Do the Right Thing

Paramount Pictures

The best movie culture writing from around the internet-o-sphere. There will be a quiz later. Just leave a tab open for us, will ya?

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Do the Right Thing

“Heroes, as far as I could then see, were white, and not merely because of the movies but because of the land in which I lived, of which movies were simply a reflection: I despised and feared those heroes because they did take vengeance into their own hands. They thought that vengeance was theirs to take. This difficult coin did not cease to spin. It had neither heads not tails: for what white people took into their hands could scarcely be called vengeance, it was something less and something more.” In his autobiographical essay on movies and American racism, “The Devil Finds Work,” James Baldwin discusses at length the absence of black subjectivity and the prominence of white heroism in the milieu of classical Hollywood in which he came of age. At one point in the essay, Baldwin states that he has seen no black persons that he knows in the movies. He does not mean that he has never seen black faces onscreen, but rather that he has never seen a black protagonist whose experiences honestly reflect his position, neither the “debasement” of Stephin Fetchit nor Sidney Poitier’s role in The Heat of the Night, the latter of which Baldwin refers to as conveying, yet refusing to confront, “the anguish of people trapped in a legend.” That legend forbade black characters from achieving anything resembling the vengeance that white characters so regularly found on American screens. While published thirteen years before the movie’s release, Baldwin’s reflections on American cinema are essential […]

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Do the Right Thing

The best movie culture writing from around the internet-o-sphere. There will be a quiz later. Just leave a tab open for us, will ya?

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My Sharona Scene in Reality Bites

Thirty years ago, Ren McCormack fought for his right in Footloose. “This is our time to dance,” he argued. “It is our way of celebrating life. It’s the way it was in the beginning. It’s the way it’s always been. It’s the way it should be now.” As Kevin Bacon put on his old sweats and threw an old cassette on the stereo for Jimmy Fallon last week, we were reminded in the resonating power of dance scenes… Only, we often remember the most polished dance sequences and forget that “from the oldest of times, people danced for a number of reasons.” Though lists like to remind us over and over of the usual suspects – the films boasting carefully rehearsed choreography ((500) Days of Summer), musical numbers (Singin’ in the Rain), practiced moves (Dirty Dancing), and audacious comedy (Little Miss Sunshine) – there are many memorable dance sequences that break the barriers. Most are raw and unpolished as they push dance out of its narrowly choreographed confines and use it as a method of exploring everything from idiosyncratic inner tension to the charm of goofy exuberance – and they are a pleasure to behold.

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spike-lee

To watch Spike Lee’s feature narrative films is to only understand a fraction of his career as director. If you count his documentaries, Spike Lee has, when next week’s Oldboy remake hits screens, helmed 32 features in the 27 years since She’s Gotta Have It. And that doesn’t even include the numerous shorts, music videos, commercials, and TV pilots he’s directed. Of all the things that are misunderstood about Spike Lee, his largely under-recognized and uniquely prolific output of work might be chief among them. As both public figure and producer of culture, Lee has meant many things to many audiences: co-pioneer of the 1980s American independent film renaissance, restless observer of popular culture, connoisseur of African-American popular music, firebrand provocateur, native new Yorker, and brand name. He has also helped define and expand the possibilities for contemporary African-American filmmakers inside and outside Hollywood. It’s difficult to imagine what American cinema of the past quarter century would look like without Spike. So here’s some free advice (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the man behind every Spike Lee joint.

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Culture Warrior

In 1989, two major studios released films about race relations in America that couldn’t be more different. Driving Miss Daisy, Bruce Beresford’s adaptation of Alfred Uhry’s successful off-Broadway play, was a heartwarming tearjerker about a rich, isolated elderly Jewish woman who comes to the astounding revelation that her friendly African-American chauffeur is often subject to discrimination in the South during the 1950s. Do the Right Thing, meanwhile, enshrined Spike Lee’s place on the cinematic map. Its pull-no-punches mosaic of conflicting, negotiating racialized voices in contemporary Bedford-Stuyvesant refused happy endings and clear answers, leaving critics and audiences in a gray area where they couldn’t decide whether the film was a lament over the brick-wall met by post-Civil Rights discourse, a call to violent action, or something else entirely. The relative critical and economic successes of both Driving Miss Daisy and Do the Right Thing paved a crossroads for future representations of African Americans in mainstream American cinema: should they pursue the direction of  affirmation and closure in the face of racism dismissed as a problem solved long ago, or strive for contemporary relevance and a refusal of easy answers to complex questions? Time and again, Hollywood has overwhelmingly preferred to continue in the direction of Driving Miss Daisy. As a retelling of history, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which chronicles the hard-won political gymnastics enacted in order to get the 13th Amendment passed and abolish human slavery in the US thereafter, would seem to continue Hollywood’s preference to gaze backwards at race relations […]

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Sally Field in Lincoln 2012

Should we reward the films that challenge us? More pointedly, is that the role of the Academy Awards? Sasha Stone opened her State of the Race column this week by raising that very question. The two most recent Best Picture winners, The King’s Speech and The Artist¸ don’t exactly demand soul searching. They “offered a path of least resistance; they delivered a lot but asked so little of us in return,” she explains. Yet in 2012, a year of such great political conflict and often ugly national bickering, we might be in the mood to laud films that strike closer to our core. For Stone, this leads directly into a proclamation of Lincoln’s historical weight. Her argument casts Steven Spielberg’s film as period piece that reaches into the present, calling on us to examine our wounds so that we may prepare for the future. There is no better time for such a powerful work about America to arrive and take Oscar gold, reminding us to continue on the road to a better society in the spirit of the Great Emancipator. The same logic can be applied to other films in the race as well, from Argo to the (as yet unseen) Django Unchained and Zero Dark Thirty.

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Criterion Files

Of the 600+ films in The Criterion Collection, almost 200 are listed as from the United States. While not all of these films are explicitly thematically based  around life in the US, the American selections for the Collection do make up a mosaic of diverse perspectives on life in this country, proving that there is no sustainable solitary understanding of what it means to be an “American,” but there exists instead an array of possibilities for interpreting American identity. What the American films do have in common, though, is provide proof that excellent films have been made in the US for quite some time. So, after exhausting yourself with Independence Day Parades, firecracker-lighting, and Budweiser, settle down with a great American movie. Here are a dozen great titles from the Criterion Collection about “America” and “freedom” in the many senses of those terms.

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Boiling Point

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, though I’ve never been one to ascribe to that notion. In Hollywood, virtually everything is, at some level, derivative. Hell, not just Hollywood. Virtually every story has been told before, whether it’s comparing the Bible to ancient Egyptian beliefs or Star Wars to The Hidden Fortress. Telling a similar story is okay, hey, there’s only so many ways the good guy can beat the bad guy, right? The details are where the magic happens, and the devil lives. Samurai swords? No. Lightsabers. Transformers are the good guys? How about Transmorphers are the bad guys! However, these are all broad strokes. If we travel further into the script, past plot, past character, past props, we have dialog. Dialog is where the real difference can be made – this is where the magic lives. It’s how a movie like Clerks or My Dinner with Andre or a show like Mad Men can keep you riveted without much going on other than characters talking. But what happens when characters start using the same phrases?

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Spike Lee made his bones in the indie film world by making movies about life in Brooklyn. Films like She’s Gotta Have It and Do the Right Thing set the tone for what eventually became known as his Chronicles of Brooklyn anthology. The director hasn’t explored this particular corner of his film universe since 1998’s He Got Game, however, so it was starting to look like subject matter he had fully explored and put away. That is, until the promotion for Red Hook Summer started. Not only has this film been heralded as being a new inclusion into the Chronicles of Brooklyn, some have been calling it a direct sequel to Do the Right Thing, largely because Lee is appearing in the film as his old character, Mookie. But now that we’ve seen the first trailer, that seems to be overstating things. While Do the Right Thing was a snapshot of youth culture in Brooklyn at a certain moment in time, Red Hook Summer seems to be a much more personal, coming-of-age movie about the journey one character takes. That character is Flik Royale (Jules Brown), a young man from a nice neighborhood in Atlanta who is sent to live with his Bishop grandfather (Clarke Peters) in one of the shadier parts of Brooklyn for the summer.

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In 1989, a young director named Spike Lee, who had just a couple of films under his belt, put himself permanently on the map with an indie ensemble piece called Do the Right Thing. In 1991, a revered horror director named Wes Craven whose career was starting to look like it was in need of revival put out a haunted house film with a twist called The People Under the Stairs. One film ignited a firestorm of debate and garnered mounds of attention, rocketing its director into the stratosphere. The other came and went with nary a whimper and probably helped play into the “Wes Craven is back!” sentiment that ran rampant when he put out Scream in 1996. Is Do the Right Thing really that much better of a film than The People Under the Stairs, or is this just a case of right subject matter, right time?

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bluray-header

This week in the world of Blu-ray, we go to the Moon for all mankind, to the end of the Earth with Nic Cage, to the 1980s with Spike Lee and all the way back to the 60s with a group of Mad Men.

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Samuel L. Jackson has been in 7,000 films, but we took on the cyclopean task of finding the Ten Best. We also got a Word-of-the-Day calendar and have been dying to use ‘cyclopean’ in a sentence.

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published: 12.22.2014
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published: 12.19.2014
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published: 12.18.2014
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