When Do The Right Thing was released in 1989 a few white film critics worried that Spike Lee's film about the hottest day of the summer in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbourhood, which crescendos with a racially charged riot, would incite its audiences (implied black) to similarly riot. "Of course," writes Jason Bailey retrospectively in The Atlantic, "as we now know, Lee's canny examination of race relations did not incite riots in America's cities after it was released in the summer of 1989. Those riots came three years later, in spring of 1992—in response to a very different film, of four white officers beating the hell out of a black man, and to the acquittal of those officers by a (mostly white) jury."
The few wrongheaded critics severely misunderstood and underestimated both Lee and his audience. While full of passion and questions and not shy about articulating and referencing histories of imbalance and abuse, Do The Right Thing is not incendiary. It's got anger, yes, but it's not, itself, an angry film. Newsweek presaged the film would be "dynamite under every seat", when, in fact, Do The Right Thing is an expert disassembly of a bomb, a detailed schematic of the explosive situation that America – not just its black citizenry – finds itself in.
But let's consider Do The Right Thing as a film before we consider it as any sort of statement. As a big personality, Lee has always run the risk of overshadowing his own work, and as a result he's often considered more a commentator than filmmaker. But as pure cinema, Lee's third film is inimitably energetic and fun. Roving through the niches of the Bed-Stuy block, meeting its varied groups – a mix of individuals and choruses – Do The Right Thing takes its tone from classic Hollywood. The on-location Brooklyn takes on the feeling of an expansive soundstage set, giving the film a contained, theatrical vibe. The day-in-a-life span of the story and the to-camera monologuing intensifies the Hollywood Golden Age feel. In this first phase of his career, Lee was such an enthusiastic and unabashedly stylish filmmaker. Lee's purview and politics are of course important, but to watch his films as simply soapboxes is to deny yourself the full scope of his prowess.
While the commandment-sounding title might make Do The Right Thing seem didactic, the film is essentially interrogative. The big question being, well, what's the right thing to do? This one block in Bed-Stuy becomes a simulation for race relations throughout the country, as races, cultures, generations, and businesses argue their right to be there. The other essential question is asked: To whom does the neighbourhood belong? Who has more right to be there? In a predominately black neighbourhood, the two primary businesses are an Italian pizza shop – Sal's Famous – that's been in operation for 25 years and a newly opened Korean-owned corner store. The population itself is a mix of black, Hispanic, and the few gentrification-threatening white Celtics fans. Who owes what to whom? Racism is present from the get-go, but its familiar, harmless-feeling; the collateral damage of different cultures living in such a small space.
The blatant racism is key to Do the Right Thing. Lee equips all his characters with invective, strings of which get shot out before the final turn to violence. By displaying a stain of hate and resentment – themselves indicative of feelings of superiority – Lee brings us into the apparently controversial crescendo without any heros and villains.
The first jostle of the block's balance comes in Sal's Famous, which features a wall of fame featuring Italians of note, when a young man – Buggin' Out – points out, almost in passing, that a business with an almost exclusively black clientele should feature a few "brothers on the wall." “This is my pizzeria," Sal explains, "American-Italians on the wall only.” It's this fracturing of disparity, and this question about inclusivity and community onus, that – under the pressure of the hottest day of the year, ostensibly – that will, by the end tear the neighbourhood apart.
Exacerbation leads to lines being drawn, allegiances being made. A brawl finally breaks out between the Public Enemy-blasting Radio Raheem (who borrows The Night of the Hunters love/hate tattoos) and famous Sal. When the police show up, Radio is seen as the aggressor and chocked to death by the NYPD – a reference to the 1983 chocking of graffiti artist Michael Stewart, but decimatingly still relevant. In response, the black residents of the block destroy Sal's Famous – a conflagration triggered by the character with allegiances to the whole block: the pizza delivery boy, Mookie (played by Lee).
Upon its release, many critics sided with Sal, effectively valuing the damage of white property over the loss of black life. The consensus: Mookie did not do the right thing. In a move that seemed to echo the lost point, Danny Aiello received the Oscar for Best Supporting Role in an overwhelming black film – another passing detail that has never not become an issue.
The film ends with quotes from both Martin Luther King, Jr and Malcolm X, the former making a plea for peace, the latter leaving the door open for violence when necessary. Given these two competing purviews, it's confounding that anyone would misunderstand Lee's film as a blunt statement instead of an articulate and entertaining opening of what has always been and'll always be a difficult as hell conversation. What, given the country's hemmed-in mix of histories and priorities, is the right thing to do? The fact that Do the Right Thing still feels so fresh and relevant suggests that, in the 25 years since the film came out, no one has yet figured out exactly what the right thing to do is.
We're only left with the resonating demand of Samuel L. Jackson's Mister Senor Love Daddy: "YA NEED TO COOL THAT SHIT OUT! And that's the double truth, Ruth."
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