Todd McCarthy: Re-Appreciating Spike Lee’s ‘Do The Right Thing’, And Re-Evaluating Peter Sellers

Do The Right Thing
John Turturro and Spike Lee in 1989's "Do The Right Thing" Universal/Kobal/Shutterstock

The most striking, urgent, up-to-the-minute film I’ve seen this week was directed by Spike Lee. It speaks to the moment, pulses with turbulent emotional and political currents, overflows with vibrant characters and bluntly confronts society’s painful unfinished business. No, I’m not talking about Da 5 Bloods but, rather, Do the Right Thing.

Yes, that’s right, Do the Right Thing, which is 31 years old (!) but looks and sounds as though it could have been made this year. Even if they’ve remained dramatically and politically relevant after two or three decades, most films show their age one way or the other, through costumes, hairstyles, attitudes, musical choices, outdated slang and language usage or, at the very least, the age of cars on the streets.

But nothing at all about Lee’s third feature needs to be explained, no apologies or adjustments in attitude are required; even if the specific Bed-Stuy location may have changed, you could just move the action to somewhere not too far away. The point is that the tensions, resentments, sense of wrongs not righted, the need both for better comprehension of the problems and significant resultant change, remain all too vital and alive.

Do the Right Thing, which I had not seen again since its premiere in 1989, lost out at the Cannes Film Festival that year to Steven Soderbergh’s debut feature sex, lies, & videotape. But that was as nothing compared to Lee’s film only being nominated for two Oscars — for Original Screenplay and Supporting Actor (Danny Aiello) — in the year when the best picture Oscar went to — I can barely force myself to write the words — Driving Miss Daisy.

Da 5 Bloods
‘Da 5 Bloods” Netflix

Although it’s strong and vital in important respects, Da 5 Bloods does not feel organic in the manner of Do the Right Thing, where racial issues are drawn directly from neighborhood life and comprise the very essence of the film’s drama. At the core of the new film is a sympathetic, if illicit plot hatched by four black former Vietnam War army mates (a fifth has died), a scheme to snatch a vast stash of long-lost gold that’s now been located in the jungle. It’s an enterprise they can justify, after a fashion, as a political act; after all the decades and the inordinate percentage of black soldiers sent to Vietnam as opposed to whites, one naturally pulls for them in their unlikely endeavor.

Still, the fatalistic literary and cinematic inspirations of The Treasures of the Sierra Madre hang over the characters and their far-fetched venture, with greed and foolishness, not to mention the unwelcome surprises that often arise in the jungle, infecting their project. The film’s driving forces are clearly social and historical, while those of the characters are a mix of economic and that of righteous payback. It’s a loaded combination that makes the film both compelling and — increasingly, as the plot develops — far-fetched and cumbersome.

But if you haven’t seen Do the Right Thing it in decades or have never seen it (being too young is the only good excuse), this is the best time in a long time to catch it.

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Being touted currently as a resurrected lost film, but rather more accurately described as an understandably ignored one, is a new DVD title from the enterprising and eclectic Film Movement, Mr. Topaze. Its sole claim to fame is as the only film ever directed by Peter Sellers, and this during his period of gathering fame in 1961. Further interest derives from its source, a 1928 play by the great Marcel Pagnol that was twice made into films in France; the screenwriter Pierre Rouve, who not many years on would executive produce Antonioni’s Blowup, and the cast, which included M. Clouseau’s perennial nemesis Herbert Lom as well as Leo McKern, Billie Whitelaw, Martita Hunt, Michael Gough and other worthies.

Mr. Topaze
“Mr Topaze” 20th Century Fox/Kobal/Shutterstock

But the film itself is a mirthless slog, needlessly shot in widescreen to the point of minimizing the stature of the actors within the grand sets, and as lifeless as the stuffed skunk that sits on the desk of the titular character, a dully proper schoolteacher whose sense of propriety is so pronounced that it suffocates the entire enterprise.

Also known under the title I Like Money, the film charts the unlikely but instructive path of Mr. Topaze as, at the end of act one, he’s booted out of his school for refusing to revise a privileged student’s grade upward, only to become, in act two, a presumably malleable advisor to an unscrupulous rich Parisian couple. He’s a pathetic patsy until he learns all too well how the game is played. The thematic upshot is pragmatically cynical in a winking, familiar French manner, but without the necessary sense of sophisticated, this-is-the-way-of-the-world savoir faire.

Everything is dawdled over to mostly exasperating effect and Sellers’ directorial approach is visually static, without flair and seemingly determined to show off every inch of the large elaborate sets. It will certainly be of academic interest to Sellers fans and perhaps instructive to Pagnol completists, but a yawn to anyone without a strong academic allegiance to either or both.

Still, all is not lost for anyone craving a Peter Sellers fix. Director Peter Medak’s outstanding documentary about his dreadful experience working with the comic genius, The Ghost of Peter Sellers, is now available on Amazon and more than worth a look, first and foremost as an advisory that it is a far better thing to be able to just watch the comic actor’s inspired work than it was to actually work with the man.

Ghost is both an amply illustrated look at a slow-motion fiasco — that being the attempted making, in 1973, of a film that had no business being made (the script was an unfinished mess, no one knew how to shoot on water, Sellers claimed he’d had a heart attack and was rushed back to London, only to promptly be photographed on a dinner date with Princess Margaret)—and a  lament for how the film sent the young director’s career spinning off its trajectory. It was a mini Heaven’s Gate of its time, something to watch with appalled fascination.

This article was printed from https://deadline.com/2020/06/do-the-right-thing-holds-up-spike-lee-peter-sellers-mr-topaze-1202967321/