Expert film discussion from completely unqualified people


April 29, 2016

What's in a name?

Spike Lee's magnum opus Do the Right Thing is an unequivocal masterpiece, at once a haunting denunciation of societal injustice and a reassuring portrait of a resilient American neighborhood. It's a deeply philosophical film with a profound message, but at it's heart, it's really a formalist exercise; Lee's script relies just as much on blocking, framing, and camera movement as it does on action and dialogue. And while it's easy to get wrapped up in the cinematography, costuming, and truly beautiful musical queues, a more fascinating conversation might involve names and naming conventions. Characters in a Spike Lee Joint are like Greek gods, leviathans who wear their philosophies on their sleeves. There are no Steves, Jessicas, or Tommys in Lee's world, but rather Mother Sisters, Buggin' Outs, and Misters Señor Love Daddy. They're love and anger and pain writ large on the screen, and how they label themselves is just as important as what they say and do.

Consider Mookie, our lead. Mookie is young, lazy, and more than a little selfish. He's a working man without a work ethic, a culture warrior without a cause. Sure, he's smart, funny, and gives us all a fascinating new way to melt ice cubes, but Mookie is far from heroic. He ignores his girlfriend and child and takes the longest routes possible for his deliveries. Lee plays the character himself, complicating our normal expectation of writer/director as protagonist and moral authority. He wants us to challenge Mookie's righteous attitude and see him for the everyday every-man he is. Mookie's a mook, just a guy, and despite his connection to and dependence on Sal's business, when he sees the pressure building, he knows he's the only one who can relieve it. He is a standard-bearer for both sides of the community and his inciting of the riot grants Lee's conflict the complication and respect it deserves. There are no clear rights or wrongs in the life of the everyday working mook, just the will to survive.

Consider also Da Mayor, Bed Stuy's professor emeritus. Long past his prime and half in the bag, Da Mayor is a charming contradiction; his title denotes class and respect, but his wrinkled suit and fraying hat provoke more than a little scrutiny. Ozzie Davis layers a bitter sadness under his character's sheepish optimism, and however cynical it is to dub the neighborhood drunk "Da Mayor," it's clear that he's accepted the moniker with honor and intends to live up to it (even if that means sweeping the floors of Sal's Famous). In many ways, he's Spike Lee's statement on the thankless life of a public servant and the impotence of degraded institutions; kids and parents ridicule him in equal measure and the general public ignores his pleas for civility and restraint in light of Radio's death. Though his calls go unanswered, Da Mayor remains a dependable moral voice in an insulated and territorial community that rejects the fascist authority of the police and the encroaching influence of outside populations. He's a voice for cooperation and respect. He's Da Mayor.

Da Mayor's love for his block might be rivaled only by that for Mother Sister, played with bruised defiance by the beautiful and righteous Ruby Dee. Again, Lee uses a seemingly contradictory naming convention to present a unity of spirit. Mother Sister represents maternal love and sorority through tough talk and high standards. Lee frames her early scenes at a Dutch angle, indicating a kind of imbalance of power with characters she faces, especially Da Mayor, with whom she shares a powerful attraction that she knows better than to indulge. She's one of the loudest voices cheering on the riot at Sal's and one of most tragic figures of its aftermath, falling apart in the street after the murder of Radio Raheem. This juxtaposition provides more insight into her role as both hip, cheer-leading sister and world-weary, heartbroken mother. Her last scene in the film, fittingly shared with father figure Da Mayor, highlights the cyclical tragedy of the violence in their lives and the absolute necessity of their enduring survival. 

Though that violence is inevitable when the relationship between police and population is so tense, major action usually requires some instigation, personified here by Giancarlo Esposito's Buggin' Out. He's a prophet, a rabble-rouser, and a bona fide pain in the ass. Though however loud and dynamic he may be, what might be most interesting is the difficulty he faces rallying others to his cause; his compounding failures build the thematic undercurrent that will finally boil over in the last act. Note that Lee is very careful not to necessarily condone Buggin' Out's "brothers on the wall" argument by giving it an obvious answer, but rather to contextualize it as a small facet of a larger act of systemic defiance. Buggin' Out is the untamed id, happy to rebel against whatever you've got to offer. In instigating "corrective" action against Sal, he's actually misrepresenting the severity of the problem, lending even greater credence to his nickname. He mistakes visual representation for real agency when he derides Sal for his Italian Wall of Fame without recognizing the pride that Sal takes in serving the members of his black community. Buggin' Out is a constant cycle of action and reaction without reflection or humility. 

That humility and reflection is the key to understanding Radio Raheem, played by Bill Nunn. He's a humble and soft-spoken friend but an intense and stubborn adversary, a walking mountain who embraces contradiction by proudly sporting his "love" and "hate" rings at all times. His radio, ever-blasting Public Enemy's "Fight the Power," provides the film's major conflict while simultaneously illustrating its major theme: cohabitation is complicated; It's hard for us all to live in the same place at the same time and still get along, and often horrible things happen when we try. The larger sociological implications of Radio Raheem's murder are outside the scope of this essay, but suffice it to say that it is absolutely crucial to Lee's thesis that he be as pronounced and complete as possible in his embodiment of the basic human dichotomy between love and hate, between good and bad. He is the most human of all Lee's characters, and his death by radio is all the more tragic because of it.

I could go on. There's Smiley, Sweet Dick Willie, and of course, Mr. Señor Love Daddy. Each and every one of the characters in Do the Right Thing adds to the film's soul, wit, and energy. Each one of them is something beyond archetype, beyond a lesser screenwriter's attempt to create "normal city characters." These are living, breathing people with agendas, hangups, and fears. In giving them such memorable names, Spike Lee is allowing them to be who they are without compromising their basic right to be all of us at the same time. 

Rob DiCristino writes and podcasts for The Ugly Club (@uglyclubpodcast). Follow him on Twitter @RobDiCristino. He mostly tweets about Ben Affleck.


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