This is another movie from the Intro to American Cinema class I teach, and up until recently, it was the last film of the class, meaning the class ended in 1989. That’s an odd year to freeze on, but overall I think it is hard to try to encapsulate 120 years of cinema history with ten films.
This was Spike Lee’s third film, following She’s Gotta Have It (1986) and School Daze (1988), two films which I have not seen. Lee not only wrote and directed the film, but he stars as the protagonist, Mookie. His real life sister (Joie Lee) plays his sister in the movie. He also notes in the director’s commentary that several other family members helped with the production of the film. Some of the actors that played in his first two movies appear again in this film in different roles (although the police officers are the same). It is odd that Lee is playing a character that, supposedly, is rather young (early twenties), and he is actually 32 when he made the film. It reminds me of the narrator of Bambara’s “The Lesson.” The position of the narrator in time is important. If the narrator is speaking directly after the events in the story take place, then the last lines about how she is not going to let anything stand in her way or put her down are incredibly empowering. If the story is told from the position of a narrator removed from the incident by 10, 20, 30 years, then the words at the end ring hollow – she is in the same position as she was and did not better herself and is part of the low-education poverty where she originated. Is Mookie meant to be a young man, with the promise of a better day ahead of him, or is he really in his early 30s, delivering pizza to a Brooklyn area that seems to be impoverished, doomed to repeat the same day with Da Mayor getting drunk, Mother Sister watching lives move past her, the three men on the corner drinking and cursing the world, not making an impact or a difference?
Much is written about the politics and controversy about DtRT. There are the references to racially-motivated crimes, the riot at the end of the film. It’s rather sad and telling that the 1960s, 70s and 80s are pockmarked with race riots around the country, highly publicized crimes of one race against another. The 80s had the OJ Simpson Trial, the LA Riots (of which the recent passing of Rodney King made me ruminate). It seems that race relations, while coming a long way since the segregated 1950s, always is a bubbling anathema below the surface of America, which erupts violently and messily from time to time as if to say “this has not been resolved.” The Trayvon Martin case in of all places (I’m from there), Seminole County, FL, is our most recent example. The next session of the Supreme Court will tackle affirmative action. We as a society will never move past this. Nor will we move past how we treat people of lower or higher social or economic class. I always think of the line from C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters when Screwtape says “To be means to be in competition.” Resources are finite. Humans are animals. Whenever one has more resources than another, there will be the feeling of superiority and inferiority.
The conflict of this film boils down to this simple equation. Sal’s Famous Pizzeria is in a predominantly African American, lower income neighborhood. There are some Latino-Americans as well, and a white guy who owns a whole brownstone rather than living in a parsed-out brownstone inhabited by several families and a Korean family that runs the convenience store. Buggin’ Out’s contention is that Sal has no brothers on his Wall of Fame, although his livelihood comes from serving African Americans. Sal says that once Buggin’ gets his own place, he can put up whatever he wants on the wall. The movie takes place on a Saturday, so we don’t see much of the block working. We don’t know Buggin’s prospects. We know he can afford Air Jordans, but that’s about it. Could Buggin’ have his own place? The one of the three wise men on the corner wants to see a black business in their community, rather than the two businesses on their block run by Italians and Koreans. Lee brings this up through his characters, so it is worth investigating.
What is interesting about this film is that while Lee seems intent on dealing with the big issues and the struggle against each character and his or her ability to do or not do the right thing, the film is steeped in 1950s British filmmaking. If you have a chance to listen to the commentary track (which is great because it is punctuated by Chuck D from Public Enemy announcing each speaker with the force of a rap lyric, even when what the person announced is talking about something extremely subtle), it is worth your time for the cinematographer’s, Ernest Dickerson’s, commentary about how he took a lot of his lighting and color set ups from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.