He even walks in stereo. So proclaims a kid on a stoop toward the beginning of Do the Right Thing; he’s stunned by the sun but also by the sight and sound of Radio Raheem. Raheem is silent but so solid—Bill Nunn glowers benevolently, occupying almost every inch of the frame when it tries to take him in; swatches of sky slip around him, but little else—and his boom box, blasting Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” does all his talking for him. He walks in stereo. What a perfect metaphor for a person at his best, or at least his most impressive: irreducible, unrepeatable, attacking from all angles, fully alive. This guy whose voice we’ve barely heard is nevertheless precisely calibrated between a fader’s extremities—listen with this ear and catch one facet of his personality, listen with the other and get engrossed in something else. It’s possible, with just this glance, to isolate Raheem’s parts but also to hear how his composition coheres.
Human experience, en masse and within each life, is stubbornly stereophonic; it refuses to express itself through just one speaker. And although it seems almost flip and far too broad to say that Spike Lee’s fiery furnace of a masterpiece is, at heart, a disquisition on humanity—in all its variety and perversity; with its precarious, usually doomed, but always moving attempts at balance—here we have it, at the outset, and in everything that follows. The loose flow of vignettes that fills the early parts of the film, stitched together liltingly by editor Barry Alexander Brown, makes a whole world of complication. Sure, pigmentation is a problem. Of course. So are money and ownership and distant melting ice caps and the Celtics—that gentrifying cyclist’s telling Bird T-shirt—and sublimated sex and fragile patrimony and, amplifying everything, the hallucinogenic Brooklyn heat, surrounding (sometimes suffocating) Lee’s characters like loud music.
In the small and finely scrutinized world of Do the Right Thing (1989), everything’s more of a pain in the ass than it needs to be. Humanizing difficulty stretches out in each direction, makes a summer day feel like a fraught year. Another striking scene introduces Rosie Perez, as Tina, a young mother nearing the brink, shouting Spanglish imprecations over babysitting at her mother as she barrels through their thin railroad apartment. She moves straight outward, sometimes in shadow and sometimes washed in lozenge-orange light, toward the lens, which scurries backward. She looks like she might drop through the screen and onto your floor. Later, in an excruciatingly intimate, frankly objectifying moment, Mookie—Tina’s boyfriend and her baby’s father; Lee’s alter ego, played by the director himself; our main character and antihero—smears ice across her lips and brown-skinned legs and breasts, thanking their Creator as he goes, as if preparing her for some impromptu vivisection. Here, Lee seems to say of Perez, whose first movie appearance this is—here’s a new person for you: totally real.
Although his story is always rolling toward tragedy—blood and the billy club, fire and water—much of Lee’s art here, and his deception, comes from how he lingers on little episodes, and on the people who populate them. As if introducing us to each child of a bustling family, he brings forward a face or two at a time and chides them into offering us a wave. Here’s Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), the drunken neighborhood warden; here’s Mother Sister (Ruby Dee, doing a haikuist’s unwasteful work with her few lines)—whose name is all relationship, implicitly connected on both ends—watching from the window; here’s a salty triumvirate of older men, sitting outside, backgrounded by a fire-engine-red wall, talking shit and trading complaints. Lee’s great talents are already brilliantly present here, in this third feature: effusive place-love and a visual style that makes his best characters individual and iconic at once. His people talk bombastically but with surprising vulnerability; Lee’s writing drips with offhand wit and streetwise poetry. And his humane visual style, full of humming color and plain interpersonal curiosity, is an honorific engine. His later ability to dignify Denzel Washington as Malcolm X, in 1992, and—improbably—Savion Glover and Tommy Davidson as minstrels in Bamboozled (2000), and, in When the Levees Broke (2006), the victims of the U.S. government’s neglectful response to Hurricane Katrina, is as much visual as moral. In Do the Right Thing, this ethic is compounded by Ernest Dickerson’s photography, with its emphasis on symmetry and synchronized motion; the vivid, color-clashing outfits arranged by costume designer Ruth E. Carter; and Wynn Thomas’s production design, which turns Bed-Stuy into a haunted, waiting stage. The saint-making impulse that led to Lee’s famous floating-walk effect—first seen in Mo’ Better Blues (1990) though absent from Do the Right Thing—is a twin to the one that gives us that loving early glimpse, a brief portrait, of poor Raheem.
“Lee’s gift to his characters is his own unshakable and nearly religious interest in faces.”
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