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Spike Lee Gives Best View Yet of Ghetto Life


SPIKE LEE'S new movie, ``Do the Right Thing,'' is urban and American down to its bones. This helps explain why reaction was so mixed at the Cannes International Film Festival, where this writer saw its world premi`ere. Spectators clapped at the end, but their applause seemed driven more by duty than enthusiasm, as if one had to cheer a maverick movie by a spunky black filmmaker, even if one didn't quite understand his message. Europeans wondered if its subject was timely - a West German critic told me racial unrest is ``very 1960s,'' as if it didn't exist today - and some Americans criticized it for stirring up ideas that just aren't necessary in the late '80s.

Reaction in the United States has also been mixed. Many observers have hailed the film's energy and complexity. Others have criticized its characterizations - are the people in the movie well-rounded individuals, or merely stick figures? - and some have accused it of presenting a sanitized portrait of ghetto life.

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While the characters are certainly etched in bold strokes, I find most of them as fleshed out as they need be for this densely structured film. I also feel that, whatever one thinks of ``Do the Right Thing,'' one failing it can't be accused of is irrelevance. Recent news from major cities suggests that unrest is growing between blacks and whites, and that the chief causes of this friction - including poverty and commerce in drugs - are tied to the long tradition of American racism.

This is the context of ``Do the Right Thing,'' which draws on such recent and real New York incidents as the death of a graffiti artist while in police custody and the harassment of blacks in the Howard Beach neighborhood. These direct connections with actual events are one reason why Mr. Lee's film must be heeded, even when its content may seem distasteful to some white moviegoers.

To get the message of ``Do the Right Thing,'' it's worth recalling Lee's previous film, ``School Daze,'' which had an unusual ending. Various story lines wove themselves into a complicated fabric, all wrapped up with life and love in a black American college. When the time arrived for a resolution of the action, though, Lee gave us something else instead. One character roused the others out of bed, assembled them in a group, and shouted at them - and at the audience in the theater - two forceful words: ``Wake up!''

Lee's new movie begins with those words, and they're a key to his intention as a filmmaker. He's not after diversion or entertainment for its own sake. Rather, he wants to wake us and shake us into an urgent awareness of the racism and misery that are embedded in today's urban society.

That's why ``Do the Right Thing'' is anything but a conventional Hollywood movie. Its characters are often abrasive; its language is consistently foul; and it takes a complicated view of race-related violence. Yet it's an attractive and even beguiling film in many ways, too, with large resources of humor and intelligence. It's also steeped in Hollywood tradition, as when a black character gives his own street-smart version of the ``love vs. hate'' routine from Charles Laughton's classic film ``The Night of the Hunter.''

The movie's setting is Bedford-Stuyvesant, a Brooklyn ghetto neighborhood. The action takes place in and around Sal's Famous Pizzaria [sic], operated by an Italian-American man and his two sons. It's the hottest day in anyone's memory, and tempers are likely to flare over trifles, such as a young man's anger at Sal for not hanging pictures of African-American celebrities on the ``Wall of Fame'' that decorates the pizza joint. Add a few more provocations - especially the blaring ``boom box'' radio that one character carries everywhere - and you have the ingredients for serious trouble. Sure enough, violence erupts before the day is over.

Lee's portrait of Bed-Stuy has been panned as a ``Sesame Street'' version of the ghetto, too clean and polite to be believed. I think this criticism has its own tinge of racism. On any given day in even the worst urban neighborhoods, after all, most of the residents are just living their lives, not stealing or overdosing or wallowing in dirt and crime.

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It's true that Lee's characters have more than their share of challenges to meet, and years of ingrained poverty have taken such a toll that some have lost the knack of coping with reality: Check out the three men who sit forever on the corner, commenting on the action like a Greek Chorus with a four-letter-word vocabulary. There's no reason for Lee to aggravate their plight by throwing in stereotypical views of inner-city misery. Their situation speaks for itself, and what it reveals is a credible view of ghetto existence that never exploits its subject for shock value or cheap pathos.

The climax of ``Do the Right Thing'' has gotten more attention than any other part of the movie, and from some of this commentary you'd think Lee's film is as gruesome as a standard Hollywood action picture. Actually, its violence is mild compared with the mayhem unleashed by countless thrillers year after year, many of which have sly racial implications of their own.

Nor does violence end the picture. It's followed by a denouement that doesn't resolve the story, but offers a series of dialectical propositions growing out of it. Whites attack a black man. Then blacks attack the pizzeria. Then the black man who instigated the violence (played by Lee himself) has a partial reconciliation with the pizzeria owner, quite complex in its emotional dynamics. Then two quotations appear - one from Martin Luther King saying violence is always self-defeating, and another from Malcolm X saying violence in self-defense may be necessary. These images and words offer no definitive answers to racial problems. What they do is open the door to thought and dialogue, which the movie has obviously encouraged among off-screen whites and blacks.

The last scenes of ``Do the Right Thing'' call to my mind the distinction that social critic Paul Goodman drew between two kinds of violence. In his view, ``natural'' violence may be tragic and destructive, but is rooted in human nature and erupts spontaneously out of deep-seated drives and emotions - the violence of parents defending their home against physical attack, for instance. By contrast, ``unnatural'' violence is stirred up artificially from the outside, as when a government whips up public frenzy against a distant nation that poses no immediate threat.

The destruction of property in ``Do the Right Thing'' seems desperate but altogether ``natural'' to me. This doesn't mean it's good. But it is true to past experience in real-life urban ghettos, and equally true to human nature's shortcomings under the stress of immediate provocation and, more important, the long-term miseries of ghetto life. While it's not a pretty picture, it's hardly a despairing one, either.

With its ingenious camera style, keenly dramatic music score, and brash yet indomitable humor, ``Do the Right Thing'' is the richest and most thought-provoking portrait of underclass experience that Hollywood has ever given us.

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