House Logo

Do The Right Thing (#110 of 19)

Summer of ‘89: Do the Right Thing

Comments Comments (...)

Summer of ’89: Do the Right Thing
Summer of ’89: Do the Right Thing

It’s tempting to watch Do the Right Thing, 25 years after so much ink was spilled over fears that the film would incite black audiences to riots as massive as the one that climaxes the film itself, and, with the benefit of hindsight, ask what all the controversy was all about. Even now, Spike Lee’s 1989 masterpiece still pulses with incendiary passion, exuding the invigorating feel of a filmmaker trying to put all of his feelings on racism in American society into one film. But seeing Do the Right Thing now, one can’t help but notice all the contradictory ideas and characterizations floating around and wonder how people could miss the film’s clear-eyed thematic complexity.

Though Lee reserves his most potent explication of the film’s multifaceted perspective toward the end (with consecutive on-screen quotations from Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X—more on that later), one can already grasp its contradictions in the music that adorns its opening credits: a solemn instrumental solo-saxophone rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing”—the song popularly known as the “Negro national anthem”—underscoring the appearance of the film’s title on screen before “Fight the Power” crashes onto the soundtrack, set to the sight of Rosie Perez dancing energetically to the Public Enemy song behind neon-colored backdrops of the Brooklyn block that will be the film’s main setting. From quiet restraint to pent-up anger—that’s the fundamental animating dichotomy of Do the Right Thing, thematically and stylistically, and while many of us may remember the film’s furies the most, that’s not to shortchange the moments of eloquence sprinkled throughout.

Summer of ‘89: Dead Poet’s Society...Do the Wrong Thing

Comments Comments (...)

Summer of ‘89: <em>Dead Poet’s Society</em>...Do the Wrong Thing
Summer of ‘89: <em>Dead Poet’s Society</em>...Do the Wrong Thing

Dead Poets Society purports to be about the bravery of following one’s own path. This is a bright, shining lie, one the film is ballsy enough to tell to your face. It makes examples of those who march to the beat of a different drummer by crushing them with the drum kit. Those who stay in line get to cover their asses before making empty gestures of sympathy toward the people they helped destroy. A more conformist, less inspirational piece of cinema would be hard to find.

And yet, this was perceived as “inspirational” by the audiences that made it a hit in 1989; by the Academy, which nominated it for Best Picture; and by the AFI, which lists the film at #52 on its list of the 100 most inspiring movies of all time. That’s higher than A Raisin in the Sun, Sergeant York, Sounder, Shane, and two far better examples of its own inspirational-teacher genre, Fame and Stand and Deliver.

Dead Poets Society takes place in 1959 at Welton Academy, one of those enormous, stuffy prep schools beloved by old Hollywood, British people, and Academy voters. The students are as white as the snow that falls every winter, and just as cold and blasé. Into their standard, almost militaristic existence comes replacement English teacher John Keating (Robin Williams), an alumnus whose claim to fame was creating the titular institute. Keating, like all stereotypical move teachers, is a bit looser than his predecessor: He calls bullshit on the standard way of teaching poetry, takes the kids outside for lessons and, during his first day of class, utters the one of the AFI’s top-100 greatest movie quotes:

“Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”

And how do these boys carpe their diem? By resurrecting Keating’s Dead Poets Society. There’s no mention of why this is a radical idea, because none exists. Any high school kid will tell you poetry is evil. The Dead Poets Society is a group of kids who sneak out into the woods to quote Thoreau and read poetry that isn’t assigned by their teacher. In other words, they’re doing extra credit work! What school would be against this? Welton Academy, of course, and the school’s objections lead, in most convoluted fashion, to the ouster of our beloved teacher.

Review: Todd McGowan’s Spike Lee

Comments Comments (...)

Review: Todd McGowan’s Spike Lee
Review: Todd McGowan’s Spike Lee

“In 1989, 10 films got awards [at the Cannes Film Festival] and Do the Right Thing wasn’t one of them. I don’t use awards as validation, but when all is said and done, if the choice is between a director like Steven Soderbergh and Spike Lee, they’ll give it to the golden white boy every time.” These words were spoken by Spike Lee following the 1991 Cannes Film Festival, where his new film Jungle Fever had just lost the Palme d’Or to the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink. Several writers, including Gene Siskel, weren’t fans of Lee’s “straight talk,” which led Siskel to ask: “Does [Lee] stop to think before he speaks?”

Todd McGowan’s new book remains largely inconsiderate of Lee’s public persona, instead focusing the analysis exclusively on the director’s films, seeking a link that unites them. For McGowan, excess and its negotiation is the defining unity of Lee’s filmmaking—an excess that “draws the spectator’s attention to form” and “disrupts the smooth functioning of society and makes evident the failure of all elements to fit together.” However, McGowan seeks to move past prior understandings of excess and claims that a new theory is needed to understand Lee’s films, “one that focuses on the intimate link between excess and passion.”

Roger Ebert: A Hero, A Teacher, An Inspiration

Comments Comments (...)

Roger Ebert: A Hero, A Teacher, An Inspiration
Roger Ebert: A Hero, A Teacher, An Inspiration

My initial reaction to Roger Ebert’s death was a selfish one. I was on my way to a screening, and received the news via text from a friend. “I’m sorry about roger ebert,” the text said. This friend isn’t connected enough to the world of Ebert to have known about his “leave of presence” announcement two days prior, so I immediately took to Google, and saw the flood of headlines. Almost in spite of myself, I cried a bit in the street. I wasn’t thinking about the fact that the film world had lost one of its finest voices, or about the hard truth that someone so integral to my whole life’s film consumption was gone. All of that is still sinking in. My first thought was, “I’ll never meet him.” I felt envy for friends of Slant and The House Next Door who’ve had the pleasure, like House founder Matt Zoller Seitz, Ali Arikan, Steven Boone, Odie Henderson, and Kenji Fujishima, and others, like Simon Abrams and Sheila O’Malley, who, in recent months especially, had earned the privilege to correspond with, and write for, the “Movie Answer Man.” I’ve only had a handful of heroes in my life. Ebert was always one of them, even when I was still a film-enamored art student who hadn’t yet shifted his focus to writing. Despite Ebert’s eventual illness, my vision of one day shaking his hand never wavered. It would happen, at some point, at some festival, once I’d built up enough success, or something like that. And then April 4 hit.

15 Famous Oscar Snubs

Comments Comments (...)

15 Famous Oscar Snubs
15 Famous Oscar Snubs

No Kathryn Bigelow?! No Ben Affleck?! Yesterday’s Oscar nominations brought their fair share of shocking snubs, but it certainly wasn’t the first time the Academy stuck it to likely contenders. Looking back over Academy Awards history, there are many dumbfounding, surprising omissions to be found—realizations that underscore the belief that Oscar nods hardly indicate long-term quality. Be them unforgivable or just bewildering, we’ve selected 15 snubs that no doubt had people talking…heatedly.