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CRITIC AT LARGE

'Right Thing' Stars: A New Era for Blacks

July 06, 1989|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

Reinforcing the power of Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" as a sharp but compassionate commentary on racial relations during a long, hot Brooklyn summer day is a remarkable ensemble of superior performances.

Danny Aiello as a proud, inflexible but fundamentally decent pizzeria owner, John Turturro as his hate-filled son and Lee himself as the pizza deliverer create individuals from what could have been only symbolic roles.

And, investing the story with the dignity and the artistry--and the sense of historical perspective--their presence carries are Ossie Davis and his wife, Ruby Dee.

She is the self-appointed matriarch of the extended street family (whose ties are ever more tenuous), watching it all from her open window in the airless summer heat, worrying, as Dee said during a recent interview, "about who may be falling through the cracks."

He is the joshingly titled "mayor" of the street, a lame and lumbering figure of grave eloquence and world-worn wisdom in whom a defiant romanticism, aimed at Dee, survives on beer and small encouragement.

Davis and Dee were in Los Angeles for the local premiere of "Do the Right Thing" last week, nicely ensconced in a hilltop luxury hotel. It was somewhat different from their first visit in 1947 when both came to town in the national company of "Anna Lucasta."

"I stayed in a rooming house where Pullman porters disported themselves," Davis said, "and you lived in a private home." Dee nodded. Still it was a triumphant visit and Charlie Chaplin headed the list of stars who came backstage on opening night.

The housing situation was not much improved a couple of years later when they returned to costar with Sidney Poitier in "No Way Out" at Fox. Married in 1948, they again lived privately.

"There was only one hotel in Los Angeles where blacks were accommodated," Davis said. But things change, personified not in the least by Tom Bradley. "We thought Sam Yorty would be mayor forever."

Over the years since, husband and wife have enjoyed eventful careers as performers, writers, producers and director and as activists in civil rights and other causes.

Davis, who had worked with Lee before in "School Daze," and Dee are both extremely pleased with and proud of "Do the Right Thing." They have had no fears, as were voiced after the film's showings at the Cannes festival, that it might stir racial disturbances.

"When I read those stories," Davis says, "I half thought that Spike is such a consummate promoter he might have planted those notions himself. But he is much too responsible. He has a wonderful earnestness and he takes his role seriously as a leadership figure."

"He believes deeply that things can change," Dee says. "The first function of art is to effect change. Later you can enjoy art for art's sake, perhaps. But nothing really exists in isolation, and artists are providers of directions for change."

Davis traces the positive role of art in black life back to slave times. "As we were gathered in slave pens and other awful places, some slaves were picked out because they had the art of cooking or could sing and dance. Those who could entertain the masters became the voices for those of us in the cold and dark. The artists began to represent us in various ways from the beginning."

What drew Davis and Dee to "Do the Right Thing" was, Dee says, "that it was nice to be reminded of the possibility of hope, at a time when we're on the verge of terrible cynicism. If you can't find hope in young people, then where? That's why Spike finds audiences in today's market. He can speak to the soul's anguish because he senses it."

Davis says: "As in the Dylan Thomas poem, Spike is not one to go gently. He's raging against racism and sexism, too. He's come so far so fast he's ahead of himself. He senses and intuits things, his finger is on the pulse; he knows things he hasn't actually experienced himself."

Lee has also, Davis and Dee feel, been the model of a responsible film maker. "He paid off his investors in his first film immediately, no juggling of the books, no messing about." (Their actor son was one of the investors.)

On "Do the Right Thing" Lee bent and broke union rules to employ as many newcomers as he could, to break the Catch-22 that has bedeviled minorities in the film industry: no jobs without experience, but no experience without work.

Davis himself was one of the architects of what looked to be a major opening-up of the industry. In 1970 he directed and co-authored "Cotton Comes to Harlem," which became the first major crossover film, so-called: a black-themed film with great appeal to the white audience.

The success of "Cotton" led to a bandwagon of black films, which, however, degenerated to what became known as blacksploitation fare, finally unpalatable to either black or white audiences. The gains blacks had made on both sides of the camera came to a sudden halt.

Only in more recent years, with the rise of Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy and now film makers like Robert Townsend and Lee himself, does the crossover audience appear to have been rediscovered by Hollywood. The significance of "Do the Right Thing" is that, in Davis's view, "It's even-handed," descriptive and compassionate, tragicomic, strong but not exploitative.

"In his treatment of Sal (the Danny Aiello character) and his family, Spike wanted us to know about them as human beings," says Davis.

Among the many black characters caught in cameo, three black men, watching the parade go by and caustically aware of their economic impotence, became a kind of slangy chorus, rendering their bitterness as bitter comedy.

Lee has muted nothing, yet achieved an uncommon lyrical realism, harsh but chastening. "It will get people to talking and thinking," Dee says. "And feeling."

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