Talk about a complete reversal from Driving Miss Daisy. This is one of my favorite movies. With just his third film, Spike Lee managed to capture a culture and time using techniques both microcosmic and specific. Man, I could talk about so many things here. From a pure filmmaking perspective it was wickedly divergent and exciting. He played lose with the rules, but everything is so direct and vibrant. The performances are visceral. Every character stands out. There’s a rich, self-conscious history to the entire landscape. It’s loaded with commentary, some positive, some negative, and all inflammatory.
But I’m only going to talk about what one thing specifically and that is how a lot of people were unsure what to make of it. It’s raucous debut at Cannes in1989 drew accusations by European journalists that the film was a call for violence and overthrowing of the “white” institution. In reaction, a lot critics came to his support (Roger Ebert most famously) and said it was just the opposite; that the characters who opposed the violence were representative of Lee’s true feelings. Lee, however, never wholly gave away his intentions.
That’s because the film was intentionally ambiguous.
Throughout Do The Right Thing, the characters continually echo the sentiments of both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. History has been more kind to Mr. King who has taken on a mythic status with his peaceful message. Culturally, however, people were still unsure what to do with Malcolm X. He was largely (and unfairly) considered a radical. The image of him holding the automatic rifle by the window still set off militant alarm bells in white America’s eyes. Lee’s attraction to Malcolm X led many to unfairly conclude his aspirations were similar. After all, it was Lee’s character Mookie who helped incite the riot. Thus the tug of war over the film’s intentions raged on.
I find this all so strange because it is ignoring something so plainly obvious: it’s doing both. Lee was pointing to the dichotomy not just within the black community, but within the black individual. Even in the post-civil right era, it’s really a surprisingly relevant concept. Being inherently drawn to both figures, Lee was expressing the tug of war that he felt inside. In a way, it almost totally explains the cultural reaction to the film.
No matter what interpretation, there’s so much packed into the film I find it fascinating. Every time you watch it, there’s something new.