July 03, 1989 12:00 PM

Spike Lee, Danny Aiello

When this film changes abruptly from a lib, All in the Family-toned social comedy about a black Brooklyn neighborhood into a flat-out race riot, it’s impossible to tell if Lee wants to incite violence or create a parabolic exercise. He seems in fact to be admitting that he doesn’t know what he’s doing when, in an epilogue, he shows two long quotations, one from Martin Luther King Jr. disdaining violence and one from Malcolm X endorsing it.

If Lee is saying that racism is profoundly painful, frustrating and confusing, no one will argue. But this film states the case without offering any insight. It vacillates between mundane reality and surrealism—faces shot in close-up with wide-angle lenses, a montage of ethnic types rapping out insults at each other.

The only consistency is a grueling cynicism. Not one character in the film, black or white, is admirable. Lee, who produced, wrote and directed the film, casts himself as a cowardly, passive young man who works in a pizzeria run by Aiello and his sons. Lee has an infant son to whom he pays almost no attention; he has no ambition, no principles. His friends define themselves by the size of their portable radios or the style of their sneakers; there is no sense of their having been confined by a racist system. The older black characters are a chorus of pathos. Three middle-aged men—acted with the deceptively casual rapport of a great jazz trio by Frankie Faison, Robin Harris and Paul Benjamin—sit on chairs on the sidewalk commenting on the action. Ossie Davis plays a good-hearted and thoughtful but unemployed, alcoholic oddball. Ruby Dee sits in a window bearing the weight of being called Mother Sister. Roger Guenveur Smith is a retarded man who wanders around selling pictures of King and Malcolm.

The white characters seem equally defeated. Aiello (like Davis he provides his role with more poetry than Lee does) means well but is insensitive and is revealed to be sublimating racist feelings. As his sons, John Turturro is a first-rate bigot: He admires Magic Johnson, Prince and Eddie Murphy, but says, “They’re not really niggers. They’re not really black.” The other son, Richard Edson, is open-minded but ineffectual. The white cops are racists. White people who drive through the area are ignorant buffoons. John (The Deer Hunter) Savage has one brief scene as a new neighbor, then disappears.

Perhaps the only major character whose integrity isn’t indicted is Sam Jackson as a disc jockey. At one point, though, he reads, as a voice-over, a long list of black musicians that in effect suggests that Janet Jackson and Kool Moe Dee should be esteemed as highly as Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington.

The film ends in a flurry of violence, a silly reconciliation between Lee and Aiello and a sense that the rough draft of a movie has just appeared. Those wanting to understand racism would be better off reading Richard Wright, James Baldwin, King’s speeches or Malcolm’s autobiography. (R)

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