Do The Right Thing is often regarded as Spike Lee’s greatest film. Released in 1989, the film studies the complex issue of racism by focusing on one block in Brooklyn surviving the hottest day of the year.
The cast features Danny Aiello as Sal, owner of Sal’s Pizzeria and his two sons Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson). Spike Lee, who plays Sal’s deliveryman Mookie. Tina, played by Rosie Perez, who is Mookie’s girlfriend and mother to his son. Samuel L. Jackson as local radio host Mister Señor Love Daddy. Along with acting legends Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee as Da Mayor and Mother Sister respectively.
The film opens by illustrating how incredibly hot the day is, even first thing in the morning. We are introduced early to undertones of racism when Pino criticizes his father for paying Da Mayor to sweep the block in front their pizza shop. Conflict arrises further when Buggin Out, played by Giancarlo Esposito, questions why Sal’s only has pictures of famous Italian’s in the restaurant. Soon he is calling for a boycott of after being thrown out.
As the film moves forward, the audience is introduced to each character and given an understanding of how everyone on the block interacts with one another. Da Mayor, disparaged for being an old drunk, saves a boy from being hit by a car and buys flower for Mother Sister. Mookie visits Tina, confronts the absurdity of Pino’s racism, and protects his sister (played by his real life sister Joie Lee) when he feels Sal is a little too interested in her. He also encourages Vito to stand up for himself against his brothers bullying.
While the day wears on, Buggin Out soon realizes he’s going to have trouble gaining support for his protest. He finally tells Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), one of Spike Lee’s most memorable character creations, who is willing to confront Sal. Carrying his signature boom box, Radio Raheem is berated by Sal who smashes the stereo in a fit of rage. This ultimately escalates to the films necessarily ambiguous ending.
There are many things that make this film great, but for the sake of fairness I will provide a few minor criticisms. At certain points in the film, the acting becomes a bit melodramatic. Though this may be intentional, as some scenes feel as much like a play as they do like a film, it can take the viewer out of the movie momentarily. Also, there is a sub-plot about the blocks convenient store being run by a Korean family. Spike Lee walks a thin tightrope, often portraying the owner in a one dimensional manner.
One thing that makes the film so enjoyable is the genuine relationships felt between the characters. At 2 hours long it could’ve been double that length simply because of how dynamic the interplay was between the cast. Furthermore, top notch performances are given all around. A testament to this is how even set pieces like Da Mayor’s hat or Radio Raheem’s signature Love and Hate rings feel natural and almost become a part of the characters. To top it all off, the actors and actresses do an excellent job combining Spike Lee’s unique dialogue style with their own manner of speech.
The film confronts racism from a unique angle. The entire plot is underscored by the seeming yin and yang of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X’s philosophies. This is expressed especially by the character Smiley, played by Roger Guenveur Smith, who scours the block trying to sell copies of the famous Malcolm and Martin handshake picture. In particular, the idea of black ownership of business in black neighborhoods is analyzed. This topic was often addressed by Malcolm X, who believed that the true problem of segregation was the lack of economic and political control by black people over their own neighborhoods. The film does make an important distinction, however, that despite popular understanding Malcolm X believed in violence as a tool of self-defense. It closes with a quotes from both Malcolm and Martin, giving the viewer food for thought long after they finish the movie.
From a technical standpoint there are many great things as well. Once again his father Bill Lee scored the film and as expected it’s fantastic. The film opens with a solo sax rendition of Lift Every Voice and Sing followed by Fight The Power. This establishes the tension and duality in the film right from the start. Often there is interplay between Radio Raheem’s playing of Fight The Power and Lee’s jazzy saxophone heavy score that blend masterfully. The editing and actors addressing the camera all play out in true Spike Lee fashion. In regards to cinematography, is a red tint in much of the film that further exemplifies just how hot it is.
When preparing this review I probably made about 30 notes and I’m not sure I even got to half of them. I may come back at some point and do an analysis of this film, as there are so many angles and subtleties that could be addressed. The only thing I can say is go watch this movie, it’s a masterpiece and you won’t regret it. The themes are just as relevant today as they were in 1989.