Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing exploded onto screens in the summer of 1989, a pivotal year for me. I was 18 and just about to move to New York to stuffy film at The School of Visual Arts. The first time I saw Do The Right Thing was in my hometown mall multiplex in the afternoon with my best friend from grade school. I was blown away by the bravado of directorial hand. Lee the filmmaker seemed like the star of the movie, and the power and control he had over the medium was like nothing I’d seen before. My second screening was with my parents at a theater in New York when they drove me down to the Vanderbilt YMCA, where I was going to live for the next year. Upon second viewing, it was the characters that I hooked into. Over the course of the next three years, I’d see the film eight more times in theaters and then dozens of times on VHS and laserdisc, sometimes with groups of friends but often by myself. With these repeat screenings, it was the editing, sound, and use of music that kept me coming back over and over again.
Do The Right Thing is a powerful picture on multiple levels. It’s a statement from a filmmaker who demanded to be seen; it combines comedy, drama, social assessment, and music with a deftness that Lee would never quite achieve again. But most importantly, it was and remains a profound statement about life in America. That so little about this film has dated since it came out in 1989 is both a testament to Lee’s vision and disheartening commentary on the state of race relations in The United States.
Set in a single block of Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, Do The Right Thing takes place over a 24-hour period on the hottest day of the summer and is populated with an ensemble of vibrant, memorable characters. At the corner of this one city block, and at the center of this narrative, stands Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, an Italian-American business in the midst of a predominantly black and Latino neighborhood. Sal (played by Danny Aiello in an Oscar-nominated performance) is a gruff but sympathetic man trying to make an honest living while dealing with the problems of running a small business in an area where he’s an outsider. Among the things he has to deal with are his constantly bickering sons Pino and Vito (John Turturro and Richard Edson), and his earnest but irresponsible delivery boy Mookie (played by Lee).
We get to know the rest of the inhabitants as they come in and out of Sal’s to get slices and as Mookie traverses the block to deliver pies. The tremendous cast includes Ossie Davis as Da Mayor, the local drunk who dispenses his wisdom to anyone who’ll listen; Ruby Dee as Mother Sister, an elderly woman who watches the goings-on from her brownstone window; Samuel L. Jackson as Mister Señor Love Daddy, a 12-hour-strong DJ who spins records and provides lyrical observations from a storefront radio station; Steve Park and Ginny Yang as Sonny and Kim, Koreans shopkeepers who own a fruit and veg store across from Sal’s; Joie Lee as Mookie’s sensible younger sister Jade; Rosie Perez as Mookie’s frustrated girlfriend Tina, and Giancarlo Esposito as Mookie’s trouble-making friend Buggin' Out.
Then there are the “corner men” (Robin Harris, Paul Benjamin, and Frankie Faison), three unemployed guys who sit around drinking beer, joking with each other, and acting as a kind of Greek chorus, comically commenting on the state of all things. Groups of young Latino and African-American friends hang out on various stoops having fun, trying to stay cool, and occasionally getting into verbal altercations; while Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith), a mentally challenged man, meanders around the neighborhood trying to sell his hand-colored pictures of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. The one character who seems to be universally respected by everyone is Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) a quiet giant of a young man who walks through the block with a boombox blasting Public Enemy’s volatile rap tune “Fight The Power”—the anthem of Do The Right Thing—wherever he goes.
At one point Buggin' Out realizes that Sal has decorated his restaurant exclusively with photos of Italian-American celebrities. The interaction that ensues, while charged, doesn’t seem like too big a deal—just one of the many minor racial flare-ups that arise and de-escalate quickly throughout any typical day. But Buggin' Out’s decision to boycott Sal’s until some pictures of black people are put up on the wall builds to a major confrontation when Radio Raheem gets enlisted in the cause. The cops are called in, violence ensues, and a small squabble quickly turns into a full-scale riot.
Though a powder keg of passionate emotion, ideology, and politics, Do The Right Thing never comes off as didactic or preachy. All the pointed thematic content is organically expressed by the richly drawn characters—most of whom are quite affable and funny. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this multilayered picture is that it is both the most incisive drama of 1989 and also the year’s funniest comedy. Lee creates a world full of contradictions, flawed perspectives, and emotions that run the full human spectrum. With over 30 main characters inhabiting this film, Lee gives us types but not stereotypes. All the roles (even the smallest) feel both representational and lived-in. The picture is highly stylized, with sweeping camera moves, bolder than bold colors, and dialogue that is theatrical without ever feeling inauthentic. Lee even stops the film at times for illustrative montages about the characters, the heat they’re experiencing, the music they listen to, and their angry, prejudiced attitudes towards the other races with which they must coexist.
During these moments, the film drops all pretences at realism and it becomes as freewheeling as Lee’s first picture—the wonderfully inventive, no-budget indie She’s Gotta Have It. During these montages and heightened moments, the characters sometimes directly address the camera so we can hear and see with full intensity what they’re thinking. In so many movies (including many by Lee) this technique can be a lazy shortcut or a deliberate rupture in a film’s internal reality in order to make an obvious joke or a heavy-handed thematic point. But in this case, it is an enhancement—sharpening our understanding of the characters and drawing us deeper into the story rather than alienating us from it. The narrative limitations that contain Do The Right Thing—its single location and 24-hour structure—also provide Lee the freedom to make extreme aesthetic choices that would feel out of place in a more traditional cinematic drama.
The camera is constantly moving: following people up and down the street, in and out of doors and windows; flying from tight close-ups on faces to wide overhead shots that reveal the full scope of the block; and slowly tracking in on characters as they talk with each other. Lee and his regular cinematographer Ernest Dickerson (The Brother from Another Planet, School Daze, Eddie Murphy Raw) go beyond the typical ways of visualizing heat on screen—high key light, focusing on the beads of sweat on actors faces, and putting flames in front of the lens to create heat waves. Working in conjunction with Costume Designer Ruth E. Carter and Production Designer Wynn Thomas, Dickerson makes palpable in every shot the heat we would feel on the hottest day of the New York summer. Indeed, I’ve never seen a film that conveys temperature more effectively than this one. The transition from morning to afternoon to dusk to evening is perceptible without being self-conscious, and the hot feeling never lets up during the night scenes—the warm lighting from street lamps and electric light, rather than the moon, helps see to that.
Lee’s inspiration for the basic story and setting was the 1986 incident in the predominantly Italian neighborhood of Howard Beach, Queens, in which three young black men, looking for a payphone after their car broke down, were attacked outside a pizzeria by a bunch of white youths armed with baseball bats. But the film doesn’t merely explore the specific tensions between blacks and Italians in New York City. Lee takes on multiple aspects of America’s racial problems: the lack of historical understanding and specific resentments between various racial groups, the co-opting of black culture by whites, the way the media often prioritizes the destruction of white-owned property by blacks over the death of blacks at the hands of whites, and the age-old issue of police brutality against young black men—something that’s been with us since the days of Jim Crow and remains just as prevalent many decades after the release of Do The Right Thing.
The one notable omission from this deep exploration of race relations is the issue of illegal drug use. This was an intentional exclusion as Lee felt the issue was too large to be just one part of a two hour movie, and that the introduction of drugs into the story would overpower and imbalance the picture. One need look no further than Lee’s 1991 feature Jungle Fever, a comedy/drama about interracial relationships that gets swamped by its crack-addiction subplot, to see what could have happened here.
Many white critics lambasted Lee for presenting Bed–Stuy (one of the most dangerous and drug-ridden neighborhoods of New York) as if it was as clean as Sesame Street and as visually dazzling as the Emerald City. On the other hand, critics of color went after him for portraying black male characters as shiftless, lazy, drunk, hotheaded, or stupid. A few New York reviewers (David Denby, Joe Klein, and Jack Kroll specifically) went so far as to directly or indirectly call Lee and Universal Pictures criminally irresponsible for creating and releasing a movie they felt was a call to arms that would encourage black audiences to riot. Of course, no violence occurred at any screenings. Audiences of all colors, backgrounds, levels of education, and temperaments saw Do The Right Thing for what it was—a work of fiction that hit upon many all-too-real truths. (Indeed it was a non-fiction film—the video of white cops excessively beating motorist Rodney King—that sparked an actual uprising three years later in Los Angels when a jury acquitted the four officers involved in that incident).
Despite the few negative reviews, Do The Right Thing went on to become one of the most acclaimed, discussed, and influential movies of 1989 and one of the very best pictures of the ‘80s. Its significance as an essential American film has only grown over time; selected in 1999 by the Library of Congress for preservation by the National Film Registry. It was heavily favored to win the Palme d'Or at the ‘89 Cannes Film Festival but lost to the last minute entry sex, lies, and videotape. And though the Academy nominated Aiello for Best Supporting Actor and Lee for Best Original Screenplay, the film received no other Oscar nominations. When the Best Picture Oscar went to Driving Miss Daisy, a period piece about race relations in the late 1940s, it became one of the first major instances of activists and cultural critics calling out the Academy for awarding its highest honors to soft, white-person-feel-good-movies about the overt racism of the past, rather than to complex and challenging pictures about the current state of racism in the United States.
Do The Right Thing has lived on in the consciousness of Americans who came of age in the 1980s and beyond. While Spike Lee has made other solid films, he’s never come close to topping this one. It is a true masterpiece: small in its scale but epic in its themes, its reach, and its influence. It is one of those rare movies that instantly pulls you in and never lets go each time you return to it. While you see, hear, and experience different things with each viewing, your senses and emotions are powerfully stirred in an identical way whether it is your first viewing or fiftieth (and I’ve watched this film well over 50 times). Do The Right Thing is an inspiration for young filmmakers and older cinephiles, a call to action for activists, legislators, and everyday voters, and a wake up call for a nation that has still not dealt with its terrible legacy and ongoing epidemic of racially motivated discrimination, injustice, and murder.