Ebertfest 2014: Do the Right Thing, and Director Spike Lee

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Do the Right Thing turns 25 this year, as hard as that may be to believe. I remember when it came out, I remember the absolute FIRESTORM of controversy about the film, and my boyfriend and I went and saw it in the theatre. (It’s how it should be seen, ultimately. It should be a crowd experience.) Spike Lee was here in Champaign-Urbana to introduce the film last night, as well as have a QA after the screening. Roger Ebert was a huge champion of the film originally (putting it mildly), and included it in his Great Movies list. Check out his review here.

If you haven’t seen the film recently, it’s definitely worth it to watch it again. And if you haven’t ever seen it, well, there’s no excuse for you. Don’t get defensive, just rectify the problem. (Humorously, at the QA last night, a guy stood up and said, “This is the first time I’ve seen the film –” and Spike Lee joked, “Where have you BEEN?”)

I hadn’t seen it in years. It is even more powerful and agitating than I remembered. It’s breath-taking. Angry. Funny. And many of these people making their debuts. Giancarlo Esposito. John Turturro. Rosie Perez, whose ferocious dancing opens the film so memorably. And there’s Martin Lawrence. And the great Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. The Love-Hate brass knuckles, a modern-day nod to Mitchum in Night of the Hunter, poured into this story about the battle between good and evil, light and dark, right and wrong: Love fighting with Hate, Hate winning some rounds, Love winning others.

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I remember when I first saw it in the theatre. You could FEEL the excitement in the audience, the almost visceral sense of being in the presence of something new, important. It’s so damn CONFIDENT. As well as devastating. And the mood in the theatre last night was the same way.

There wasn’t an empty seat in the house last night. The theatre seats almost 1500 people. Incredible. The line to get in was down the block and around the corner.

Afterwards there was a QA onstage with Spike, moderated by Chaz, Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips, and my friend and fellow Rogerebert.com contributor Odie Henderson. It was great to see Spike Lee in person. A thrilling evening.

My pal Simon Abrams wrote up a piece on the screening for Rogerebert.com.

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2 Responses to Ebertfest 2014: Do the Right Thing, and Director Spike Lee

  1. John Vail says:

    Sheila,

    Wish I could have been there for that evening. DRT is in my personal pantheon, one of my favorite movies of the last 25 years and I continue to find lessons in it every time I watch it. It is so full of energy and life, so funny, so well acted and directed (as much as I have admired other lee films, nothing he’s done has come close to this but then you could say that neither have the vast majority of American directors come away near equaling this accomplishment). I read Ebert’s original review with great interest -nailed it as always- especially for the critique that Spike Lee made of Joe Klein and other reviewers who had seemingly missed the galvanizing spark of Radio Raheem’s murder and saw only the destruction of the pizzeria. I’ve been using DRT as a key film for my lecture on race in my module on contemporary American society for the last ten years and I also used it when I was teaching back in the US. Each year, I do a film screening and then when I begin my lecture a few days later, I ask all the students (who are nearly all white) to write me a brief summary of the climax of the movie and explain that I don’t mean the literal ending but rather the dramatic climax (any more instruction or detail would give the game away). In over ten years of doing this exercise, I have always had at least 50% of the class -and usually its around 2/3rds- who put the destruction of the pizzeria and the riot front and center in their summary while completely overlooking the murder by the cops which precipitated it all. Of course, when I ask the counterfactual of what they would have said if it was Mookie or Sal who was killed, they universally agree that this they would have noticed and they often find themselves completely at a loss (in fact many of them get very disturbed by the whole exercise either very pissed off at themselves for missing it or furious with me for bringing it to their attention) in accounting for their thought processes. It’s by far the most effective means I have ever found of demonstrating the notion of white blinders, the largely unspoken ways in which race effects the way we perceive the world, and it has so many other valuable insights on racial politics and dynamics. be well, John

    • sheila says:

      John – woah. What an incredible exercise. So revealing, yes, and I can see why people would be upset at it.

      It was really interesting at the QA – people asking questions who still wanted Spike to provide answers, hope, ideas, a thesis statement. “Where should we be going? What should we be doing? What are you actually SAYING in this film that we should do?” These were from both white and black folks. Or people wanting him to weigh in on this or that current issue. The sheer “ambiguity” of the film (one guy said that word specifically) was extremely provoking. I love it for that reason – not to mention the phenomenal title which just gets bigger … and bigger … and bigger … the more you think about it. Both in terms of the film and in terms of our own lives. The title alone provokes discussion.

      I can’t think of too many movies where the title plays such an important role in the after-discussions. It’s just so HUGE. And yes, what does it MEAN? Spike Lee feels no obligation to explain himself further (nor should he) – what he had to say was on the screen.

      It is such a powerful film. It was so awesome to be present at the event. There was some funny backtalk from audience members, goaded on by Spike’s jabs about the Cubs. That probably was the most controversial moment of the night. But it was all in good fun.

      Thanks so much for telling me (and us here) about your class. Amazing.

      To bemoan the loss of the pizzeria … and to totally miss that Radio Raheem was murdered … it’s just incredible what that says.

      Great great film.

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