Firstly, I have to amend a small fault on my part. On the last post of this blog I noted that my next piece of writing would include two of Spike Lee’s films, one being the latest film he recently released on Netflix in “Da 5 Bloods”, and the other being “Do The Right Thing” which I incorrectly noted as being his first film when in fact it was his third. That post has already been edited for the mistake, but it only made clear for me that I didn’t know all that much about the American filmmaker, and that it was past due for me to dive headlong into his filmography. The result begins with this post and an acknowledgement to watch more of his films in the future. After watching these two films, I have to admit to an admiration for the filmmaker’s tendencies. I quite enjoy provocateurs filmmakers, and Spike Lee is a fascinating creator in that regard.
That being said, while I highly recommend giving these two films a watch, you should note going in that these films can be uncomfortable at times. “Do The Right Thing” in particular has moments that seem to be ripped straight out of today’s headlines and while it may be upsetting for some, Lee is very adept at showing the ugliness of humanity alongside it’s beauty. Love and Hate are key themes in both films, and as such, he will not avert your eyes away from the ugliness. Absorb it. Learn from it. Be warned though, both films have heavy ideas and themes, but again, I think everyone should give them a watch. I always challenge anyone that reads this blog to seek out new films and different filmmakers, and that is especially true for the provocateur filmmakers like Spike Lee.
Written and directed by Spike Lee, “Do The Right Thing” (1989) follows a day in the life of Mookie (Spike Lee) a local pizza delivery boy in the Bedford–Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn New York. Though to limit the scope of the film solely to Mookie and his interactions would be a disservice to the film and it’s story. It’s more of an ensemble cast in truth. The film is layered with terrific and memorable performances from John Turturro, Richard Edson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Giancarlo Esposito, Danny Aiello, Bill Nunn, Joie Lee, and Martin Lawrence in his first feature presence. While we may follow Mookie’s path through the neighborhood, the camera often leaves Mookie to linger on the many faces and personalities of the neighborhood.
Mookie works at Sal’s (Danny Aiello) famous pizzeria with his two sons, Pino (Turturro) the eldest and most overtly racist of the family, and Vito (Edson) the quieter and friendlier brother. As Mookie makes his rounds delivering pizzas we’re introduced to many people from the block. From Da Mayor (Davis), a friendly drunk with a heart of gold, to the stoic Radio Raheem (Nunn) a powerful presence who wields a boombox constantly blaring Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power”, but there’s also Mother Sister (Dee) eternally watching the neighborhood from her brownstone windowsill, and a trio of entertaining middle-aged men that sit across from both the pizzeria and the Korean grocery store who crack wise throughout the film. However there are two important individuals left to discuss, one is Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson), a local radio DJ host who is a benevolent voice of reason piercing the veil of narrative function several times in the story, and then there’s “Buggin Out” (Giancarlo Esposito), as he is called. “Buggin Out” sits down to eat a slice of pizza at Sal’s for lunch when he notices that the “wall of fame” in the restaurant only has Italian Americans (Sinatra, DiMaggio, DeNiro, Pacino), so he asks, “Why aren’t there any brothers up on the wall?”. To which Sal replies that it’s his restaurant, he can put anyone up on the wall that he wants. “Buggin Out” points out that the place is only ever full of black customers, and that they should have someone up there too. Sal rejects the idea and “Buggin Out” is kicked out while Mookie has to clean up the mess.
For the rest of the film while the other plotlines and characters are given attention “Buggin Out” is pounding the concrete looking for supporters to boycott Sal’s pizzeria. He doesn’t have much luck as everyone legitimately likes Sal’s, but by the day’s end he returns with Radio Raheem and Smiley, the mentally challenged man that sells colored pictures of Martin Luther King jr and Malcolm X on the streets. I won’t ruin the culmination of the film here, but as a whole I found the film to be funny, charming, eclectic, and one that truly understood race relations in America as they were, and as they are today. There’s a scene, one of the most memorable of the film for me because I didn’t expect it, where Mookie and Pino begin an argument about race where Mookie asks Pino why his favorite athletes and musicians are black, but he still chooses to use words and language that are racist? It’s a notion that explodes into slow zoom mid-shots on several characters in the movie that openly and blatantly expel the most racist, stereotypical, and vicious insults from multiple races and backgrounds. It’s a startling dive into hatred that is broken only, mercifully, by Mister Señor Love Daddy. There’s a link below to an interview where Spike Lee discusses the scene at length.
“Do The Right Thing” is a powerful film that challenges its viewers to consider America’s race relations at more than face value. After introducing us to a community of good people, a hot summer day sends all the unsaid and il-considered notions to the forefront, and Spike Lee shows us how such terrible and awful things that exist within our society can hurt all of us, if only we care to look these truths in the eye.
Written by Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, Kevin Willmott, and Spike Lee, and directed by Lee, “Da 5 Bloods” (2020) is the story of four Black Vietnam War veterans returning to the country to find the remains of their fallen brother and give him a proper burial. However, they are also looking for the gold bars they left buried there as well. This film was an absolute surprise, I expected the film to confront unpleasant truths about the Vietnam War and the Black soldiers that participated in it, but I didn’t expect it’s timeless nature. I didn’t expect the film to eloquently showcase how hate and brain programming can crush a man’s soul, and I didn’t expect to be wowed so thoroughly by the technical aspects of the film. There are also creative choices throughout the film that were equally astounding. I also didn’t expect an enormous and effective amount of violence both real and fictional. Lee filled the film with real war footage, some of it is disturbingly violent, while some is purely historical archives of real black men-in-arms of that time. It gives the fictional characters a sense of immersion into our past that is seldom possible for other characters within period pieces. There are scenes in the present day and flashbacks to the Bloods’ time back in Vietnam, and the way each are depicted within the film changes how we view the story as a whole. The Vietnam scenes were shot on 16mm with grain, and curiously, the younger versions of the Bloods aren’t depicted with lookalike younger actors or de-aged with rubbery tenacity- instead they’re performed by the older actors. It’s a unique choice, but one that effectively underpins the point that this war didn’t leave them. Granted, all of the Bloods have varying issues with the past and how they chose to deal with it. There’s also the ever-changing aspect ratios, there’s four different ones paired with varying filmmaking techniques spread throughout the film. I’ve got a link below for an article from Slate discussing the details behind these. In lesser hands, these techniques might have failed or been a detriment to the story being told, but here they add a layer of magic to the film that only enhances the story being told.
That being said, the characters in this story are what make it so compelling. The technical wizardry and cool cinematic tricks are very good and I love them- but it’s the character work that truly makes this film shine. The four living Bloods reunite at a Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City (formally known as Saigon). Paul (Delroy Lindo), the most complex and misunderstood of the group, Otis (Clarke Peters) the medic and peacemaker among them, Eddie (Norm Lewis) the eccentric high roller that funded the whole trip, and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) the jokester and artillery specialist. I’m not quite as assured in my description of Melvin, Whitlock’s performance was a fine addition to the cast, but his characterization was the only one I found to be somewhat lacking. Then again, I may just need to give the film a rewatch to better dig into that character, it’s a bit of a long movie running at two and a half hours. In both time periods there is a fifth Blood member. In the war, the squad leader of the Bloods was Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), and in the present day, it’s Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors) who joins the four unexpectedly before they depart into the jungle. With regards to Melvin, the rest of the Bloods feel fully realized and complex. They all have deeper issues that need addressing, but the absolute standout is Delroy Lindo as Paul. He is his own Colonel Kurtz who unravels more as they journey deeper into their pasts looking for treasure, for salvation, for forgiveness. If the film industry continues to take the shape that it has for most of this year, then Lindo has already won “Best Actor”, his performance was mesmerizing. Spike Lee, also, should get the Director’s gold- the year may hold out more gems and high quality surprises, but I’d be hard pressed to see anyone else deserve a hard earned win more than Spike Lee.
Lee touches on a lot of modern day issues, from the Opioid Epidemic to MAGA hats, the director has not and does not shy away from ‘hot topics’ as you by now well know. With this film, Spike Lee has refuted any naysayers to his skill and standing in the film community. Lee’s latest film is fierce, passionate, and ambitious. Hopefully we get more films with this kind of energy from Lee, I know I’ll be looking forward to them.
LINKS FOR MORE INFO ON SPIKE LEE: