Do the Right Thing
(United States, 1989)
I did not see Do the Right Thing when it was shown in theaters. According to director Spike Lee, white Americans stayed away in droves because they feared that black patrons might become unruly and violent. (Obviously, except in perhaps isolated instances, that did not happen.) My reason for ignoring the film at the time was somewhat different: I avoided nearly all theatrical releases during 1989, and gave an especially wide berth to anything attached with the label of "serious." (My affair with movies started about 15 months later.) Fortunately, my cinematic tastes have since matured. When I was first introduced to Do the Right Thing in the early 1990s, it (like many great motion pictures) left a profound impression. It caused me to go out and rent anything I could find by Spike Lee in order to obtain a better picture of the man behind the movie. Since making Do the Right Thing, Lee has become a significant figure (arguably the significant figure) in black filmmaking, but none of his later projects have come close to matching this one for impact, effect, or controversy. That's not a knock on him, since Do the Right Thing is so good it would be almost impossible to equal, let alone exceed. (Sort of like expecting Orson Welles to produce something better than Citizen Kane.) This movie has lost none of its power in the last 14 years. Racism is as much an issue today as it was in 1989. However, Lee's portrayal of the issue – unflinching and non-judgmental – was never echoed by other filmmakers. To this day, 95% of movies made concerning racism go to one extreme or the other (preaching or offering unrealistic optimism), rather than following Lee's lead and offering audiences three-dimensional characters on both sides of the conflict. Despite being about a very familiar issue, Do the Right Thing is a film like no other, and that's the reason it is rightly considered a masterpiece.
Plot Summary (Spoilers Possible):
The movie transpires over a 24-hour period on the hottest day of the summer in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn. We are introduced to a number of the locals, and follow their activities throughout the day. There's Sal (Danny Aiello), the owner of Sal's Famous Pizzeria, a community establishment for 25 years. Sal built the business with his own hands, and has served two generations of customers. His sons, the hot-tempered Pino (John Turturro) and the more easy-going Vito (Richard Edson), work with him. Pino is an unabashed racist who spends as much time spewing profanities about the mostly-black clientele as making pizzas. Vito, on the other hand, is color-blind. For his part, Sal believes that whites and blacks can live in harmony, but there are twinges of bigotry lurking just beneath the surface. Mookie (Spike Lee) is a twenty-something young man who works as Sal's pizza delivery boy. His girlfriend, Tina (Rosie Perez), cares for his toddler son. One of Mookie's friends, Buggin' Out (Giancarlo Esposito), is on a political crusade to force Sal to put pictures of black men on his "American Italian Wall." Another, Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), spends the day wandering around the neighborhood playing a boom box at maximum volume. Other residents include Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), a frequently drunk elderly gentleman who walks the streets courting the attention of the strict-and-sober Mother Sister (Davis' real-life wife, Ruby Dee). And all of this is watched over by Mister Senor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson), the lone disc jocky at the local radio station. Most of Do the Right Thing is presented as a slice-of-life drama examining the everyday lives of this group of characters. However, three-quarters of the way through the movie, something shocking occurs. The results are a dead man, a burnt-down building, and a near-riot. Fed by the heat, the frustration and tension that has been simmering under the surface for most of the movie, events explode into the open.
Do the Right Thing was Spike Lee's third motion picture, but this was the movie that put him on the proverbial map. Never before or since has he courted controversy so aggressively. The movie confronts racism head-on, with the kind of clear-eyed and unflinching attitude that is rarely seen in major motion pictures. Lee does not pander to political correctness, nor does he sermonize. One of Lee's great successes with this film is that he is able to present every character, regardless of race, gender, or age, with three-dimensionality and a degree of sympathy. Roger Ebert has called Do the Right Thing the "most discussed" and "most important" film of 1989. It's hard to dispute him on either account. No movie released that year took as many chances. There are those who have criticized Lee for a muddled perspective, but his intention with this movie is to italicize the problem, not offer a solution. If the answer is known, there would be no need to ask the question. Do the Right Thing does what all enduring, great movies of substance must – cry out with a loud voice that demands to be heard. And, in this case, anyone listening will never forget what that voice says.
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