Spike Lee's Hotly Debated New Film
Filmmaker says racial tension depicted in `Do the Right Thing' is `real and truthful'. FILM: INTERVIEW
NEW YORK — `I'VE always been an instigator,'' says filmmaker Spike Lee, whose new comedy-drama promises to be the most argued-about movie of the summer. It's called ``Do the Right Thing,'' and it deals with issues of racial tension and urban stress that have rarely been raised by mainstream films. It has already caused a stir in motion-picture circles, pleasing some observers and disturbing - even shocking - others. All of which is fine with Mr. Lee, who wrote and directed the film, in addition to playing one of its key characters, a young delivery man named Mookie.
``If people have to squirm,'' he told me in a recent interview at Univeral Pictures here, ``that's fine with me. Hollywood is not making this type of film. Most of its films are just mindless entertainment.''
``Do the Right Thing'' takes place in a broken-down Brooklyn neighborhood during a 24-hour period. It's the hottest day anyone can remember, and tempers are running high at Sal's Famous Pizzaria, the main setting of the film. The plain-spoken and often foul-mouthed characters include Sal and his two sons, who own the pizza parlor, and black people who live nearby.
Tension starts to build when a young black man calls for a boycott of the pizzeria, to protest the ``Wall of Fame'' where Sal hangs photos of his Italian-American heroes. This argument combines with the heat and the irritations of ghetto life to produce a threatening situation that finally erupts into violence - first involving callous white policemen, then the neighborhood as a whole. The movie ends with two quotations: Martin Luther King on why violence is always immoral and self-defeating, and Malcolm X on the idea that violence in self-defense may be justified.
One unconventional aspect of ``Do the Right Thing'' is its refusal to provide a neat resolution of the story and the difficult issues it raises - a strategy Lee also used in ``School Daze,'' his most recent previous film. ``I'm not doing the same stuff Hollywood does,'' he says. ``I think [audiences] can accept something that's more real and truthful. There's no way Sal and Mookie could have hugged and kissed and joined hands and sung ``We Are the World'' when you have the situation [that exists] in the world today. It would be a lie. I could not have a Walt Disney, sugar-coated, fake ending.''
This reflects Lee's conviction that nobody - including himself - has definitive solutions to racial problems today. ``Anybody that comes to this film expecting Spike Lee to give them an answer to racism is going to be disappointed,'' he says. ``I don't have the answers. A lot of people don't have the answers. I think my job as a filmmaker is to raise these questions, so we can at least start a dialogue and start talking about them - because there are a lot of people under the assumption that racism is a thing of the past, and that isn't the truth.''
Although he hopes people of all colors will see his movie, Lee has a clear opinion about who might benefit from it most. ``I think white people need to see this film more than black people,'' he says. ``When it comes down to it, black people did not invent racism. Black people, for the most part, are recipients of it. I think if racism is going to end in America, a choice has to be made by white Americans if they want to end it.''
This raises a big question about the relationship between films and society: Can movies make a difference in the way people think and behave? ``I think so,'' Lee says. ``I mean, that's why I do it. ... I remember going to see karate films, and as soon as the [movie] ends, all down 42nd Street kids are kicking each other in the face! So definitely ... it's always been known that films influence dress, thought, how we speak, how we walk, everything.''
LEE knows some audience members have been shaken and even frightened by the violence that breaks out as ``Do the Right Thing'' approaches its climax. He says this reaction is to be expected. ``We're dealing with a volatile subject matter,'' he notes. ``We're dealing with something that affects everybody but hasn't really been discussed. People for too long just ... kept their heads in the sand. But, you know, it's here. And it's being fought out in urban areas of America.
``I don't think [white people] should be scared,'' he states. ``I have sympathy for them if they have strong emotions about this film. But if white people look at this film and feel uncomfortable for 15 minutes, I think that's going to be good - because they have no idea how black Americans have lived for 400 years! If they have to feel uncomfortable for 15 minutes, then that's all right. The movie's going to be over, and they'll go back to wherever they live [while] black people still make up the large permanent underclass.''
Even though he wants to ``raise people's consciousness'' with his movie, Lee acknowledges that he didn't make his portrait of the Bedford-Stuyvesant ghetto nearly as bleak as he might have.
``If this film were done by a white filmmaker,'' he asserts, ``it would have been all dark. There would've been no loud colors. It would have been raining every day, and in complete despair - with no humor but [with] rapists, crack addicts, drug dealers, pregnant teen-age mothers throwing their babies out of windows. That's [white people's] idea of black ghettos.... But on any income level ... people still are going to have dignity. That's something I tried to put into all my black characters!''
Lee feels this ``dignity'' is the difference between ``Do the Right Thing'' and such hits as ``The Color Purple'' and ``Mississippi Burning,'' which were made by white people. ``I'm not saying a white filmmaker cannot do an honest, realistic portrayal of black people,'' he says. ``I am saying that in those specific instances, and most of the instances [involving] Hollywood filmmakers, their perception of black people just contaminates the work.''
One of the most jarring elements in ``Do the Right Thing'' is Lee's decision to have his own character - the easy-going Mookie, who's friendly with everyone - touch off the violence that culminates the movie. ``People who don't like the film ... say it's dangerous,'' Lee acknowledges, ``because maybe [audiences] won't see it just as Mookie; they will see Spike Lee doing this act.''
But he feels it's important that the most appealing black character, and the one most closely identified with himself, should take this part in the story. ``First of all, it's unexpected,'' he explains. ``More importantly, Mookie is the black character that the white audience really identifies with. He's the black person they would bring home, into their house. When he's the one who [starts the violence] it's like - you don't know who to trust now. And that makes it all the more poignant.''
Mookie's violence is not gratuitous, however; it's an emotional reaction to a far more violent act committed by white policemen in full view of the neighborhood. ``What that represents to me is a complete frustration with the judicial system,'' Lee asserts. He adds that one day after the movie's recent Cannes Film Festival premi`ere, ``a black man was ... strangled to death ... in New York City, in a police precinct. ... This film is not science fiction. All this stuff is happening.''
Yet for all the high emotions that run through it, ``Do the Right Thing'' is a complex and often humorous film that doesn't have outright ``bad guys'' in the usual motion-picture sense. This, too, was a deliberate decision on Lee's part.
``I'm really sick of Hollywood films,'' he says. ``I think they really don't respect the intelligence of the audience. In far too many films, you see in the first five minutes who's wearing the white hat and who's wearing the black hat. In this film we try to stay away from that. If there's any bad guy, it's the cops. ... But even with the most racist person, you still can understand who he is - and why he acts the way he does.''