For a 27-year-old film, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing feels very much like the here and now. The only obvious difference is that when cops kill an unarmed black man, no one records it on their cellphone.
By focusing on a few blocks of Brooklyn’s Bed Stuy neighborhood over the course of one very hot day, Lee dramatizes and analyzes everything wrong (and a few things that are right) about race relationships in America. But it’s not an out-and-out lecture. Do the Right Thing is touching, funny, warm-hearted, and humane. Having just revisited the film after a long absence, I’m now putting it on my A+ list of films that I’ve loved over the decades.
But before I discuss Lee’s masterpiece in detail, let me bring your attention to a very different A+ movie: Abel Gance’s Napoleon.
Okay. Back to Do the Right Thing.
Hot weather results in hot tempers, and in an environment already marred by racial distrust, that leads to tragedy. There’s no obvious protagonist in this film. Everybody is right, and everybody is wrong. And almost nobody can see the other person’s point of view. I can’t watch this film without feeling that if only one person had just been a little more diplomatic, tragedy would have been averted.
But life-saving diplomacy feels unlikely on a hot day in race-minded Brooklyn.
Sal’s pizzeria serves as Do the Right Thing‘s epicenter. Sal (Danny Aiello) is a decent man, proud of his Italian-American background, his restaurant, and its overwhelmingly black clientele. But he also has a tinderbox of a temper. His son Pino (John Turturro) hates that clientele; an out-and-out racist, Pino badly wants to work in a different neighborhood. Spike Lee himself plays Mookie, the only local and the only African-American working for Sal.
Unfortunately, Mookie’s behavior confirms many of Pino’s stereotypes. He’s a lazy and undependable worker and an absentee father. His girlfriend, the mother of his son (Rosie Perez in her first major role), orders a pizza just to get Mookie into her apartment.
Do the Right Thing doesn’t stay inside the pizzeria. It introduces us to a vibrant community of richly-painted individuals. Ossie Davis plays Da Mayor, a friendly alcoholic who proves to have some surprising strengths. Davis’ real-life wife, Ruby Dee, plays the block’s wise but overly judgmental matriarch. Bill Nunn, with his hulking body and sad eyes, carries a giant boom box and a dark destiny. Other characters carry such nicknames as Smiley, Coconut Sid, and my favorite, Sweet Dick Willie. Future comedy star Martin Lawrence plays Cee.
Speaking of soon-to-be-famous members of the cast (there are several), Samuel L. Jackson plays the Greek chorus as a DJ broadcasting from the block. Looking out a picture window, he reports on what he sees between songs.
For all its inevitable tragedy, Do the Right Thing contains plenty of warmth and humor. When Sal and Mookie argue, we understand that they love each other.
Motion pictures lost a great cinematographer when Ernest Dickerson became a director. His work on Do the Right Thing won him a New York Film Critics Circle Award and should have won him an Oscar. He makes us feel the heat, the closeness of the environment, and the time of day.
Do the Right Thing stirred up plenty of controversy in 1989. I imagine it would stir up just as much if not more today–maybe more; that was before Fox News. Its brilliant, unsettling filmmaking leaves you thinking about race, bigotry both in your face and below your conscious thoughts, and the flaws inherent in the American experiment.
And oddly, it might also leave you wanting a pizza.