This is one of those big movies that carries the heavy reputation of being”important!” I was pleasantly surprised to discover a movie brimming with rich characters, delightful filmmaking, and a wildly entertaining energy all in the service of a very serious subject matter.
Following the commercial success of School Daze, Spike Lee looked to current events for inspiration. A series of racially motivated violence as well as a viewing of an old episode of Alfred Hitchcock presents inspired him to make a film about race relations and how extreme can push people to the edge of violence.
To secure funding, he returned to Paramount Pictures (the studio behind School Days) who agreed to finance the movie. However, when Lee refused to alter the ending, Paramount pulled out. Luckily for Lee Universal Studios had just experienced great success and controversy with Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. The studio was eager for another controversial hit and agreed to finance the film with no interference.
The film is really about the residents of a Brooklyn neighborhood and how they interact with one another during the hottest day of the year. The neighborhood is predominantly black, aside from its two local businesses;a grocery store owned by a Korean family, and an authentic Italian pizzeria run by Sal and his sons.
Sal is played by Danny Aiello. He’s a big classic Italian American, but due to Aiello’s nuanced performance he is never just a stereotype. Sal’s son Pino, played by an excellent John Turturro, hates his job. He hates that the pizzeria is in a black neighborhood. That black neighborhood is populated by some wonderful and vibrant characters.
Da Mayor, played by Ossie Davis, is an elderly gentleman who wanders the streets looking for a drink and anyone who’ll listen to him about the way things used to be. Mother Sister, played by Ruby Dee, is like everyone’s grandma. She looks after everyone in the neighborhood. There’s Radio Raheem, played by Bill Nunn, who blasts music on his boombox go drown out the world. There’s also Mookie, played by Spike Lee, who works for Sal. He’s like a son to Sal, and he’s trying to make a little something for himself and his infant son. The mother of his son is Tina, played by Rosie Perez in her first role.
The movie isn’t about one person so much as it is about the tapestry of people who occupy this neighborhood. It’s a true ensemble filled with amazingly well drawn characters who crackle with every interaction.
Race is a key theme in this film. The movie actually opens with an extended dance sequence that essentially encapsulates the movie in the interaction between dance and musical styles. If you don’t know what happens in the movie I won’t reveal it here. I was only vaguely aware when I saw it and I think that’s the best way to see it. Let the film unfold naturally. Let’s it’s tensions build and suck you in the way it did me. That ending is a powerhouse and it should be experienced without prior knowledge.
Of course the movie is incredibly controversial. Anything dealing with the subject of race is going to be controversial, but this film famously elicited divided opinions upon its release. The ending and it’s message have been debated ever since? Did Mookie do the right thing? Did anybody? This film should be seen and digested and discussed. It asks important questions and causes the viewer to think about different perspectives a little bit deeper.
That might all sound very heavy and important, and it is. But it’s also really fun to watch. As we’ve seen so far in his films, Spike Lee uses the camera and sound design in exciting and unique ways. The script is sharp and vibrant. The pacing is fast. The production design is top notch. It’s a great film.
I would just encourage anybody who thinks this movie is too serious or heavy or depressing or important for its own good, put aside everything you’ve heard and give it viewing for yourself. It’s worth it.
My cup of tea. A+