I hadn’t watched Do The Right Thing in over a decade, and truthfully, I’d forgotten much of it before I sat down to reacquaint myself a couple of days ago. As it started playing, I watched the opening credit sequence with a sort of embarrassed awe — it opens with Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power” playing over a color washed scene of Rosie Perez dancing a painfully 80’s-esque set of moves. I immediately thought to myself, “uh oh… is this that badly dated?” But I stayed with it. And holy shit, am I glad I did.
Do The Right Thing is Spike Lee’s third feature film (which he wrote, directed and produced), and to this day it remains his finest work. Released in 1989, it tells a series of interweaving stories about several different characters — Mookie (a solid performance by Lee himself), a pizza deliverer who works for Sal (and outstanding Danny Aiello), the Italian-American pizza joint owner who manages it with his sons Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (the underrated and underused Richard Edsen). Thrown into the mix are Mookie’s girlfriend Tina (Rosie Perez, in her first role), whom he has a son with, the local drunken philosopher Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), a mentally handicapped wannabe activist named Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith), the local badass Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), and about a dozen others. The film is loosely narrated by the local radio DJ, Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson, in his most subdued role).
Taking place in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, the film is a study of cultures and culture clashes that take place over a brutally hot couple of summer days. It shifts constantly from vignette to vignette, showing the mix of African-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Italian-Americans and Koreans that live and work and play throughout the neighborhood. It’s a fascinating and penetrating series of character studies, melding conventional racial and ethnic stereotypes with a very real depiction of urban humanity. Over time, as the mercury rises, people’s petty disputes begin to turn into knots of tension, culminating in a stunning series of violent acts perpetrated by several groups that exposes the undercurrents of racism and ignorance that runs through everyone.
Do The Right Thing is a brilliant example of honest film making — Lee deftly avoids demonizing any single group, instead showing everyone for what they are — flawed people trying to work their way through the obstacles that are thrown in front of them — by themselves, by others, by society. No one is particularly unlikeable, with the probable exception of Turturro’s Pino, a virulently racist jerk who refuses to listen to his father’s gentle advice (and an outstanding performance by Turturro).
But if few of them are true sinners, few of them are true saints either. Each of them slowly demonstrates subtle ignorance and petty grievances, and they all fester in the simmering heat, culminating in the tragic night that leaves a man dead and a building destroyed. People’s bitter prejudices boil over into a rage that is both shocking, yet inevitable.
Do The Right Thing is filmed with an odd theatricality to it, almost feeling like a stage play with its occasionally stilted dialogue, its character driven camera shots, and its strange little hiccups. The dialogue feels real though, and is dagger-sharp and rich with cultural reference. It’s a challenging feat to paint such rich portraits with so many characters weaving and bobbing their way through the film, and Lee’s meandering cinematography keeps the viewer off balance. That’s hardly a criticism, though — one of Lee’s gifts is the ability to make such off-kilter scenic shifts somehow seem seamless and fluid. It’s that shuffling that prevents you from feeling like the film isn’t going anywhere. Because in truth, the climax comes late in the film, and the denouement after that sudden and violent peak is so short that it seems less a conclusion and more an aftermath.
Of course, that ties into what I’ve always thought makes Lee an interesting film maker, particularly when he’s focused on race (a similar predicament presents itself in Jungle Fever) — Lee is brilliant at adeptly exposing the unsuspecting racism or ignorance in the average person, but he rarely, if ever, provides a satisfying, viewer-friendly conclusion. The film doesn’t take the cheap and easy route of providing a message of hope as a conclusion, and it gives you no answers. Instead, it simply rips off the societal scabs and lets us watch them bleed. But that process is so fascinating and intense and engagingly written that you’ll find that process, as painful and uncomfortable as it may be, to be worth the watch. Lee’s career has had its share of critics and detractors, mainly because of his penchant for running off at the mouth. He may not be a particularly pleasant or engaging person, but he’s a hell of a film maker. To this day, I feel that the picture was robbed by the Academy in an epic snub — Aiello was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, and Lee was nominated for the screenplay, but Do The Right Thing was left out of the Best Picture and Director nominations altogether.
Do The Right Thing remains one of the most impressive films about race in American cinematic history. Perhaps what makes it so wonderful is that it doesn’t really feel like it’s about race — it’s about people. Interestingly, when closely examined, Do The Right Thing isn’t nearly as racially incendiary as it was initially perceived to be. It’s not a story that paints blacks as good and whites as bad, or anything in between — Lee’s too smart for that. Instead, it simply presents a series of stories about everyday people and their everyday lives, and how little it takes for us to turn on each other. It shows us the conflicts that are present everyday and how they can escalate into tragedy. As is frequently Lee’s technique, it simply portrays the problem brazenly and unapologetically. Yet it offers no solutions to those problems (other than simply, “Always do the right thing.”)… but then again, perhaps that’s up to us to figure out.
TK writes about music and movies. He enjoys playing with dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here.