5.01.2017

Listening to "Do the Right Thing"


Spike Lee, Richard Edson, and Samuel L. Jackson in the radio station.

Writing about Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing in 1989, Armond White noted that Lee “takes his tone from the populist mode of airwave entertainment” and “constructs the film in flowing, start-stop rhythms that match the flux of radio […] Do the Right Thing is tuned in to the ongoing primacy of pop experience.  Its person-on-the-street multiplicity suggests the surreal dissonance of dial spinning.”  Radios and popular music are key to the style of this noisiest and most raucous of Lee’s films.  Do the Right Thing is narrated (hosted?) by superfly radio deejay Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson); it’s awash with pop songs by everyone from Ruben Blades to Al Jarreau; and one of its main characters, Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), is so attached to his massive boom box that it functions symbolically as an extension of his body.  (The destruction of that boom box with a baseball bat precipitates Radio Raheem’s death by chokehold at the hands of the NYPD moments later.)  At one point, Love Daddy rattles off a list of names of iconic black musicians, a litany that recognizes black music as holding spiritual meaning.     

Radio Raheem with boom box.

Music and radios act as cultural weapons and phallic symbols: earlier in the film Radio and a Latino neighbor have a street duel with their stereos, each turning theirs up louder and louder in an attempt to drown out the other (Radio eventually blasts his opponent into submission).  And Radio’s anthem, Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” doubles as the unofficial theme song of Do the Right Thing, to the extent that Lee makes it the subject of an entire dance number.  Like Lee’s previous film School Daze (1988), Do the Right Thing is something of a musical—but, as White notes, one built around the clashing textures and quick-changing rhythms of the street rather than the polished choreography of Broadway and Hollywood.  That the opening beats of "Fight the Power" follow Brandford Marsalis' solo rendition of "Lift Every Voice and Sing" establish both songs as part of a tradition of black music as a source of grass-roots resistance.     
Rosie Perez in the opening dance number.

Do the Right Thing also finds Lee tuning into other kinds of music: the hodgepodge vernacular of Bed-Stuy, where black folks and Italians rub elbows, however uneasily, with Latinos and Koreans.  The film is an aural mishmash of voices, dialects, ethnic flavors.  Lee uses actors the way a composer uses vocalists, setting Giancarlo Esposito’s rat-a-tat jive talk and Rosie Perez’s sharp-tongued chatter against Ruby Dee’s haughty drawl and Samuel L. Jackson’s devilish purr. 

Lee’s attention to cross-talk—to the mixing of voices, sounds, and musical styles—is also reflective of his ethos as an artist.  Lee has always been one of the most dialectical of filmmakers; his films are “diverse” not because they foreground the experiences of people of color but because there are so many competing ideas in them.  Nearly every scene in Do the Right Thing is structured by some sort of personal or ideological conflict between two characters, culminating in the conflicting/complementary perspectives of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.  It would be a misrepresentation to say that the plurality of voices in Do the Right Thing is about validating multiple viewpoints (“everyone’s entitled to their opinion”); rather, it’s about acknowledging the complexity of experience, and about the importance of listening to everything and everyone around us.   

Martin Luther King and Malcolm X: A dialectical ending.

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