Do the Right Thing (1989) written and directed by Spike Lee
What’s it about?
It’s a sweltering summer day in the Bedford-Stuyvesant district of Brooklyn, and racial tensions are soaring faster than the thermometer in this predominantly black area.
Spike Lee plays Mookie, a delivery boy working for a historic pizzeria run by Italian-American Sal (Danny Aiello) along with his two sons Vito (Richard Edson) and Pino (John Turturro). Things start to get heated when Mookie’s buddy Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) kicks up a fuss about the lack of black faces amongst the photos on the pizzeria wall since they exclusively depict famous Italian Americans such as Robert De Niro and Frank Sinatra.
The film subsequently follows various ongoing character vignettes and minor incidents of tensions between the melting pot of races within the neighborhood, which ultimately lead up to manslaughter and a riot.
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Why is it significant?
It’s Spike Lee’s third feature-length film and it is still considered by many to be his masterpiece. Nowadays it is noted for its startling depiction of racial tensions and as a vital snapshot of late 1980s hip-hop culture. However, while it garnered plenty of positive reviews in its day, its (then) controversially head-on approach resulted in it being woefully underrepresented at the 1990 Oscars, where it received just two nominations (Danny Aiello for Best Supporting Actor and Spike Lee for Best Screenplay). It didn’t even get nominated for Best Picture, an award which instead went to Driving Miss Daisy - a rather more blandly earnest look at racial prejudice.
How does it hold up?
Do The Right Thing is a boldly stylised and invigorated cinematic statement from Spike Lee. Its in-your-face colourful approach begins right from the opening credits (which take place over some aggressive dancing to Public Enemy’s Fight The Powers That Be) and continues throughout. It’s a film focussed very much on examining racial tensions and, on the face of it, is pretty blatant about its agenda. However, amongst the bouncy ball of incendiary energy are some subtle nuances in characterisation that make the violent climax all the more shocking.
Much of the running time is spent chopping and changing between a wide variety of characters, who range from those with a genuine chip in their shoulder to a variety of bystanders getting on with their daily routines. Although it may initially seem that there are too many for one film to focus on, each one serves a dramatic purpose and most are remarkably well drawn - even if on the face of it they are archetypes, right down to their nicknames. All are superbly played by the cast.
Mookie (played by Lee himself) is very much at the centre of it all, juggling his job with looking after his sister, son and girlfriend on a meagre wage, and trying to maintain a sense of order amongst the dramatically diverging views of his various friends in the neighbourhood. Sal is a fiery but fatherly pizzeria owner, who takes a genuine pride in serving his predominantly black clientele.
Ossie Davis plays an old drunk calling himself The Mayor, who tries hard to woo his initially disdainful female counterpart Mother Sister (Ruby Dee) and ultimately turns out to be the closest this film has to a genuine hero. His bravery starts to cause Mother Sister to thaw, and their relationship provides a touch of warmth in a very confrontation-based story.
Buggin’ Out and “Radio” Raheem are the most militant of the black characters, with the former’s vocal rants about keeping the neighbourhood “black” and the latter carrying a huge ghetto blaster everywhere that pumps out Public Enemy as loudly as possible, to the annoyance of many of the others. Pino is the most racist and aggressive of the Italian Americans, moaning to his father about living in “Planet Of The Apes” despite being a fan of Prince. It is from these characters, along with the sweltering summer day, that the tensions simmer and ultimately ripple out to most of the others.
Samuel L Jackson plays the smooth DJ who soundtracks the action and provides its most level-headed commentary. This DJ role is a narrative device that had been employed before in the likes of Vanishing Point and The Warriors, but here it is no less effective despite the lack of originality.
The stylish and remarkably even-handed direction by Spike Lee is what gels everything together. His use of “hot” colours - reds, oranges, blues - superbly evokes the hot day and hotter temperaments. His camera gets right in the face of each character as they put forward their respective viewpoints. In the most powerful moment, he zooms in on several characters of differing ethnicities, each one going off on a racist rant against another group. Here, he boldly puts forward that racist behaviour can be perpetrated by anyone of any race, towards any race. Confrontations make great use of back-and-forth pans, as if they are ongoing games of verbal squash. As things come towards a violent head in the later moments, the camera tilts and soars above the characters, effectively giving a sense of matters being warped out of any reasonable proportion.
It’s the finest anti-racist film ever made. “Do the right thing” and make sure you see it.
Runtime: 120 mins
Dir: Spike Lee
Script: Spike Lee
Starring: Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Spike Lee, Richard Edson, Giancarlo Esposito, Bill Nunn, John Turturro, Samuel L. Jackson, Rosie Perez, Martin Lawrence