#1 Do The Right Thing


It’s not often anything is as good as advertised, as art in particular is thought to be so subjective that it’s a wonder why anyone takes a critic’s point of view on anything. In the movie industry films get revered every year, honored at prestigious awards shows, though when given the pleasure to see for yourself 9 times out of 10 you’re left unimpressed or uninspired. In that regard the Academy is one of the worst offenders, commemorating films that hardly seem to distinguish themselves at the time, and subsequently make little to no impact on cinema or culture in the years that pass. In contrast however there’s always that 1-10%; films that stimulate emotionally charged discourse throughout the world, and in turn live up to all the hype and more.

The movie in question happens to be one of those films, as unexpected as that may be with a director so historically misunderstood, yet true to form it was anything but acclaimed upon its controversial release. Instead some critics loved it and some critics hated it, yet it was over time that the film garnered unequivocal praise across the board, in which case it stands today as nothing less than an iconic masterpiece. As a scholar of Lee who has even taken college courses dedicated to his work, my first inclination is to promote his other films that don’t get the same recognition, the Crooklyns, Clockers, and Miracle At St Annas that are just as enchanting in their own respective ways. Yet to dismiss conventional wisdom here would be disingenuous, as when put to the task of electing his finest film leads me to the same conclusion, the film he’s most remembered for is to date his singular greatest performance.

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Written over two weeks time by the director himself, Lee was absorbed by an overflow of tension, race, and social justice, whereas he scribbled those thoughts into a notepad that changed the landscape of cinema forever. The film was to be originally called Heat Wave and was inspired by real life events that took place in Brooklyn the previous year, in which three black men were chased out of a pizzeria in Howard Beach which left one man fatally struck by an automobile. Lee transcribed his anger into 93 pages of raw emotion, culminating in a fictional tale that embodied the human spirit of all races, understanding that you don’t know what’s inside a man until their back’s against the wall - yet in those moments it’s always important to Do The Right Thing.

The idea revolved around a typical day in Brooklyn, though in fact it wasn’t your ordinary but rather the hottest day of the summer and there was no chill in sight. The neighborhood would be typical for Bedford Stuyvesant, and it’s focus would be one particular block where it’s residents were Black, it’s grocers were Korean, and it’s pizza parlor was owned by a family of Italian-Americans. These people all lived their lives amongst one another every day, seemingly without incident other than the daily disputes that permeate throughout every major city, yet on this fateful day their existence together would boil over and explode - in a moment that all those involved would be sure to never forget.

It should be noted at the time of release and for many years later, critics and fans alike took umbrage with the idea that Lee was depicting stereotypes in his characters, an unusual criticism to be found of this film for multiple reasons. The first reason being that Hollywood was built on stereotypes from its very inception, a reality that exists to this day in which case if we’re to judge Lee then we should condemn Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese as well. Furthermore in this case the characters are incredibly rich and diverse, as everyone in the neighborhood has their own identity and their own point of view, even down to the three Italian Americans who become the source of everyone’s contention. From Sal to Pino to Vito, all three characters are incredibly diverse in every interpretation of the word, yet because they’re all family and they share the same skin color they get categorized together, a human impulse that is evident in the film as well as in real life (demonstrated clearly by the audience who was guilty of this trait as well).

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And then you have the locals highlighted by Lee himself who plays his most memorable role as Mookie, a pizza delivery boy who most noticeably only has his Nikes for transportation, as not even the use of a bicycle will let him escape the action or unbearable heat. From there you have Buggin Out, a quirky individual played exceptionally by Giancarlo Esposito who’s consumed by the idea of black empowerment, and one who organizes the boycott of Sal’s Pizzeria until he gets some “black people on the wall.” Moving on you have the three cornermen played by Frankie Faison, Paul Benjamin, and the late Robin Harris respectively, who sit on the corner every day chronicling all the events in the neighborhood, often times talking about what they ‘plan to do’ all the while only doing more of the same. Additionally you have Da Mayor played by the late Ossie Davis, the old timer on the block who has little money to his name but plenty of wisdom and kindness as compensation, who spends most of his time wooing the lady of his dreams Mother Sister (played by the lady in his real life none other than the late Ruby Dee). Beyond their talents for the arts Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee were Civil Rights activists who were close friends with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, two historical icons relevant to the film in so many ways but stay mentioned throughout thanks to another character named Smiley, an autistic man played courageously by an actor who would become one of Lee’s longtime collaborators in Roger Smith.

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Other characters that are equally as memorable, and more importantly diverse, are roles like the one played by Bill Nunn as Radio Raheem. This character is an introverted man who lets his boombox do the talking, blaring Public Enemy’s Fight The Power record which serves as the anthem to the film. Yet when given the opportunity to speak he is also very knowledgeable, articulating his views on Love & Hate as brandished across his fists, a statement that was said to be inspired from a film directed by Charles Laughton thirty years prior. On the flip side you have young adolescents in the neighborhood who may have less intuitiveness but are nonetheless full of energy and life, one of whom was played by a blossoming superstar named Martin Lawrence in his first ever film. Add to that a young Samuel L Jackson and Rosie Perez, the latter who got the role as Mookie’s girlfriend Tina after cussing Lee out at the set of a music video; displaying a passion for dancing that paid off in the film’s iconic opening sequence. As a collective the ensemble cast is best described by Lee’s sister Joie (who plays Mookie’s sister Jade in the film as well), who recalled how at the time it was groundbreaking to see black characters in a film so three-dimensional.

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Which leads me to the performances themselves, as not to be outdone by the screenplay is the acting that really brings Lee’s vision to life. It’s been said in fact that almost a third of the film was improvised, which you can hear was encouraged by Lee as shown in the film’s 20th anniversary footage that documented all that happened ‘behind-the-scenes’. [I strongly recommend picking up the Criterion collector's edition as this footage is excellent, and illustrates where the chemistry to improvise came from]. From Tina’s diatribe for Mookie to the back and forth dialogue between the three corner men, there is improvisation all throughout yet none more impressive than a pivotal scene between lead actors John Turturro and Danny Aiello.

In this particular scene Sal and Pino are having an intimate discussion between father and son when they’re interrupted by the aforementioned Smiley in the restaurant window. As scripted Smith’s character was supposed to signal the end of the scene but as a result of his passion he extended it, as Turturro was provoked to go outside and confront him and what followed was movie magic. As if it was meant to be, Turturro knew exactly where to stand to make sure he didn’t block the camera’s view (being shot from back inside the restaurant), and the moment felt so natural that even Robin Harris felt compelled to shout expletives from across the street. This was one moment of many that exemplified how these actors truly transformed into their characters, and how Brooklyn wasn’t a set but instead was genuinely their neighborhood.

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Thus comes the part of the review where the contributions from the likes of Ernest Dickerson and Wynn Thomas must be acknowledged, as if it wasn’t for the cinematography and set designs the film would not be a fraction of what it’s remembered for. Working off Lee’s concept that when the temperature rises the murder rate goes up, Dickerson and Thomas reconstructed the Brooklyn set to have red and orange hues shine throughout to reflect heat that in some moments wasn’t even there. Filmed over eight weeks on Stuyvesant Avenue in the summer of 1988, as told in the commentary two of those weeks were suffused with cloudy skies and rain, however you’d never know it due to genius film making and crafty camera work. Speaking of which “dutch angles” are used to heighten tension as is the clever commentary within the graffiti of the newly painted buildings, most notably the skillful touch of Tawana Told The Truth, a reference to the Tawana Brawley case in which it’s widely understood she was telling nothing but lies. Still the realism of that graffiti is profound, as is the intuition of Lee to include it despite knowing it would be misinterpreted as an endorsement of his own. Still the cinematography is something to marvel at, whether it’s Samuel L Jackson’s face reflecting off a spinning record or the sun shining on Rosie Perez’s kisses, there really may not be a Spike Lee Joint that looks this good and that’s saying a lot.

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Otherwise with set design they shut down crack houses, hung up billboards of Mike Tyson, and built the entire Korean market and Sal’s Pizzeria from scratch, the latter of which was a fully functional kitchen with a working oven and all the props to match. Lee and his crew took extra care of the residents on the block, giving out clothes and food and even hiring some of the locals as extras, a generous arrangement that was not required yet illustrated how organic the film was all the same. Unlike so many other films that were inconsequential and ultimately forgotten, this was a film with a message that was about something, and for it’s significance it left an imprint on the neighborhood forever.

Though what is the message? Many critics ask… as thanks to its realism there’s uncertainty as to whether or not there’s any character in the film that does the right thing. Contrasting with typical Hollywood films about race that are either inordinately explicit and therefore not relatable to many (Gran Torino) or conclude with impractical happy endings where the issue of race is absolved (American History X), this film actually tackles the subject as it would happen for most of it’s audience. The people you cross paths with on the daily with no altercations, whereas there’s no true reason for aversion or ways to anticipate the inevitable crisis, yet because we’re all human beings we behold unforeseen characteristics - emotions that sometimes bring out the worst of us. Sal works with Mookie every day, Pino sees Smiley every day, Buggin Out knows there’s only Italians on the wall at Sal’s Famous yet he eats there every day… and then comes the hottest day of the summer… and then and only then do personalities collide.

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Scenes that embody this accuracy are embedded throughout the framework of the film itself, yet a few moments that stand out are found within the tension building inside the pizzeria. Beyond the improvised scene where Sal describes his admiration for the community to his eldest son’s utter repulsion, is an aggressive scene between brothers Pino and Vino that only real family could relate to. It’s important to note once again that while they share the same last name they do not share the same prejudice beliefs, emphasizing Pino as the only outright racist in the bloodline. A previous scene where Mookie asks Pino why his favorite athletes and entertainers are black is further intriguing, as that’s a conundrum that goes unexplained by bigots in real life every single day. And then there’s Salvatore himself, who loves his family and his customers dearly and truly holds no ill will towards anyone, until finding himself in a dire situation that he can’t control.

The climactic scene is undoubtedly its most memorable and highly disputed, as all the day’s unrest comes to ahead when Buggin Out and Radio Raheem take their discontent beyond reason, rather obnoxiously blaring music while shouting racial epithets at Sal while he’s trying to close his restaurant. What follows is an act both justifiable and reprehensible, as Sal returns the rhetoric with hate speech of his own while muting the boom box with a louisville slugger, thus opening the door for sheer pandemonium. Was Sal right? Was he wrong? Is he a racist for what he said? Or was he only returning the favor? I suppose it’s all up to interpretation, unless it all revolves around the one infamous word a white man should never say, in which case I’d say I suppose he is. However if that’s the case Sal is as complex as a racist as we’ve ever seen on screen, considering he’s not George Wallace, he’s not Archie Bunker, he’s not even Pino, yet he is an authentic portrayal of how most prejudiced people really are, making his character all the more significant.

However what’s not up to interpretation is perhaps the most important part of the film that often gets overlooked, concerning the police intervention that leads to the loss of a young man’s life. As the brawl inside the restaurant spills outside on to the sidewalk, Radio Raheem has the upperhand on Sal when he is restrained by police, yet instead of arresting the man one cop inexplicably uses his nightstick to choke his life way. It’s shown clearly that although Radio Raheem was large in stature and at one point was resisting, there was no reason to continue the choke hold once he was subdued, in which case his death was nothing less than unlawful murder. A scene inspired by another murder by police on a graffiti artist years prior, is also eerily similar to the chokehold murder of Eric Garner captured on camera over twenty years later, clearly illustrating how the issue of police brutality is still unresolved to this day. In both real life cases the officers were all acquitted of wrongdoing, and it should be noted that the cops in the film (played by Miguel Sandoval and (Danny’s son) Rick Aiello) reprise their roles in later Spike Lee joints, symbolizing their own acquittals and the unlikelihood that there was every any justice for Radio Raheem.

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Thus only after witnessing a cold blooded murder does Mookie throw a trash can through the window, followed by the community behind him burning the restaurant to the ground, a heinous sight followed by a worse optic of the angry mob being hosed down in the street like Birmingham. Amidst the flames the crowd screams “Murder,” “Michael Stewart” and “Eleanor Bumpurs,” an ode to previous men and women who had their lives taken at the hands of police, a list that has grown exponentially since thus epitomizing all signs of an epidemic. When Lee spoke upon the scene years later he said only white people have asked him if Mookie “did the right thing,” and they never care to mention the brutal conduct by the police officers, suggesting to him that they’re more concerned about property loss than the loss of a human life.

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A film so emblematic of society's flaws that Paramount was afraid to distribute it, was ultimately backed by Universal and upon release was met by scathing criticism from critics all over the world, many of whom anticipated that blacks would inevitably riot after leaving the theatre. Lee responded by resenting the implication that black people would riot over a fictional story, as if they didn’t have enough material to work with in the real world. Other critics however understood the importance of the film in which case it was nominated for Best Picture, only like most great films to lose the honor to a film much less deserving in Driving Miss Daisy, a film that also took on race yet by far more formulaic standards thus as a result made no impact on history or culture to date. Years later the Academy would grant the highest honor to the most egregious misrepresentation of America’s race relations in Crash, a money grab by way of shock value that is the complete antithesis of a Do The Right Thing, yet it’s relative obscurity today is a firm reminder that in the long run the truth always wins.

As the credits roll Lee highlights two quotes by Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, one that preaches non-violence and one that stresses justice by any means, a combination of ideologies that many believed was a contradiction. At the film premiere in Cannes many critics (all white) felt compelled to make that point to Lee, imposing their beliefs over the filmmaker’s by saying an omission of Malcolm X would have “made the film more beautiful.” Just watching this press conference thirty years later from home was burdensome yet Lee was nothing but composed, responding by simply emphasizing the influence both men had on the Civil Rights movement and the empowerment of the black community, thus validating their inclusion in the film regardless of where they fit in our comfort zone. In essence sometimes questions have more than one answer, and as different circumstances call for different measures sometimes there’s more than one way to do what is right. A monumental achievement by the world’s finest director still living today, this film has maintained its relevance for decades by truly embodying the beauty and imperfections of life in the 2̶0̶t̶h̶ 21st century.

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