Do the Right Thing (United States, 1989)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

With the tenacity of a bulldog, Spike Lee ruthlessly and sometimes recklessly defies mainstream expectations and courts controversy with every film he releases. Some find Lee to be a fresh and powerful voice in American cinema – a man who is unafraid to profess his viewpoint even though it may be unpopular with white audiences. Others view him as a divisive pedagogue whose movies preach potentially incendiary messages. Whichever perspective an individual has (or whether they fall in between), it is impossible to debate that, over the past a decade and a half, Lee has left an indelible imprint upon independent motion pictures made in the United States.

Do the Right Thing was Lee's third motion picture (following She's Gotta Have It and School Daze), but this was the movie that put him on the proverbial map. Never before or since, not even with the epic Malcolm X, 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. He introduces a group of characters, sets up the situation, then allows events to play out. His approach is even-handed, and those who accuse the movie of being discordant have not bothered to spend time considering what Lee is truly saying. Lee may be the kind of director who provokes knee-jerk reactions, but such a limited response to Do the Right Thing does a disservice to both the filmmaker and his product.

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. (Lee and Aiello have different views of Sal – the director sees him as a racist, but the actor disputes this perspective.)

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. (And the film's version of a "Greek chorus.")

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. The results are shocking, and make a bold and bitter statement about the state of race relations in America, circa 1989. Sadly, not much has changed in the nearly 15 years since the movie was released. Since Lee made this film in the wake of the Howards Beach tragedy, numerous other high-profile instances of racial intolerance have made the news, one of which led to a full-scale riot in Los Angeles.

Much speculation has existed surrounded the meaning of the title. What is the right thing, and who has done it? In fact, it appears that the film chronicles a series of individuals who fail to do the right thing. When Radio Raheem and Buggin' Out burst into Sal's Famous Pizzeria, they are not doing the right thing. When Sal uses a baseball bat to silence Raheem's boom box, he is not doing the right thing. When the police use excessive force, resulting in the needless death of a man, they are not doing the right thing. And when Mookie allows his frustration and pain to come pouring out in one unexpected action, he is not doing the right thing.

It surprises me that so many people cannot understand why Mookie picks up the garbage can. Surely, it's not difficult to understand how a man, faced with the sudden and pointless death of a friend, might snap and lash out at those he sees as being responsible, regardless of how tangential that responsibility might be? The real tragedy of Do the Right Thing is not that the pizzeria is burned to the ground – although that is certainly a sad thing, and one which will cut to the heart of the community – but that the events occurred which resulted in the act of arson.

Few people are better off at the end of Do the Right Thing than they are at the beginning. Sal has lost his life's work. Mookie no longer has a job. One man is dead and many others bear emotional scars. The two possible exceptions are Pino, whose greatest desire was to leave Bedford-Stuyveson and the "animals" who live there, and Da Mayor, who is given a chance at redemption by saving the life of an inattentive boy from a speeding car.

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. No one is demonized or lionized. No one individual is blamed or exonerated for the events which transpire. Each individual with significant screen time is shown to have good and bad qualities, and we come to understand what motivates them, even if we do not agree with them. This is a rare quality for any film, especially one that deals with racial strife. It would be easy enough to turn Sal and his sons into cardboard-thin villains, but then Do the Right Thing would have just been another "us against them" movie, and not the provocative masterpiece it is.

The multi-ethnic cast is well chosen. Danny Aiello is credible as a crusty pizza maker who has arrived at a truce between his own inner intolerance and the need to co-exist with his customers. John Turturro radiates anger and hatred as the son who sees nothing redeemable in black men. Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, consummate professionals, bring class and dignity to their parts. Bill Nunn imbues Radio Raheem with silent strength and an inner fire. Even Spike Lee, whose limited acting skills have marred some of his other movies, is solid. This is by far his most accomplished on-screen work. Do the Right Thing also features early-career work from Samuel L. Jackson, Martin Lawrence (his debut), and Rosie Perez (her debut).

The film was shot entirely on location in Bedford-Stuyvesen, because Lee felt that was the only way he could capture the appropriate atmosphere. Cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, a frequent and long-time Lee collaborator, chose to work primarily with natural lighting. In order to enhance the sense of oppressive heat, the production team decided to use bright, "hot" colors. It is a successful tool. Watching Do the Right Thing, the viewer has to resist the urge to wipe a bead of sweat from his or her brow. The song "Fight the Power" (by Public Enemy), which becomes the film's hard-edged anthem, foreshadows the coming conflict the first time it is played (during the stylized opening credits).

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. And, despite the seriousness of the subject matter, the film contains more than few moments of low-key comedy. There are those who have criticized Lee for a muddled perspective (throughout Do the Right Thing, he cites the opposing approaches of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X), 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.

Do the Right Thing (United States, 1989)

Director: Spike Lee
Cast: Danny Aiello, Samuel L. Jackson, Joie Lee, John Turturro, Bill Nunn, Spike Lee, Giancarlo Esposito, Richard Edson, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Rosie Perez
Screenplay: Spike Lee
Cinematography: Ernest Dickerson
Music: Bill Lee
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
Ranked #38 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 2:00
U.S. Release Date: 1989-06-30
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1