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Do-the-Right-Thing

When I was a Freshman in college, my professor played scenes from Do The Right Thing in order to have a conversation about how we discuss and portray race in entertainment. When we got to the riot at the end of the film, a young black woman in the class began to laugh. My white professor asked her what was so funny about it–he seemed almost offended that she would laugh at such a pivotal, serious moment in the film. She tried her best to explain what was amusing about it but it was difficult for her to get it across. I understood why she laughed though and I’m guessing the rest of the black students in that class got it too.

Do The Right Thing is Spike Lee’s third film, and it feels like the film Spike Lee has been building to for his entire film career up until that point. 25 years later, it would be nice to look back on it as dated but instead it’s just as relevant today (even the style of it is relevant today). The only thing that’s really changed is its reverence. Today we can watch Do The Right Thing and see it as a landmark film that was deserving of its accolades and maybe even deserving of more; we can appreciate the murkiness of the story and its ability to never judge its characters. However, when it came out in 1989, it wrecked the nerves of critics who thought so lowly of black people that they assumed the film would make them riot. It aggravated people because of its lack of definite answers or opinions. As far as people were concerned, what good is a conversation on race if no answers are given, and judging by the Hollywood reception of a film like Crash, this attitude hasn’t gone away.

Do The Right Thing follows Mookie, a young black man living in an African-American neighborhood in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn with his sister and delivering pizzas for Sal’s pizzeria working to support his girlfriend Tina and their son Hector. The film takes place over the course of the hottest day in years and finds itself capturing the regular activities of a distinct group of characters around the neighborhood. There’s an old drunk called Da Mayor who’s constantly trying to win the approval and affection of the neighborhood matron, Mother Sister; there’s Radio Raheem who walks around the block blasting Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” on his boombox. There’s the local radio disc jockey, “Mister Señor Love Daddy”; Three men, known as “the Corner Men,” who comment on the neighborhood and the day’s events, Four teenagers – Cee, Punchy, Ahmad and Ella – dealing with the heat outside and Buggin’ Out, an Afrocentric activist who takes on the cause of demanding Sal recognizes black heroes on his wall of fame.

As the heat builds up throughout the entire film so does patience and comfort. One of the more fascinating aspects about Do The Right Thing is what it implies about how we deal with each other. A good majority of the movie involves people holding their tongue and keeping disapproval to themselves. The best example of this is when Mookie’s sister, Jade, comes to the pizzeria. Sal is obviously taken by Jade, and they have a flirtatious relationship with each other  that rubs both Mookie and Sal’s oldest son,  Pino, the wrong way. But nothing is ever said, it’s simply felt and implied. People are uncomfortable with each other for various reasons but nothing is typically said because it goes against etiquette. The heat acts as the universe pushing people into ultimate confrontation; without it, silence keeps the peace.

What tends to frustrate people about the film is that it’s not terribly concerned with racism in the way the media tends to be. It’s not framed in a white perspective nor does it aim to make white people feel better. Not only that, it’s not really interested in racism as a “thing” that you are. Despite what happens at the end, you’d never think of Sal as a “typical racist”. Pino is upfront about his perceptions of black people yet his favorite entertainers are black.  Buggin Out is very obviously indignant and self-righteous but is more or less following along what he thinks a black activist should be and Radio Raheem, while volatile, is gentle at his core and on his own struggle between “Love and Hate.”

Speaking of Radio Raheem, his blasting of “Fight The Power” is thread that carries the film. Public Enemy’s song about revolution is angry, confrontational and unapologetic. It’s a song about the buildup to a point where you can’t take it anymore and you have to react. Much of Do The Right Thing travels the line between angry and indifferent. There’s a lot of anger stored inside these people; a lot of feelings about poverty, gentrification, culture, ownership and relationships. When Radio Raheem talks about Love vs Hate or “the left hand and the right hand”, you know it’s a metaphor for race relations, but the thing about it is: how do you choose love when there is none. To say that these people all hate each other would be inaccurate, but it would be fair to say they don’t particularly love each other and they do hate their circumstances. So when all was said and done, what choice was left in the end but hate.

In the climactic moment, Buggin Out and Radio Raheem and their cohorts burst into Sal’s around closing time, blasting Public Enemy and screaming at the top of their lungs to “put some brothers on the wall”. This leads to Sal in the heat of the moment, getting angry and unleashing every thought he’d probably kept to himself many times before and destroying Raheem’s boombox. They get into a scuffle afterwards which leads to the police showing up to arrest and beat Buggin Out and inadvertantly beating Radio Raheem to death in front of a mostly black crowd. The anger with which this event instills in people causes Mookie to grab a trash can and throw it into the window of Sal’s while proclaiming “hate”.

Typically, in entertainment and media in general, black people are encouraged to take the high road. We’re always supposed to be the bigger people. We’re always supposed to choose love. So to have the film climax with such an ugly and aggressive moment as this was always going to upset a certain type of audience who’d rather not think too deeply. People tend to obsess over whether or not Mookie or Buggin Out or Raheem were heroes of this story; hey want to know whether these were the guys who “did the right thing”. I am sometimes curious as to whether or not the point would’ve been more clear if Spike Lee were white or, at the very least, if he weren’t Spike Lee. The idea that Lee could be objective was never a consideration, there had to be a clear sign. Despite these criticisms, it’s hard for even the most minimal thinking person to say that one group was right and the other was wrong. It’s too neat and tidy and undermines the power of the scene. So much emotion and ferocity is poured out on that screen and all of it is gripping and fascinating to watch. By the time the cops show up you knew where it was going because this is where it always “happens” to go. You knew something bad was going to happen and for them to watch a young man die from police abuse due to this was heartbreaking and frustrating. In the end, the crowd chooses hate because what else were they really going to do.

When I was a kid and I got angry at my parents, I would go into my room and destroy everything–because it was my room. I knew I could get away with it more than if I destroyed what belonged to them. This, in essence, is what the riot is. The reason Buggin Out wants pictures of black celebrities on the wall is because they have just as much right to be represented on the wall as the Italian celebrities. Sal may own that pizzeria but it’s in a black neighborhood and prospers from black dollars, in a sense they look at it as their’, so when they burn it down, they’re burning down a part of their neighborhood not just Sal’s Pizzeria. Reasonably speaking, they could get away with it. The day after, Mookie goes to visit a distraught Sal at his burned down restaurant to ask for his pay for the week. Sal is livid that  he could throw a garbage can into his shop and just act like it’s no big deal. They fuss and fuss until Sal angrily pays Mookie and the two briefly and, a little unclearly, seem to reconcile. It’s an odd moment because it lessens the riot from something seemingly revolutionary to something much more mundane. It’s reduced to something that just happens.

That girl in my class laughed because this is something that just happens. I got that and I’m sure others did. It’s not exactly true and it ignores a history of white supremacists rioting in black neighborhoods and homes, but it’s a stereotype among a list of many that have been burdened on us and at a certain point, laughter is how you deal. I didn’t find her reaction wrong anymore than I found any of the things that transpired wrong. It just happened. Lee felt that people wanted him to solve racism in his movie which was unfair. Racism is not a concrete idea; it’s deep, engrossing and informs everything. It deserved to be treated as complicated. A mentally disabled man named Smiley meanders around the neighborhood, holding up hand-colored pictures of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. and pointing out that they were friends. The film ends with quotes by both men about violence on two opposite spectrums. They didn’t agree with each other’s worldviews but they were friends; they chose love. If there’s a lesson in Do The Right Thing it revolves around that choice between love and hate, but it’s a decision that’s constantly being made not one that will ever be finalized.

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Rap music and I have a tenuous relationship. As time goes on, I’m increasingly puzzled as to whether rap wants me to love it. Maybe these are the symptoms of getting old and washed up; when I was young, rap is all I cared about. The music consumed me at my most pretentious years and I both cherished and defended it. Today, I find myself more interested in revisiting older music–from both my youth and before my time–due to a growing disinterest in what’s happening now. All of that being said, rap has always been ridiculous and fodder for comedy. The most self-serious rapper out is just as humorous as many gimmicky artists; it’s entertainment at the end of the day and the inherent humor in the outlandishness and boisterousness add to its charm.

CB4 is a silly little film that involves people who love rap making fun of it. Directed by Tamra Davis, a music video director for rap and alt darlings like NWA and Sonic Youth, CB4 is the story of Albert (Chris Rock), Euripides (Allen Payne) and Otis (Deezer D) and an obsession with rap their families just don’t understand. The three boys are desperately trying to find a gimmick that’ll give them the opportunity to get a slot at a famous nightclub run by a drug kingpin named Gusto (Charlie Murphy). One day, Albert heads to the nightclub in the early afternoon to beg for a timeslot for him and his friends to perform and ends up inadvertently helping the FBI bust in on Gusto and his crony, 40 dog (Ty Granderson Jones), in the midst of a drug deal. Naturally, Gusto thinks he snitched on him but it doesn’t matter; he’s going to jail and Albert realizes that the best move for his rap career is to embody the tough guy gangster as a character. He convinces Euripides and Otis to follow his lead and Cell Block 4 aka CB 4 (named after the jail cell Gusto was thrown in) is born, with Euripides as Dead Mike, Otis becoming Stab Master Arson and Albert becoming (what else) MC Gusto.

Calling CB4 a sharp critique of rap in 1993 is probably giving it too much credit, but it is very obviously made by people who enjoy rap music a great deal. It’s filled with plenty of gags and references to what was happening at the time: from gimmick rap and silly dance music to record industry execs trying to cash in to political candidates making anti-rap a platform. CB4 themselves are a parody of NWA and the impact gangsta rap had on rap at the time as well as the critiques about it. Within the group, Dead Mike played the role of the militant black Brand Nubian type while Stab Master Arson was the uncle Luke type woman-obsessed DJ (naturally he was the one with a hundred little sisters).

CB4 is pretty easily the highlight of Chris Rock’s career as a writer or filmmaker–he wrote it along with Nelson George and Robert LoCash–and that’s kind of a bummer. Of all the black comedians who should’ve made that Eddie Murphy/Richard Pryor transition to making great film work, Chris should’ve been the one to do it. The problem I’ve long suspected, is that Rock needs to be reigned in by other great writers. Left to his own devices, he tends to get trapped in this mode of taking movies he loves and turning them into one-liner heavy caricatures. With a Nelson George (or a Louis CK or Wanda Sykes), he can be utilized in a constructive way.

For as silly as CB4 can be, it’s a very controlled and focused film. The jokes may not always land, the story may have some cheesiness to it but all of it works. It’s a film that’s been vindicated over time but still doesn’t get the attention it deserves. I’ve often wondered how a film like CB4 would look today: is rap (music in general really) might be too niche-ified and vast for it but CB4 proves that a lot of the same things that are ridiculous now were ridiculous then, which puts a damper on all that nostalgic rose-tinted waxing about the good ole days. As I type this, a number of MC Gustos have popped up on Datpiff and that’s probably how it’ll always be. Rap music frustrates me deeply but I hope it never changes. Keep pumping out that music straight outta LoCash.

I’ve been thinking about Twin Peaks a lot lately. I finally got around to watching it two months ago and I’ve kicked myself ever since for not watching sooner. David Lynch’s circus of soap opera, mystery, intrigue and nightmares is one of the most unique, weird, heartbreaking and beautiful things I’ve ever watched and it’s amazing that a major TV network even gave this two seasons. I’ve been sad a lot and this show, strangely, brought me a lot of comfort. See a show like this sparked the imagination and experimental switch in my head which has been like a breath of fresh air.

Part of my depression has come about because of my place in life and the fact that I want to make a living writing and make a living filming but I haven’t come close to either. There comes a point where you’re so mired in hopelessness that you question whether or not you really want this. Is it really that I just hate my job or don’t find much excitement in the thing I studied in college? Would I really care as much if I were making enough money? Maybe this really is just a phase that I haven’t quite outgrown yet. Tumblrs with snarky, C-grade humor and wordpress blogs that devolve into narcissistic vents of frustrations don’t exactly make a great writer, and if I’m not actively trying to be better, what exactly am I doing?

Then you watch something like Twin Peaks and it all comes back to you. You remember what great art and great writing can do and you revert to that child that wanted to be guided by imagination before life pounded reality into the mind. It’s the same feeling you get from a great record or a breathtaking film. I am not a great writer but I yearn to be because I obsess over great writers. I don’t strive to have the answers or know the right thing to do, I only strive to learn, keep learning and always want to learn. That’s the feeling I get from a writer like James Baldwin or Toni Morrison, from a Ta-Nahesi Coates essay or from a television show like Twin Peaks. These are people following their mind’s road–wherever that may go. I like that sense of adventure and that effortlessness to take the mind as messy as it is and make something eloquent. A fiery passion can create a hungry min yearning to grow. I hope that fire walks with me.

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I’m still sorting out my complete feelings for the movie but hopefully I can find something eloquent to say about this film. Needless to say,  Yasujirō Ozu’s story of mistakes, regret, jealousy and love is visually poetic and lovely to watch unfold.

My being more impressed of the film on a technical level isn’t an indictment to the story (because it’s great) but, as someone fascinated by the techniques, it was more exciting to watch the choices being made. The shot selection, scenery, color palette, set design; everything fit perfectly. 

This is my first Ozu film. With the emotionally resonant theme of family dysfunction, failure and young infatuation, it’s hard not to get sucked in. How Ozu is somehow still foreign, even to some film nerds, is peculiar. I look forward to digesting this movie some more and checking out the rest of Ozu’s filmography.

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A lot of things have been written about the message being sent by Martin Scorsese’s latest film The Wolf Of Wall Street –mostly centering on its moral responsibility. The idea is that Scorsese seems to be almost promoting the reprehensible things in the movie by his decision to make a comical and exhilarating and entertaining film. The Wolf Of Wall Street is a film about terrible, narcissistic people in love with money, sex and drugs; Jordan Belfort, played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the movie, ruined many people’s lives and was just egregiously villainous. To present his life this way can seem to some like a stamp of approval.

These are fair feelings to have even if I don’t believe this film is endorsing anything. I don’t dispute someone making these claims but what I do disagree with is this idea that art should only push an agenda that matches that of what an audience deems morally upright. The job of art is to let the artist make their statement regardless of feelings. I don’t know why Scorsese or the film’s screenwriter Terrance Winter made this film but, if I had to guess, I would say that they found this story fascinating and wanted to make a movie just as fascinating.

I’m against this idea of hand holding that seems to be popular amongst the thinkpiece writers and morally upright that says that entertainment about bad people needs to succinctly tell you why these people are bad and why they need to be punished. Once again, I understand it, but I’m against it. Critical thinking tells you why Jordan Belfort is an egomaniacal monster–in addition to the grisly and dark last hour of the film–and I don’t need my intelligence insulted in order for me to get why all of this is wrong.

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What I found compelling about this film is how it deals with addiction. The addiction to vice, to greed, to masculinity, to alpha dog statuses; it’s a movie that indulges and gets hooked to the idea of indulgence and getting hooked. You feel the highs and the lows because you need to feel it. You need to witness the adrenaline rush that comes with making millions and getting high, you need the dizzying peaks and the sordid valleys that this film takes you through. Everything about this film is visceral and intense. You’re taken for a ride in order to understand why the ride is so addictive. The drugs in the film feel like a director waxing nostalgic about his own coke addiction and, most of the time, it’s effective. And every excess is a drug here: the money, the dirty sex and the animalistic nature of testosterone-heavy males getting off on making money– it’s all a drug and it’s all addictive.

Speaking of which, I’m of the opinion that Wolf Of Wall Street is one of the more scathing indictments of greed and American capitalism that we’ve seen in a long time. It may not come off as the most responsible but it gets to the dark, inhuman underbelly inherent in these types of people. Rather than telling you why they’re bad, you see why they do it. I wouldn’t call it an endorsement but I get it. The adrenaline rush and excess that comes with this business is tempting, outrageous and enviable; you know it’s wrong and why but you’re sucked in anyway. It gets into a primordial state of your being: that’s why the chest thumping, beastly, frat-boy ra-ra-ra-ing is important. It’s in our nature to conquer, destroy and con and Jordan Belfort’s preacher-like sermonizing is the perfect cheerleading for this behavior. All that being said, all of this is ugly even when it’s flashy and enticing. The greed is so poisonous it infects the minds of everyone involved. This is capitalism’s faultiness laid out: an easily manipulated system that can equal insane levels of excess due to greed and oneupmanship.

This is probably the most ‘Merica movie arguably ever. It’s Goodfellas for yuppie White guys and it’s a perfect portrait of who these Wall Street brokers are and the country that they live in. It’s all fascinating and uncomfortable and sickening. You’ll want to look away but you won’t be able to. There is a lesson in all of this but it’s not given to you by the movie but instead by your own knowledge of Wall Street and your own knowledge of how these people destroy lives to live the way they do and how they get away. It’s a mirror to a society that is real and a tamer, more indicting movie wouldn’t do much but try and make ourselves feel better about it. But with a movie that has such a black hole of a heart it’s tempting that people would rather have that instead.

 

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At its core, Room 237–the recent documentary that aims to present the different hypothesis of what Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining was all about–is a film about the mind and how it works. It’s about how people take in information and interpret it to fit their worldview. It’s not just about conspiracy theories for a 30 year old movie but about why conspiracy theories are so attractive in the first place. Directed by Rodney Ascher, Room 237 takes on a number of The Shining’s perceived meanings as presented by different Kubrick enthusiasts, meanings that connect the film to things like: The Native American genocide, The Holocaust and “faking” the moon landing to name a few. A lot of it is contrived and flawed but all of it is interesting which, again, speaks to the power of a conspiracy. There’s a need for things to be more that a shallow surface. I love The Shining but I didn’t need to read into it too much to do so, for others (such as those in the movie) there had to be more to it than what was on screen for them to find it worthwhile. By 1980, Stanley Kubrick was already a revered figure in cinema; an almost movie-diety, who lurked in the shadows writing, researching and obsessing over each project he worked on. Even before his death he was more myth than man–a legend whose work begged to be dissected and deconstructed. That’s exactly what the talking heads of Room 237 do: break the movie apart and look at all the pieces. Even if you think (or just KNOW) that all of these theories are silly or coincidental, you can’t help but get sucked into it. The great thing about conspiracies is there’s always just enough given to you to make your argument sound right in your head. In other words: you can always find what you’re looking for–especially if you look hard enough. The magic of the conspiracy is it gives your inner paranoia traction, it feeds your personal sense of superiority for being ahead of the foolish “sheep” and, most important of all, it feeds into your own outlook of the world. There are a lot of things in The Shining that I think are deliberate and there are other things that are just there. I don’t think I’m right and they’re wrong, if anything I think we’re both in the general area. Room 237 refers to the room where Charles Grady, in the midst of severe cabin fever, had his wife corrected, it’s the room that Dick Halloran warns Danny not to go into and, as one Kubrick enthusiast proclaims, it’s the number of the lot where Kubrick filmed the space landing (allegedly). That’s part of the fun really, rewatching scenes in the movie while each theorist narrates what it all means; seeing people point out the inconsistencies of different scenes and different aspects of the movie and trying to argue why they’re there on purpose. It’s all great to sit through and, in a lot of ways, makes the documentary more sinister than the movie itself for the simple fact that it all makes sense to some level. My favorite theory is the Native American genocide on: it holds the most weight and is the most interesting. But the eeriest one had to be the idea that the film was meant to be seen forwards and backwards, not because the idea was eerie but because, one commenter super-imposed the films together and watched it and began pointing out moments thast seemed to match up perfectly. It’s equal parts chilling and awesome. If you watch it enough, all the conspiracy theories attached to The Shining make some sort of logical sense–hell, when I rewatched it I came up with my own conspiracies just to do it and found that it made sense–and that’s what beautiful about a conspiracy, no matter how batshit it may be, if you commit your mind to it enough they puzzle pieces will fall to place. The idea that nothing’s going on is a boring one; there’s always something going on. All you have to do is think outside the box; or in this case, the mythical window to nowhere.

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I’ve been  in love with movies since I was a kid. I loved every aspect of it: storyline, characters, art direction, cinematography, score… all of it. When I started getting into message boards and reading more books about the process, an influx of films I never would’ve known about came into my life at the right time and my appreciation for the film process grew tenfold. The first time I watched Dr. Strangelove I was astonished  by how well the silliness of it could be balanced with the seriousness of the subject; when I watched 8 1/2, that was the first time I truly felt hypnotized by a movie. The Royal Tenenbaums made me truly revere the detail and nuances that should go into filmmaking and the first time I watched The Seventh Seal, I questioned everything I thought I knew about in life. Over the years I’ve continued to appreciate the filmmaking process–especially as it’s started to make a huge impact on television–but my interest in actually watching movies have waned. It happens I suppose, when you go hard at something eventually you tire yourself out. When Roger Ebert died this past week, I started to think about the impact he made to industry and how much of a standard he set for writing about film. When I was a kid, I watched him and Siskel on At The Movies, It’s the first time I can remember truly caring about film and wanting to talk about it in a similar manner. At some point I lost that spark in me and it’s truly a shame that a man’s death had to bring me to the point where I get serious about it again. Nevertheless, that’s where I’m at; ready to bask in the escapism of cinema and connect to the first thing I ever loved again. RIP Roger Ebert: you truly set a standard that other critics and writers can only hope to achieve.

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