Spike Lee: Doing the right thing is never easy, and shouldn't be

By Joe Leydon

June 29, 1989 | Summertime, and the movies are easy. And that's as it should be, in the considered opinion of most Hollywood heavyweights. It's conventional wisdom, accepted as gospel: During warm-weather months, moviegoers don't want issues, don't want heavy drama, don't want anything that will force them to think. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, they want nothing more challenging than Ghostbusters, comic-book smash-'em-ups, and no-brain, no-strain comedies.

But then along comes something completely different, to shake things up real good, to make the summer just a little bit hotter: Spike Lee's extraordinarily audacious Do the Right Thing, a full-bodied, full-volume comedy-drama with the exuberant high spirits of a block party and the dramatic impact of a brick through a plate-glass window. The film, which opens Friday in theaters nationwide, doesn't merely ask you to think -- it demands that you pay attention.
It takes place during the hottest day of the summer, on a single block in the predominantly black Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyevesant. During 24 eventful hours of vividly rendered street life, bickering escalates into ugly confrontations, long-simmering resentments bubble over, and angry frustrations are furiously, impetuously channeled into violence against the only available symbol of the white power structure: Sal's Famous Pizzeria, a Bed-Stuy institution run by a burly Italian-American who genuinely believes he isn't a racist.
Already, Do the Right Thing has raised a ruckus. Since its world premiere last month at the Cannes International Film Festival, where it received great press but no prizes, the movie has polarized critics and social commentators. For some -- most notably, Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times and Vincent Canby of The New York Times -- Lee's movie is a brave, bold attempt to examine racism in inner-city America, while at the same time offering a vibrantly entertaining montage of music, movement and moving performances. For others -- Stanley Crouch of the Village Voice, for example -- Lee's film is at best, foolishly naive in its depiction of a racially motivated street riot. (The movie ends with a quote from Malcolm X, who justifies militant violence as ''self-defense.'') At worst, the most irate critics claim, Do the Right Thing is dangerously incendiary  -- and might even cause riots during a long, hot summer of discontent.

Lee, a 32-year-old bantamweight, is no stranger to controversy. In She's Gotta Have It, the small-budget comedy that made his reputation as America's leading black filmmaker, he playfully celebrated the sexuality of black women, discomforting more than a few easily offended viewers. Then he upped the level of outrage in School Daze, a musical comedy that mocked the prejudices among light- and dark-skinned black college students. The internecine bigotry, Lee said, is a dirty little secret many blacks would prefer to forget. Lee caught a lot of flak for reminding them.
And now, with Do the Right Thing, Lee once again is at the center of a raging controversy. This time, though, the stakes are higher, the debate is more heated.
Lee makes no apologies for turning up the thermostat. But he refutes the claim that he has made a movie with no hope, and no answers.

''I don't think this is a pessimistic film,'' Lee said during a Cannes press conference. ''I think that, at the end, there is hope.
''But, look, I wouldn't go to any movie expecting it to have an answer to AIDS, to cancer -- or to racism. What makes you think that filmmakers are gods, or Jesus Christ? What makes you think I'm a savior, that I'm gonna have an answer to racism?

''What I feel I have to do as a filmmaker is present a problem, so that discussion can start. Because you still have a lot of people in America who say that racism ended when Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, and black people have the vote . . . So black people have arrived, and everything is all right.
''But it's not. The black underclass in America now is larger than it's ever been. So you can't be lulled to sleep, into thinking that just because Eddie Murphy is huge, and Arsenio Hall has a great TV show, that we're living in a world where everything is right, and righteous and humane.''

During a promotional tour through Houston last week, Lee discussed the meanings and motivations behind Do the Right Thing. He was inspired to write the screenplay, he said, by the notorious 1986 incident in Howard Beach, Queens, where Italian-American youths assaulted three young black men near a neighborhood pizzeria. One of the victims, Michael Griffith, was struck and killed by a passing car while fleeing his attackers. Do the Right Thing is dedicated to the memory of Griffith and other victims of racist violence, Lee said.

''I didn't want to do a dramatization of the Howard Beach incident,'' Lee said. ''But I wanted several of the references: the pizzeria, the Italian-American-black conflict, the baseball bat, and the death of a black male.''

Throughout most of Do the Right Thing, Sal, the pizzeria owner played by Danny Aiello, seems a benign, though slightly paternalistic figure. He's proud of his many years in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood. And he's visibly annoyed when one of his two sons, Pino, makes openly racist remarks in front of black customers.

''But Sal is a racist,'' Lee said. ''I think that it's just hiding beneath the surface. He doesn't think he's a racist. In fact, Danny Aiello doesn't think he's a racist. But I do. And that's the way I wrote it.
''When he has that conversation with Pino, he says, 'I've been good to these people.' These people. Like, 'These people grew up on my pizza.' And being a black person, anytime you hear the term 'these people,' you know it's another word for 'black,' or 'nigger,' or something like that.

''And I think it's also important that, since his son is racist, you have to be thinking about where did he get that racism from? That stuff does not come out of thin air. A lot of that stuff, he got that from his home. He got that from Sal.''

The ugly undercurrent swells to high tide, Lee said, at the film's climax. Near closing time, two unwelcome customers show up at Sal's door: Radio Raheem, a brutish black man with a blasting boom box, and Buggin Out, a would-be activist who wants Sal to hang pictures of black celebrities on the restaurant wall. Sal, angered by Buggin Out's abrasive demands, irritated by Radio's high-decibel rap music, pulls out a baseball bat and drops his facade.

Lee, who played supporting parts in She's Gotta Have It and School Daze, cast himself in the key role of Mookie, Sal's easygoing delivery boy, in Do the Right Thing. In the early reels, Mookie is an apolitical layabout, casual to the point of carelessness about his responsibilities to his girlfriend and their infant son. Even so, he's basically a likable fellow. And he tries to break up the fight when Sal and Radio Raheem get nasty.

But then the police arrive, and a young black man is killed -- an all-too-common occurrence, in Lee's view. Of all people, Mookie is the one who, in a fit of frustration, tosses a trash can through Sal's front window. A riot ensues.

''Up to that point,'' Lee said, ''I think for a lot of the white audience, Mookie is the one character in the film they can identify with. They're not gonna like Buggin Out, because he's a troublemaker. And they're not gonna like Radio Raheem. Because everybody has these preconceived notions of these black youths, these angry, insane, raping, mugging black youths that terrorize inner-city America, walking around with these giant radios, with their rap music blasting. It would have been too easy to have somebody like this throw a garbage can through the window.
''So it's a big surprise. And we get you. Because throughout the beginning of the movie, Mookie is this nice, young black character. The one you wouldn't mind having come over to your house, and not feel you have to lock up your silverware and your color TV. And then, at the last minute, he is the one who throws the garbage can through the window.''

Not that Lee feels anything positive is achieved by Mookie's outburst. Indeed, Lee sees the climax of his film as a tragedy that could have been avoided, not a call to rouse street-fighting men. At heart, Do the Right Thing is a cautionary tale.

''I think everybody is responsible for what happens in Sal's,'' Lee said. ''Because everything could have been averted by somebody not doing something. If Sal wouldn't have refused to put up a photograph of a black person on the wall. Or if Radio Raheem wouldn't come in with his music blasting. Or if Buggin Out hadn't been pressing that issue.
''The whole film is like that -- seemingly inconsequential incidents mushroom into somebody's death.''

That kind of talk, of cause and effect, raises an inevitable question: Will inner-city audiences appreciate the message of Lee's provocative movie? Or will the film inadvertently trigger violence on its own?
Lee, who lives in Brooklyn's Fort Greene neighborhood, rejects the suggestion that his movie may spark riots in New York.

''Anything that happens this summer will not happen because of this movie,'' Lee said. ''I mean, last summer was the hottest summer in New York City in a long time, and nothing really happened.
''I think what makes this summer important is that, in November, there's gonna be an election for the mayor of New York City. And Mayor Ed Koch has been The Man for the last eight years. And this is gonna be a very bitter race. The primary's in September. And what the mayor has accomplished in the past eight years is divide the city down the line, into black and white. New York City is very polarized. And that's the way this election is gonna be run, too.
''It'll probably be hot again this summer. But if anything happens this summer, it won't be because of this film. It'll be because cops killed somebody else for no reason. It won't be because of Do the Right Thing.''