Do the Right Thing (1989) / Drama-Comedy
MPAA Rated: R for language, nudity, sexuality, and violence
Running time: 120 min.
Cast: Danny Aiello, Spike Lee, Ossie Davis, John Turturro, Richard Edson, Giancarlo Esposito, Smuel L. Jackson, Ruby Dee, Rosie Perez, Bill Nunn, Robert Guenveur Smith, Robin Harris, Martin Lawrence, Joie Lee, Leonard L. Thomas, Paul Benjamin, Steve White, Miguel Sandoval, Rick Aiello, Steve Park
Director: Spike Lee
Screenplay: Spike Lee
Writer-director-producer-star Spike Lee (Clockers, He Got Game) crafts his finest film, delving head first into issues dealing with the fragility of the Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn existence, particularly in the tenuous undercurrents of bigotry and racism that exist in so-called melting pot communities like those found in the metropolitan New York area. Although tolerance is normally maintained, and no one especially a bad person, the feelings are always bubbling just under the surface, threatening to spill out should push come to shove, which is what eventually occurs at a key point of Lee's film.
Do the Right Thing has a large cast of characters, but Lee imbues each with enough personality that makes it easy for us to keep track of just who everyone is at all times. Most of the action takes place around Sal's Pizzeria, an Italian-American establishment in the predominantly African-American community for over 25 years, run by Sal (Aiello, Moonstruck) with his two sons, elder Pino (Turturro, State of Grace) and younger sibling, Vito (Edson, Platoon). Working as a Sal's delivery person is Mookie (Lee), who has issues getting distracted while out and about, especially to find the time to deal with his needy girlfriend (Perez, White Men Can't Jump) and his illegitimate son. A collection of other characters fill every street corner, including a wino called Da Mayor (Davis, Joe Versus the Volcano), a mentally challenged man named Smiley (Smith, Final Destination), and a militant named Buggin' Out (Esposito, Twilight), who thinks Sal needs to put up some African-Americans among the pictures on his Wall of Fame.
Do the Right Thing is a complex study of the dichotomies of daily life among the various peoples in Bed-Stuy, and for communities like it around the country. The different ethnicities mixing with the African-Americans raise serious issues about the survival of the inhabitants, as businesses exist owned primarily by those who live outside of Bed-Stuy, such as Sal and the Korean store owner, who take the money out of the community, while Black-owned businesses are hardly to be found.
Recurring conflicting themes also are prevalent, most notably in the different philosophies among the two most prominent Black leaders, the peace-espousing Martin Luther King and the self-preservation proponent, Malcolm X. The feeling exist within nearly all of the African-American cast members, embodied most in that of Radio Raheem (Nunn, Kiss the Girls), who wears finger jewelry on each hand, one of "Love" and one of "Hate". Sal's sons also are on opposite extremes, with Pino feeling nothing but disgust for the Black community he is forced to endure every day running the business, while Vito feels more at home, befriending Mookie as if he were a brother.
The heat wave that the film is set in only accentuates the rising tensions of the community, as everyone must go outside for the little bit of air they can get, making everyone uncomfortable and on edge. Lots of reddish hues have been added to the real-life Bedford-Stuyvesant community to further accentuate the feelings of heat that permeate the community. Cinematographer Ernest Dickerson does a masterful job in capturing the beauty of a community not exactly known for postcard-perfect scenery, and what could have looked earthy and mundane is colorfully eye-popping and vibrant. The skewed camera angles would start a short-lived trend among Black filmmakers for the next couple of years, in such entries as Mario Van Peebles' New Jack City and Dickerson's own directorial debut, Juice.
Although many of the characters have defined functions in Lee's piece, serving mostly as archetypes from which to draw thematic conclusions, the actors do a fantastic job in filling out their roles to give each of the Bed-Stuy denizens a rounded outlook on life. No one is painted in a completely positive light, or negative, although their true colors do come out often when talking behind closed doors, or in the heat of a riot situation, where all of the built-up tensions explodes on the scene. Danny Aiello provides the strongest performance among a great man, benevolent almost to a fault in his feelings toward the community as a whole, but always flaunting his differences, which is sometimes perceived as racist (he doesn't like loud "jungle music" in his restaurant) or espousing attitudes he doesn't agree with.
Do the Right Thing is an important film for a pivotal era, foreshadowing some major events, including the Los Angeles riots of 1992 and other lesser flare-ups that have occurred in other communities where many establishments are vandalized and set ablaze following feelings of great injustice at the hands of those in authority. Like the troubling moments that occur late in the film, there is not a particular rational explanation for the riots, except to make a statement to the community that people are mad as hell, and aren't going to take it anymore. It's a controversial film, but it provokes discussion and debate, and that much-needed dialogue is what Lee seems to be going for. With the dichotomy on the usefulness, or uselessness, of violence, "doing the right thing" is ambiguous, as the hand extended of Love and the fist of Hate are often used to serve similar purposes.
©2007 Vince Leo