Do the Right Thing (1989)
Do the Right Thing (1989)

Genre: Drama Running Time: 2 hrs.

Release Date: July 21st, 1989 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Spike Lee Actors: Spike Lee, Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, John Turturro, Richard Edson, Giancarlo Esposito, Bill Nunn, Frankie Faison, Robin Harris, Joie Lee, Samuel L. Jackson, Rosie Perez

 


 

O

n his FM radio station, Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson) spouts out verbose introductions to a new day in Brooklyn – one with water shortages and a 100-degree forecast and a bevy of varying people all bustling about under the sweltering New York sun. Mookie (Spike Lee) and his sister Jade (Joie Lee) struggle to wake up; Sal Fragione (Danny Aiello) and his two sons Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson) open up their pizzeria; Mother Sister (Ruby Dee), perched from her window sill, wishes well to everyone who crosses the sidewalk below – or criticizes those she disapproves of; and the drunk of the block, Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), sweeps the streets in front of Sal’s shop and takes every opportunity to score another Miller High Life. Additionally, large but silent Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) blasts his jukebox, a soundtrack for his every maneuver; Tina (Rosie Perez) argues with her mother, tends to her child, and denounces the boy’s father (which is Mookie); Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) complains about the lack of famous black people’s pictures framed on the wall of the central pizzeria; and Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith) roves the block, preaching proudly even with a severe stutter, as general irritation from the denizens around him becomes the primary form of recognition.

As everyone attempts to cope with the unbearable heat – by opening up fire hydrants, drinking beers, doing chores in front of fans, or showering – tempers start to run correspondingly high. Pranks are played, a war of music is waged, brothers quarrel, territorial borders are crossed, and a pair of white sneakers are scuffed. The merciful sun eventually sets, but not before blood boils, relationships are reconciled, and Buggin’ Out attempts a fateful boycott of Sal’s restaurant.

There’s angst, aggression, disrespect, and tense race relations, replete with ethnic slurs. There’s commentary on tight-knit neighborhoods and invading foreigners on Stuyvesant Avenue. And there’s sarcasm and humor (and a wry, gold-plated reference to “The Night of the Hunter”). A touch of artistry shines in the cinematography, the editing (it’s immediately stylish when a woman dances energetically to rap, changing costumes and backgrounds and lighting with rapid cuts as the opening credits roll), and with characters speaking directly at the camera. Potent themes of anger, the divisive divisions of segregated communities, and intolerance are also present, along with momentary solutions of magnanimity – or doing the right thing.

Writer/director/star Spike Lee employs a guerrilla style of indie filmmaking, working around a modest budget and a lack of star power with humorous scripting, exaggerated character designs, and clever juxtaposition (and it’s all small enough in scope to make an effective stage play). It’s a slice-of-life narrative with an ensemble arrangement that establishes a very specific, intimate, powerful scenario of hatred and fear and a climactic conflict so striking that it’s entirely unexpected in the context of the regular jesting that occupies the majority of the first two acts. What begins with levity ends in tragedy, as identities are questioned, accomplishments are challenged, and allegiances are tested.

Strangely – or paradoxically – just when Mookie has an opportunity to intervene in the escalating violence at the finale, he opts to aid in its amplification instead, which, though serving as vengeance against injustice, is debatably not the “right thing” the title would suggest needs to win out (or it’s the Malcom X version of the right thing, and not the Martin Luther King Jr. version – which is far more relatable and universal when interpreted by non-black audiences). In Spike Lee’s world, taking the moral high ground isn’t always equivalent to righteousness. Ultimately, it’s a compelling, commanding picture that can’t truly be approached with objectiveness; every viewer will bring inextricable ethnic or racial baggage with them when absorbing the actions and reactions of these influential characters.

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10