Do the Right Thing (1989)

24 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Spike Lee is a director that tackles controversial subjects and brings them to independent films that go beyond the usual mainstream prospects. He loves to speak valuable issues through film and brings everything he can get to the screen—even if it’s light comedy to contrast the heavier material. Lee is a prominent voice in American cinema and his third film, “Do the Right Thing” (following “She’s Gotta Have It” and “School Daze”), was the one that made him known as the risky filmmaker with the eyes and the ears.

Oddly enough, “Do the Right Thing” is also the angriest and most aggressive of Lee’s films—showing racism head-on. He shows it like it is, rarely flinches at the subject at hand, and doesn’t resort to political correctness or sermons. He tells a story—he sets up the characters and allows set-up events to play out around them.

The film takes place in a 24-hour period in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, on the proclaimed hottest day of the summer. We meet many of the neighborhood locals as they go about their daily lives. Most of them meet at Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, which has been around for about 25 years. The owner Sal (Danny Aiello) has seemingly gotten used to working in a neighborhood mostly composed of African-Americans, and believes that whites and blacks can live together in harmony, though there are some hints of racism partially present. His two sons work with him—Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson). While Vito is easy-going and color-blind, Pino is a hot-headed racist who mostly uses vulgarities about the black customers that come in for pizza.

We also meet other characters such as—Sal’s pizza delivery boy Mookie (Spike Lee) who is hostile and bored, but responsive when he wants to be (there are times when he offers Vito advice not to listen to Pino all the time); Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), an old gentleman whom everyone else constantly ranks out because he’s constantly drunk; Mother Sister (Ruby Dee), the strict, self-proclaimed “high-and-mighty” elderly woman that Da Mayor tries to court; and Tina (Rosie Perez), Mookie’s girlfriend who cares for their toddler son Hector. Others start up the conflict of the story—particularly Mookie’s friend Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito) and mild-mannered, boombox-carrying giant Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn). Buggin Out notices that the pictures all over Sal’s pizzeria wall are all of Italian celebrities, and not one “brother,” and attempts to boycott the restaurant. He gets Radio Raheem to help him and this leads to a long day that ends with the occurrence of something alarming.

The film has just been a slice-of-life picture up until this final act, in which a fight occurs, a character dies, chaos ensues, and there’s a full-scale riot.

The title comes from a quote by Malcolm X—“You’ve got to do the right thing.” Let’s look at the facts here—Malcolm X is considered a leader and one of the greatest, most influential African-American leaders in history; a character named Smiley is going around trying to sell pictures of Malcolm X, as well as Martin Luther King, Jr.; and the film is centered around racial tension in the projects. I suppose we’d like to think that racism is toning down in our society, but as Spike Lee shows in “Do the Right Thing,” it’s always going to be present and it can sometimes spin things out of control. And it can be brought back to this simple statement—because of this, everyone in this movie fails to do the right thing. What is the right thing? Who does it? The way I see it, nobody does. That’s what makes it ironic and all the more credible and disturbing. We even have a character that we have come to like performing an action that makes the violent situation even worse than it already was. (By the way, props to that, because in a more mainstream movie, I bet someone we’ve come to hate would’ve done the exact same thing.)

This is what Lee sees and that’s what he brings to the screen, while having his own understanding of what’s happening. This film is not trying to offend races—it’s not anti-white, nor is it anti-black. It just shows how misunderstanding and racial tension would/could lead to violence.

The oddest thing about the movie is actually the most interesting—amongst the angry, aggressive tone that’s felt throughout the movie, the filmmaking is so lively. The camera focuses on many images, a rocking soundtrack is present in a lot of scenes (Public Enemy’s high-powered “Fight the Power” serves as the film’s anthem, especially in the opening-credit sequence, featuring a young woman dancing in the street), the colors stand out, and just a thrilling sense of entertainment. How can you describe a film like this? It’s so angry, so aggressive (sorry for repeating myself here), and yet so damn entertaining. Also, the performances each have a high power to them—particularly Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, John Turturro, and Spike Lee himself (he’s actually a pretty good actor).

So maybe there isn’t a solution to the racism problem in society that we can find in “Do the Right Thing,” but there’s not supposed to be. What Lee is trying to do is bring the problem to realization, if it hasn’t been realized already. This is a film that’s trying to say something and throwing all it can to make you listen. That’s a film to be duly noted, in my opinion.

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