And he had to be honest. When asked why Mookie takes some money from the ruined Sal at the end of the film, providing its not-so-sweet ending, Lee answers, “Because this is not a Disney movie. He’s not an idiot. He knows it’s gonna be a while before he gets another job. To do it the other way would have been the Hollywood movie.” (Also not from Disney is the Malcolm/Martin coda.) There are several reasons such honesty may make people uncomfortable.
It will no doubt make some whites happy to know that a black filmmaker would implicitly criticize blacks for the arbitrary and foolish hostility towards them that sometimes occurs. He shows one of those pointless but utterly commonplace confrontations on a street, a white surrounded by blacks who want to know what he’s doing on their turf. He responds by saying he owns a building there, which any viewer will instantly recognize as a stupidly provocative remark, likely to inflame the already touchy folk who have cornered him. It’s so stupid, you laugh. But it goes to the heart of white indignation — and silence — and black paranoia. Is honesty likely to be turned into a political weapon and used against us? Some will say yes, that kind of honesty; others will say that’s not really honest, because it doesn’t explain the causes of the behavior. It does not show our actions, actions which do not seem justified. His characters are not heroic in the way that we used to understand that word — more kin to Brecht’s folk than John Ford’s. Welcome to the ’90s.
The misanthropic Reagan era, a time of backlash and recrimination, has produced the new thinking that blacks must be more self-critical in looking at the problems in our communities and that we must solve them ourselves. This is quite different from thinking in the ’60s. Blacks too have become susceptible to the neoconservative line that blacks are the creators of their own dilemmas. Even though Lee does not buy this line, his work still reflects the presence of these ideas. He may view his films as nationalistic, but they are hardly ’60s films; in fact they might have met with some serious opposition then and been viewed as loose canons in the politics of the time. But now Lee sits comfortably within a pantheon of African-American artists who came to prominence in the ’80s breaking the ranks of traditional protest art. Recent debates about the work of black writers like Alice Walker have certainly centered on the same question of the uses made of an artist’s unfettered personal honesty.
But have the times made white filmmakers more honest? With the exception of one or two filmmakers, like John Sayles, whose Matewan and The Brother From Another Planet reveal uncanny insight, this is a step white filmmakers have not been bold or interested enough to take.
While the look and sound of black America often are imitated or appropriated, they usually pop up in a context that basically has nothing to do with how African Americans live and think. The same can be said of Latins and Asians, of course. Some producers may want to claim that they still believe films about blacks, or Latins, or Asians, won’t sell and therefore they must approach stories that may concern us through characters the audience can identify with, but it’s much easier to imagine that white filmmakers are more interested in people like themselves.
In most cases white films use the National Geographic approach to the rest of us: showing nice pictures of beautiful people doing what they do in the broadest manner possible, and in a public forum. You see us break-dancing, cutting, strutting, or doing dope on the street. DTRT is one film I would have said could not be made by the industry in Hollywood.
In recent films blacks have taken on a new allure as background (Married to the Mob, Something Wild, Working Girl, and do you remember The Cotton Club?), and occasionally as objects of desire (Angel Heart, or the British Scandal). Even films like Bird, which purport to be about some particularly black aspect of the culture (popularly including jazz, army duty, or life in jail), not only perish from misguided perspective, but they are really about white people caught up in a fictional black world. Movies have so determined what that black world is like that Lee had to point out to reporters at Cannes that it just might be racist to ask only a black filmmaker why drugs do not appear in his movies.
While shooting Mississippi Burning, a film that uses black people almost exclusively as visuals, Alan Parker told me of his conscious, short-notice decision to shoot a scene of black people in their home. As he told it, the idea seemed to be a breakthrough for him — it usually isn’t done, he explained. The National Geographic cameras go in from the public forum to show you what they’re really like. The great flaw in this method is that it also undoes the logic of the film, because nothing is revealed by the people. When a riot unaccountably breaks out in Parker’s tiny Mississippi town, for instance, the black viewer, at least, is jarred into reality. If you are content to view blacks as inexplicable anyway, you move on; otherwise you come up with the racist notion that blacks just break out into riot every now and then. While Lee has made it a point in all of his work not to explain black people, but to let them be, it is very clear in DTRT what troubles each of the characters, black, white, Latin, or Asian. The assumption here is that that people matter, or as Lee puts it, that “Black life is as important as white life.” It is a tragedy that this must be one of the unique contributions of a black filmmaker to American culture.
Black perspective is so precious a commodity in film that even a novel written by a black person (take Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place) and produced as a film for TV by a black person (say, Oprah Winfrey) can come up with images and stereotypes more tired than the normal fare with a director (say, Donna Deitch) who seemingly knows nothing more than clichés. Perhaps you also thought of another black woman’s novel (say, The Color Purple), and another director (Steven Spielberg). I doubt if even The Color Purple‘s most ardent supporters would say the film reflected an African-American way of looking at life. (Heaven help us. What will become of Beloved or Their Eyes Were Watching God, which are similarly situated to be made into films?) The process of filming any life is one of a thousand decisions about character, character understood from the inside out. The often filmmakers draw on how people of color have appeared in other films — films that denigrated even how we look.
But black filmmakers have begun to throw down the gauntlet where everybody can see it. Independent black filmmakers have made movies that deal with black life from the inside out for seven decades now, yet only a few have been widely viewed across America. And only DTRT has brought American critics back from Cannes — where it was snubbed by the awards jury — feeling chauvinistic about American film and ready to tough it out in the papers over a film that won’t make people happy. Even before it has opened, DTRT has put people on notice that African-American cinema is entering a new era.
While we will have to remind even Lee’s champions in the press that they are still comparing him to other black filmmakers (Van Peebles, even Sidney Poitier!), it will be possible to show how black cinema challenges the American film industry to do the right thing. No matter how small the coterie of black directors and stars with the clout to make movies happen, they put out the word that certain possibilities exist. DTRT is that rare dramatic film about black people that raises serious questions and has the potential to be big at the box office.
The model in the past among Hollywood execs has been the blaxploitation film, and the trend among self-starting black filmmakers has been comic (Hollywood Shuffle, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka). While these films may be good fun, I also think opting for comedy is a survival technique. Prayers go up, of course, for the full universe of black life — tragic, comic, and in-between — to make it to the movie houses.
And I hope too that DTRT will open the doors wider among black film viewers as to what they can expect from black filmmakers. We tend to lay down the parameters of what is acceptable in the way of black images, because, as Lee says, “We have been dogged out in the media.” We have spent many hours in panels and boycotts of films made by whites about us. It’s time we talked about what we can do: how black films can break down some of the taboos — like the exclusion of brown-skinned women from lead roles, the omission of normal relationships, reasoned militancy, or intact family life from black appearances in film. I could go on.
The fact that filmmakers can show our sense of community, without prettying up the picture or feeling obliged to insert unnecessary material to placate certain people, needs to be discussed. The politically-minded may want to talk about whether nationalism is enough, or if filmmakers have to have a particular political line. Lee plays to his audience, too, in this film nodding to what he views perhaps as popular black opinion on figures like Minister Louis Farrakhan and Tawana Brawley. But at least he is nodding to those who seldom get heard. He shows us in a number of instances that black communities commonly reject mass-media banalities about events that affect us. This is an important idea.
Next year promises to be a boom year for black cinema. Lee is already in preproduction on a jazz film, A Love Supreme, to star Denzel Washington as a contemporary trumpet player. Robert Townsend’s doo-wop film Heartbeats will be completed, and Charles Lane’s Sidewalk Stories is soon to appear. Also due are films by James Bond III, Melvin and Mario Van Peebles, Reggie Hudlin, and Julie Dash. For all of them, the next battleground will be distribution. Will these films be released to more than two theaters in Detroit and Washington? Lee’s School Daze opened in 220 theaters last year, while most summer films open in 1500. Keenen Ivory Wayans’s I’m Gonna Git You Sucka was treated the same way. If you weren’t on the black grapevine, you wouldn’t know it was happening in time to get down to the theater. Earlier this month the Black Filmmaker Foundation honored a decade’s worth of films from these and other filmmakers. The film showings alone took several weeks. The release of Do the Right Thing is as worthy a landmark as any of the next wave in black cinema. There’s a whole gang of folk who know how to do the right thing, and that’s the truth, Ruth.
Actor Danny Aiello has the no-bullshit affability of someone just off the street. And here, in a West Hollywood hotel called Ledufy, where Parisienne-sounding operators answer the phone “Oui, mademoiselle,” he seems a home-boy who has wandered onto the wrong turf. Aiello is ensconced in Los Angeles to shoot Eddie Murphy’s $40 million picture Harlem Nights, a far cry in both budget and bankability from Spike Lee’s $5 million Do the Right Thing, which gave Aiello a coveted lead role as Sal, the entrenched and ultimately embattled owner of a Bedford-Stuyvesant pizzeria.
At 50, Aiello is tall and tattooed, with a solid build but enough of a gut and gold to suggest a paisan who has done well for himself. He remains a quintessential actor from New York — not as city, but as neighborhood. Directors have cast him accordingly: the aging mama’s boy in Moonstruck, the abusive Depression-era husband in The Purple Rose of Cairo, and the bad cop in Fort Apache, the Bronx, set in the 41st precinct of the South Bronx where Aiello grew up a self-described “skinny, tough kid with a lot of heart.”
Aiello was the sixth of seven kids born to a de facto single mother and an absentee father “who came home once a year to make a baby, and then he’d be gone.” At the age of 16, Aiello married a local Jewish girl from the neighborhood and began a three-year stint in the service. While still in his twenties, he parlayed a job as a starter for the Greyhound bus line into the presidency of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1202, making him the youngest union president at that time. Ousted after a 1967 wildcat strike, Aiello, then a father of four, went for five years working odd jobs, variously a bouncer and part-time master of ceremonies in after-hours clubs around the city. He turned to acting at the age of 35.
Aiello’s working-class roots are crucial to his effectiveness in the role of Sal: Director Lee was certainly tapping elements of character far deeper than casting for type. The two couldn’t be stranger bedfellows: Lee, who directed commercials for Jesse Jackson, endows his films with motifs of black struggle; Aiello is the type of postwar working-class hero that put Ronald Reagan in office. Name an issue and the two are likely to be on opposite sides, from Jimmy the Greek’s gaffe about black athletes (Aiello: “It’s a dumb thing to say, but he should lose his job over that? Come on.”) to racial killings. (“You look at Howard Beach, Eleanor Bumpurs. Then you look at a white woman running in Central Park, and I understand that one black kid said, ‘Let’s get the white bitch.’ I mean, is that racial? We heard a racial remark made; should we judge them on race? I don’t know. Now someone in Howard Beach said, ‘Let’s get the black bastard.’ Does that make it racial? I don’t know.”)
Aiello himself embodies the perplexity of racial attitudes on a street level: the street being the place that erupted into the Howard Beach incident, and, in the movie, the place that erupts into the racially charged blow-out between Sal and Radio Raheem, where pizza and ghetto blasters say more about the day-to-day schism between black and white than any sociopolitical analysis could. For Aiello, words are a part of street culture he readily admits to participating in — “playing the dozens” as kids in the Bronx, cursing each other with whatever will hurt, whether it’s your mother or your race. He explains, “If a black man called me a guinea, that was the biggest insult you could give me — or a dago. I wanted to fight. And if I called a black man a nigger or something like that, he would want to fight. It wasn’t because you hated every person or you were racist. It was the thing that provoked people to fight. It’s like, put this chip on my shoulder and you throw it off… Now you’ve got people running around, some sort of psychologist or psychiatrist saying that if you say a word like that, you’re prejudiced. Well, I know I’m not prejudiced. If I was, I wouldn’t sit down with Spike Lee.”
Lee understands Aiello’s culture. Do the Right Thing explores, in a profoundly honest way, the range of individual and collective experience and emotion that lies behind a racial slur. Lee knows the difference between racism and prejudice: No nationality is innocent of bigotry, but in America today, white prejudice combined with economic and political power equals racism. He also knows that to a working guy like Sal, who has busted his behind for years just to scrape by, that distinction is an elusive one.
Aiello interprets the movie not as a movie about racism, but one that shows how meaningless a racial slur, and the attendant hoopla over it, can be. To him, like Sal, racial slurs are only words — deeds make the man. So, despite Louis Farrakhan’s views on politics and race, Aiello feels deep respect for the Fruit of Islam, which provided security on the movie’s set in Bed-Stuy: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen, individually or collectively, a group of people who are so polite, so clear-eyed, so full of knowledge as to what they were there for, and they were there to make sure that the movie would be made with no problems.”
Aiello’s views are enough to make most Hollywood liberals shudder, but he may well be one of the last honest men in the public eye. In conceptualizing his role of Sal, he explains: “I kept saying I don’t want my character to be lily-white every minute. I don’t want to be right every minute. I want them to have frailties. I want him to make mistakes. I want him to say ‘nigger.’ I want him to do that, and then at the end when they interview me and they say to me, ‘Are you prejudiced?’ I’m going to say, ‘I use those words in life.’ Spike knows that, and I said, ‘Look, if I told you I didn’t use that word before, Spike, I’d be a liar. But I’m not prejudiced, Spike, and I use the word.’ And I use words worse than those pertaining to race. But I’m not, I live and let live… If people are prejudiced, fuck ’em.”
Playing the roles of the neighborhood wino and the stoop-front matriarch in Spike Lee’s new film, Do the Right Thing, actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee look like they wandered into the South Bronx from some all-black musical. As Da Mayor, Davis weaves down the block in his straw hat and soiled dress clothes like the Ghost of Christmas Past, dispensing good cheer and old folk wisdom to the rare homeboy who’ll listen. Dee’s Mother Sister, the eyes and ears of a neighborhood preoccupied with mobility, rarely ventures further than her front stoop. As the only parental figures in the film, and the most experienced actors, Davis and Dee couldn’t seem more disconnected from the rap-filled world the surrounds them And that seems seems to be precisely the point.
“It’s hard to accept that your way of life is gone,” concedes Davis. “We’re products of institutions that were destroyed by their own success, for example the black theater where we both were trained. When Broadway and Hollywood opened their doors, we both went. But we try to put back that seed, show by our example that it’s a tradition worth saving.”
It’s not just the role they’ve played in the black performing community that makes this married couple’s presence in the film so significant; it’s also their commitment to activism within the film industry. “We’ve always been active in trying to help Hollywood see the light as far as black people are concerned,” Davis points out. “We’ve picketed, demonstrated, appeared as witnesses before Congress, talked about the dearth of roles for blacks both in front of and behind the camera. And also the kinds of roles available to us.”
“What’s glorious is seeing young people working together,” adds Dee, her eyes wide as she makes a sweeping gesture with her arms. “Blacks, Asians, the handicapped — they’re all working together, and working beautifully. What excites me about Spike is the movement, the energy, the sheer bodaciousness of his filmmaking.:
In one particularly painful scene from the film, a group of young kids confront Da Mayor with his derelict ways, demanding to know why he deserves even minimal deference. It made me wonder how Dee and Davis feel about some of the attitudes depicted in the film — the ignorance of the past, the last of respect for tradition.
“The life available to young people today doesn’t always appeal to me,” Davis admits, “but it does intrigue me. What’s interesting in this scene is that it makes us think about what’s brought us to this point as black people, about what’s changed about our values. The institutions that gave us our continuity — home, family, church — no longer exist in the same way. And it’s not just black people, but American culture in general.”
Though the film criticizes the older, stereotypical characters that Davis and Dee evoke for their small-mindedness and passivity, Lee clearly regards them as integral to the black community. In the movie, the morning after the climactic racial confrontation, Da Mayor asks Mother Sister if the block is still standing, and she simply replies, “We’re still standing,” as if the two were synonymous.
“We help define what is valuable and worth saving,” Davis tells me, “because there are certain things that the community still needs. Is the neighborhood still standing? Yes, because we are.”
Dee seems less comfortable with this idea, squirming as David responds. “Don’t put Ossie and me on any pedestal,” she says, laughing, “because then you’re left there for the birds to shit on.”
I’m in the part of my neighborhood, Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, where Spike Lee filmed Do the Right Thing, talking to the residents about Spike and the movie. One mention of his name and everybody grins like crazy, the girls going, “Ooh, ahh,” the fellas giving each other high fives.
“Yeah, I was there when he was making it,” says Jamal Webber, 16, who lives on Lexington. “He’s no joke.”
“Did you see me?” asks Cassandra Ellis, a 16-year-old sophomore at Boys and Girls High School. “I was what I think you call a walk-on.”
“Yo, cool, are you related to him?” questions a fella who gives his name as Ice, commenting on the slight resemblance in height and looks between Spike and me.
Mildred Reeves, a nurse at Wudhull Hospital and mother of two, dismisses the teenagers’ excitement over having the movie filmed here.
“You know, I’ve lived here all my life, and never did I think somebody would make movie here. I mean, why would they; this is a bad neighborhood, right? But like the old saying goes, there’s more to something than meets the eye. And one shouldn’t always believe all they are told about things. Check it out for yourself. This is a beautiful community, you know. We have areas that make parts of the suburbs look like real ghettos.”
Spike shot DTRT on Stuyvesant Avenue between Quincy Street and Lexington Avenue — three blocks from where I live, a block from where I grew up. I almost went into cardiac arrest after seeing on screen the streets where I learned to ride a bike, went to school, and, like the characters in the film (or should I say neighbors?), ran after the ice cream man, slurped on ices, played in the streets, opened up a fire hydrant so we kids could go “swimming,” and purchased slices of pizza from a person who didn’t live in the neighborhood. The film had so many familiar faces, like “The Cornermen” (you know, those old gents that sit or stand on the corner all day, gabbing about everything and everybody) and “Miss Busybody” (the eyes, ears, nose, and throat of the whole block, who makes everybody’s business her own).
I’m not used to sitting in a movie theater and seeing ordinary black folks doing ordinary things — we’re either walking stereotypes or invisible. And this is the first time I’ve even seen my community shown as a community. Bed-Stuy, just like every other African-American community in this land, gets a bad rap for being a haven for crime, poverty, drugs, and despair. The media infiltrates these communities’ streets to cover the negative issues but not the communities themselves. Yup, they go for the hype, and you, the uninformed outsider, believe it.
With bad PR like this, you’d think the people living in these communities are just here, sitting and waiting for the inevitable. The folks in Do the Right Thing, though, are shown just doin’ their thang — living. Dealing with relationships, friendships, entanglements, commitments, conflicts, crises. As a result, the characters come off as being almost real, not one-dimensional stick figures. Spike didn’t make this movie to please me or any other black living in Bed-Stuy, but I’m sure one of his goals was to create characters and a setting that people could look at and say, “Hey, that’s me up there,” or “Yo, looks like my neighborhood.”
This film reinforces my feeling that there’s no reason for me to deal with the many ridiculous, ignorant, often racist comments people throw at me when I tell them where I live (“Isn’t that a bad neighborhood?” “You don’t look like the type [read, type of Negro] who would live there!”) And, no, white folks ain’t the only ones guilty. Just ask a homey from Queens to visit my spot, and I’ll get “No, man, I’ll get snuffed out there.” Contrary to what the media says, dilapidated buildings, crack houses, and Uzi submachine guns do not a community make, nor do they represent it. People do.
Mildred Reeves surveys the area. We’re standing on the corner of Lexington and Stuyvesant between two painted murals that are featured in DTRT. One says, “Brooklyn’s Own Mike Tyson,” with an image of the champ in a fighting stance. The other is a pictorial of the many things that go on in Bed-Stuy with an overhead caption that reads, “Bed-Stuy… Do or Die.”
Reeves laughs as her hazel eyes set upon that mural. “Yeah, do or die. A lot of us are doin’, you know. But you wouldn’t know that; the media doesn’t like to say anything positive.” When I mention that Spike doesn’t do an exposé of the problems that do plague the community, her dark chocolate complexion gets a shade brighter. She smiles, saying, “That’s great. People think that Bed-Stuy is nothing but a problem place, but if it was, how could we live here? Sure the drugs and crime and all that are here, but they’re not the only things.” She stops, catches her breath, and says with a sigh, “Thank God for Spike Lee.”
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