Summer 2020

Spike Lee's Inferno

J.C. Chandor discusses the bravura style and prescient politics of Do the Right Thing, and what he learned from it

By Rob Feld


John Turturro as Pino and director Spike Lee, who also plays Mookie, in Do The Right Thing.(Screenpull: Universal Pictures Home Entertainment)


"I was thinking back on how and why I went out of my way to go to a theater to see Do the Right Thing when I was in ninth grade, a sheltered white kid in suburban New Jersey," says J.C. Chandor, settled at his desk in Westchester County, New York, his social-distance retreat during the COVID-19 crisis. "And then I realized, this must be the reason." Chandor holds up an old copy of Spike Lee's Gotta Have It: Inside Guerrilla Filmmaking. "It was sort of a handbook that made filmmaking seem possible to me, and somehow in 1989 I got a copy. My dad worked on Wall Street and my mom took us to Broadway, but Spike was one of my first windows into a greater, more diverse New York, and certainly an independent style of filmmaking. I haven't seen the film in 10 years, and as we head into what is sure to be a difficult summer in New York City, with everyone on top of each other in the heat—and God forbid there's another flareup of the virus—this will be very interesting to rewatch."

Indeed, less than two weeks later, protests, violence and calls for change to end systemic racism broke out in cities across the country after George Floyd, a black man accused of passing a counterfeit $20 bill, died after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee on his neck for almost nine minutes.

Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing imagines escalating racial tensions brought to tragic violence by a particularly hot summer in 1989, on a street in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Mookie (Lee) delivers pizza for Sal's Famous Pizzeria in the predominantly black and Puerto Rican neighborhood, where each group vies for respect, security and their way of life amid other encroaching groups, and the police breed a mutual distrust and resentment while maintaining order. Mookie floats through his life, unconscious of his responsibilities to his girlfriend, Tina (Rosie Perez), their young son and to his community, playing neutral party between the Italian pizzeria and the neighborhood in which it sits.

Sal (Danny Aiello) has watched a generation go by the window of his corner storefront, and he's proudly brought his sons, Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson), into the family business he built with his own hands. But when Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito) demands that photos of black notables be included on Sal's Italian "Wall of Fame," compounded by Sal's demand that Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) turn off the Public Enemy blasting from his boombox, that peace is ruptured.

"You could never get away with a title sequence this long anymore," Chandor says as the movie unfolds and Rosie Perez, washed in red stage light, dances hard in front of images of Bedford-Stuyvesant, to a full rendition of Public Enemy's "Fight the Power." "She's on a stage and those backdrops are probably projections," notes Chandor. "This awesome sequence begins to set up the amazing color scheme of the film and gets everyone on the same page for what's about to happen to them stylistically."

Lee cuts to the mouth of the neighborhood's storefront radio disc jockey, Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson), pattering into the mic about the heat of the day.

"This opening shot lasts about a minute: shooting through crystal-clear window glass, pulling slowly back, craning up and then panning to the street. It's beautifully simple but feels so epic. It's a brilliant idea to start on this radio station set and then being able to reveal the whole street within the shot. Look at that red car—reds and oranges are everywhere, like in the titles; they probably painted that whole townhouse red. It's like the heat of the summer has colored the whole neighborhood."

Lee starts introducing his characters, including Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), the neighborhood's fatherly inebriate, and Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith), who occupies the role of madman "seer" in Lee's story.

"There's a Greek chorus element to a lot of these ancillary characters," Chandor says, as Smiley preaches for a continued fight against hate through his stutters, and marks up pictures of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. "I remember this startling cut from looking down at Da Mayor lying in bed, to shooting up at Smiley from way down below. The juxtaposition was radical for me at the time. The centered composition, it's even a little fish-eyed."

DGA Quarterly Magazine Summer 2020 Screening Room Do The Right Thing Bill Nunn
(Top) Rosie Perez’ provocative dance during the opening credits of Do the Right Thing establishes the film’s incendiary tone; (Bottom) Bill Nunn as Radio Raheem.
(Screenpulls: Universal Pictures Home Entertainment)

Mookie arrives at Sal's, late as usual, and gets an earful from Pino, who resents the neighborhood, its inhabitants and being forced to work there.

"This was all shot on one street with the pizza shop built into an empty corner lot, and beautifully art directed, like all of the movie. Scenes like this with the family are intensely intimate. What's most impressive for me about this scene is how Lee establishes Mookie's comfort playing Sal, Pino and Vito off of each other. He knows where the line is, which is, in a weird way, what this movie is so much about. Mookie and Pino go at it the whole movie, but Mookie is leaning six inches from him, which is how you know there's also love there. It feels so real, but it is also heightened in such a beautiful way. This is the movie where I first realized that performances could be—had to be—steered to match the movie as a whole."

Lee continues laying out his characters and the dynamics they spark in the neighborhood, with a group of stoop-sitters who cut their banter to show respect to Radio Raheem and "Fight the Power" blasting from his giant boombox.

"Lee has the camera pointed up at them on the stoop, then swoops it down and back up at Radio Raheem," says Chandor. "Then it's a cut back to the stoop with the camera tilted maybe 30 degrees, with an opposite tilt on Raheem when he cuts back in a close-up. It's radical and lets us know that everyone, including the audience, needs to be on their toes when Raheem is in front of them. After setting the audience up for something stylized with the title sequence and the heightened camerawork, Lee has everyone playing in the same sandbox. It allows him as a director to go to amazing places. He can dance with the fourth wall, with characters speaking to camera. His camera work with his DP, Ernest Dickerson, comes to explicitly reflect the world he's shooting. This film did it all with such high art, it showed me what was possible."

Lee takes us inside Tina's railroad apartment, where she lives with her mother and her son. She leans against a cabinet, arms crossed, fighting with her mother who is at the stove behind her.

"What I love about this shot, and how you know Lee and Dickerson are operating at such a high level, is that what begins simply then goes full Scorsese. Tina is in our foreground and, rather than cutting to the mother at the stove in the background, she instead approaches Tina for their fight. The camera then tracks backward with Tina, pulling her through the apartment as she breaks away and picks up her son, carrying him into her bedroom. And look what happens when we get into the dark hallway—you can still see the little boy's face perfectly as it catches the splash of light, and as he falls into the deep shadows, because Dickerson is a master at exposing for the different complexions between Tina and her son. Ernest went to Howard University, and like my dear friend Bradford Young, DPs who go to Howard seem to know how to find pure gold in the shadows."

His world now set, Lee returns to Sal's, where Buggin Out complains about the lack of black notables on Sal's wall. Chandor keys into Lee's expansive use of sound design to layer his world and heighten the moment. "In the background you can hear laughter, Mookie's casual conversation; it all adds to the tension. It's what happens on a hot day when shit starts to grow on top of each other."

Crossed wires and conflicts between the various parties in the neighborhood continue to set everyone on edge, and Pino and Mookie find themselves in a quiet, face-to-face argument about race. Lee then cuts to a memorable series of shots as, one by one, Mookie, Pino, one of the Puerto Rican locals, a white cop and a Korean shop owner stand square in frame and spew racial invectives to camera, as Lee pushes in on each in turn. The series ends on a locked shot of Love Daddy rolling his chair at camera and to his mic, calling for everyone to "hold up!"

"Wow," says Chandor, shaking his head. "He starts you with the private Mookie/Pino debate, where we've already left reality a bit, and which is so to-the-bone and truthful to Spike's worldview. That then allows him to transition fully out of reality into this moment. The cuts between the push in's tie the shots together, and Love Daddy rolling hard into the camera toward us takes us back out of it, with this beautiful exposure of his skin tones and his eyes appearing through his sunglasses as he gets closer. It's this radical moment but it doesn't take you out of the movie—quite the opposite, actually. We're 50 minutes into the movie, and all the work Lee has done to get you here gives him leeway to do this because he has set his style and tone so skillfully."

DGA Quarterly Magazine Summer 2020 Screening Room Do The Right Thing Spike Lee

DGA Quarterly Magazine Summer 2020 Screening Room Do The Right Thing John Turturro as Pino

DGA Quarterly Magazine Summer 2020 Screening Room Do The Right Thing

DGA Quarterly Magazine Summer 2020 Screening Room Do The Right Thing
The film’s main characters break the fourth wall by addressing the camera by way of spewing racial invective at each other. “We’re 50 minutes into the movie,” says Chandor, “and all the work Lee has done to get you here gives him leeway to do this because he has set his tone and style so skillfully.”
(Screenpulls: Universal Pictures Home Entertainment)

Both Sal and Mookie remain in blissful denial of the powder keg on which they sit, and their respective roles within it, as everyone sweats in the sun. And it all comes to a head when Buggin Out, Radio Raheem and Smiley commune over the slights they feel they received that day at Sal's, and band together to demand he respect his customers by including black heroes on his wall of fame.

Chandor leans forward as Sal closes shop and muses happily over a good day's work with a disenchanted Pino, Vito and Mookie. The group of stoop-sitters bangs on the door, wanting some final slices.

"Directorially, this is classic and so well played," says Chandor. "They're closed and the whole thing would have been avoided had Sal only not reopened to let them in. By doing the kind, or 'right' thing, he tempts fate. Then Raheem, Buggin Out and Smiley appear in the door, framed from a horizon perspective more off-kilter than we've seen until now—it's crazy. The camera tracks back and they follow it, cutting into close-ups and keeping the horizon extremely off-kilter, alternatively angled up and down. It all become so sad now," he says as the group makes its demands and Radio Raheem blasts Public Enemy, daring Sal to shut it off.

"The whole film leads to this moment," Chandor continues, as Sal destroys the radio with a bat, leading Raheem to haul Sal over the counter and strangle him, with the others jumping in, cheering him on or shouting for them to stop. "It's the payoff of all the wonderful minutiae that Lee has shown us throughout the day, and each of those little steps now creates massive outcomes," he says as the fight bursts onto the street, attracting the full neighborhood.

"He's in chaos mode here, and I'm thinking of all the work Lee had to do to get here. This shot is just brutal," he says, as the police get Radio Raheem in a chokehold. "Look how his feet are off the ground. But as a whole, the situation troubles you not because of the shot selection but because you now know there is no going back."

Raheem is strangled to death, and as the police shuttle his body away, their patrol cars screaming into the distance, Smiley staggers into frame, holding his head and wailing at the killing. Chandor points at the screen. "I remember this shot—it stuck with me the most as a kid. Spike has woven the sociological and cultural questions of his day—of this day—into his story so completely that by this point, I think you are 99 percent crushed by the effect it's having on these particular characters and one percent aware that it's part of a grander issue. But what's so amazing about any good art is that then, when you reach the end, the effect is the opposite and it all becomes clear."

The neighborhood residents have been left angry and bewildered, and there is no outlet for their frustrations but to turn on Sal and his sons. Da Mayor tries to intervene. but Mookie, now awakened to the societal issues facing him and his neighbors, throws a trashcan through Sal's window, sparking a riot. Da Mayor pulls the family to safety as Smiley sets fire to the pizzeria and the neighborhood battles the fire department.

DGA Quarterly Magazine Summer 2020 Screening Room Do The Right Thing
Mookie (Lee) and Sal (Danny Aiello) in the aftermath of the film’s fiery climax. “Mookie is a very complex character,” says Chandor, “and that complexity plays out right in front of us with Sal.”
(Screenpull: Universal Pictures Home Entertainment)

"The layers of sound design they employ are just next-level here," says Chandor, as Mookie sits on the curb with his sister in shock. "This is an indelible image for me," says Chandor, "with the handheld camera pushing in on him in slow motion. Mookie is always a step ahead of everyone, but also a step behind."

The scene ends amidst the flaming rubble as Smiley pins a picture of King and Malcolm X on the wall of Sal's. A cut to black transitions from "Fight the Power" to soft jazz horns composed, as Chandor notes, by Lee's father, Bill Lee. In the space between, Chandor says, "all the oxygen is now out of the room, which, as a storyteller is what you're trying to achieve. And then this music slows everything down and brings you back to reality. It's almost like he is foreshadowing what they all will feel like the next morning."

Mookie returns to Sal's to collect his paycheck, and finds Sal sitting on the stoop amidst the ruins of his life's labor. Sal balls up $100 bills and throws them at Mookie.

"This last scene is just so brutal," says Chandor. "Mookie is a very complex character, and that complexity plays out right in front of us with Sal. And what seems to hurt the most is that Radio Raheem's death was clearly a murder, a terrible murder. And, of course, the fact that we are living with these same horrific issues, 30-some years later, makes the ending all the more true and tragic.

"The film allowed me to realize that, as a filmmaker, you get to be a participant in a much bigger enterprise that has the potential to change the world for better or good—or not—and that film could speak directly to what is happening."

Screening Room

In this popular feature, a director talks about a film particularly close to their heart, why the creative choices are inspired, how it influenced their own work, and why the movie continues to resonate for them personally.

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