Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Cinema Bestius: Do the Right Thing

“You can’t stand it… I know you can’t stand it… you can’t stand the heat…”

#4 – Do The Right Thing
Like most great films, Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing seemed to come out of nowhere when it was first released in the summer of 1989. While Lee’s first two films were accomplished and entertaining, nothing prepared audiences and critics for the audacious leap of style, talent, and politics in every frame of the film.

Of course, many critics got it wrong back then, when the film’s incendiary racial politics and ambiguous ending left them confused and very, very afraid. Ralph Novak of People magazine wrote, “If Lee is saying that racism is profoundly painful, frustrating and confusing, no one will argue. But this film states the case without offering any insight.” Jay Boyar of the Orlando Sentinel opined, “The movie has a tone and a perspective of its own. But all too often, the tone is tiresome and the perspective banal.” Most famously, Dave Kehr, writing in the Chicago Tribune: “To the degree that Do the Right Thing is a divisive film (and it will be read that way, regardless of Lee’s artistic ambivalence), it is a dangerous, irresponsible one, particularly in these times of mounting racial tensions in big cities, including our own.”
Further proof that we have a serious race problem in this country is the fact that when a black writer/director makes one of the most insightful, funny, harrowing, and trenchant films in decades, white critics will label it “without insight,” “tiresome and banal,” and “dangerous and irresponsible.” Do The Right Thing lost at Cannes to Sex, Lies, and Videotape. It wasn’t even nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. Which movie won that year? Driving Miss Daisy.

Sigh. “Yes, Grandpa, I suppose that ALL lives matter…”

The Plot In Brief: Mookie (Spike Lee) delivers pizzas in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. As the film unfolds on the hottest day of the year, the audience is introduced to a myriad of local characters: the elderly “Mayor” (Ossie Davis), who admonishes Mookie to “always do the right thing;” the matriarchal Mother Sister (Ruby Dee), who keeps watch over the street through her brownstone window; Sal (Danny Aiello), longtime owner of the neighborhood’s corner pizzeria; disc jockey Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson), who functions as the film’s Greek chorus and supplies much of its soundtrack music; Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito), a neighborhood agitator; and Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), who carries an enormous boom box and lectures Mookie on love and hate.
Buggin’ Out has a problem with the lack of black people on the pizzeria’s Wall of Fame. Mookie has a problem with all the attention Sal pays his sister, Jade (Spike Lee’s real-life sister, Joie Lee). Sal’s sons Vito and Pino (Richard Edson and John Turturro, respectively) have a problem with Mookie’s work ethic. Sal has a big problem with Radio Raheem and his loud music. On the hottest day of the year, all of these tensions can only lead to tears.

Where Do The Right Thing gets into trouble with some critics is also, I think, the film’s most revelatory achievement: it presents contradictory points of view and allows the audience to decide which is correct. Its characters and ideologies are constantly being placed in opposition to each other; the viewer begins to feel compelled to choose sides, although the film never does. Even the opposing quotations that end the film maintain the balance and tension: Martin Luther King advocates nonviolence and Malcolm X advocates violent self-defense in response to oppression.

Spike Lee mentions on the DVD commentary track (and in an interview with Mark Reid in Reid’s book-length study of the film) that white viewers are the only ones who ask whether Mookie did “the right thing;” black viewers never ask that question. Lee points out that Mookie “was angry at the death of Radio Raheem, and that viewers who question the riot's justification are implicitly failing to see the difference between property and the life of a black man.”
I have been following Spike Lee’s career from the beginning. I was impressed from the very start. As a bleeding-heart, white liberal, I charted his career and success by how far from my cozy suburban home I had to drive to see his films. His debut, She’s Gotta Have It, only played downtown at the late, lamented Fine Arts Theater. His second film, School Daze, made it to Hillside, where I grew up, which was still quite a drive. (The Hillside Theater was where I saw my first movie, Mary Poppins, more than fifty years ago. The irony of witnessing the dance number “Da Butt” in the same theater where I had once enjoyed “Chim Chim Cher-ee” was not lost on me at the time. The Hillside Theater has since been converted into a church.) It wasn’t until Do The Right Thing that Lee’s films played in the far northwest suburbs. Surely, access to all theaters is one sign of movie success in America.

Do The Right Thing aptly demonstrates Spike Lee’s skill at casting. It was the first film for both Martin Lawrence and Rosie Perez. Lee fills each frame with other exceptional performers who were not yet household names in 1989: Giancarlo Esposito, Robin Harris, Bill Nunn, John Turturro, and Samuel L. Jackson. Complementing the newcomers are veterans Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, and Danny Aiello. Spike Lee had originally approached Robert De Niro about playing Sal, but a scheduling conflict prevented it. I sometimes wonder if that small casting change would have significantly changed the film—but Aiello’s so great as Sal, I think not.
Almost five years ago, acolyte and iconoclast Patrick Bromley and the Pope recorded a Do the Right Thing podcast of which I am still particularly proud. If any of you are up to the Herculean task of listening to two white guys discuss this film, you can find it here.

Do The Right Thing’s Three Miracles: Spike Lee’s ambitious, multi-faceted script that gives every character a unique point of view; the insightful performances by the entire ensemble cast, one of the best ever assembled; and that wonderful, terrible ending that will forever make some scratch their heads and wonder: DID Mookie do the right thing?

In nomine Spike, et Aiello, y spiritu Radio Raheem, Amen.


  1. One of my favorite movies too. In my pre-contributor days, I remember Do The Right Thing being one of my favorite episodes of F This Movie (as well as Super 8 and Plan 9 From Outer Space). Coincidentally all JB shows. Great column as always my friend. I'm sorry you had so much trouble at Buffalo Wild Wings last weekend. I implore you to try again at a different location. It is one of my churches.

  2. that's a good timing, because i saw that movie for the first time ever a couple of weeks ago.then got the blu-ray.

    your (awesome) column helped me understand a couple of things i didn't get the first time

    1. This is one of my favorite films of all time and since you have the Blu Ray I would highly recommend checking out the Commentary Track. Spike's Commentaries on Do The Right Thing, Bamboozled and Inside Man are some of the most insightful, honest, educational and entertaining I've ever heard. He is the master commentary track guy in my opinion.

    2. I watch inside man all the time. Maybe i should watch it with commentary just once, hehe

    3. Hell yeah! And he is completely unfiltered in his comments too. In Inside Man, He calls out 50 cent at one point. In Bambloozed he calls out some writer by name for the Village Voice. Again, his commentaries are fantastic.

    4. It's weird because he often seem so disinterested in interviews, but you say he's awsome in commentaries. I think he has a twin brother

      Also, i need to rewatch bamboozled

    5. It's different, he gets to be himself in the commentary and talk about his passion. I completely understand why Spike would be disinterested during interviews.

      Kelly Ripa: So tell me about your new film "More Better Blues"

      Spike: it's "Mo'" Better Blues.

      Kelly: Huh?

      Interview over.

  3. I show this to my (predominantly black) film class every year, and they always need the title explained. It never occurs to them that Mookie might not have been justified, and we always have a great discussion about the dueling quotations at the end. It's especially fun to play up my Italian-American heritage as a kind of alternative viewpoint. Such a great film.

    1. Man, you're like the 2nd or 3rd teacher on this podcast. No wonder i feel smarter after listening to an episode

      Also, i need to go back to school in one of your schools

  4. An additional Oscar travesty was the lack of a "Best Music, Original Song" nomination for Public Enemy's "Fight the Power", which was written, at Spike Lee's request, for "Do The Right Thing" (it was actually the second song Public Enemy came up with, after Spike Lee rejected Public Enemy's first song submission). The five Oscar nominated songs were "Under the Sea" and "Kiss the Girls" from "The Little Mermaid", "After All" from "Chances Are", "I Love to See You Smile" from "Parenthood", and "The Girl Who Used to Be Me" from "Shirley Valentine". Fine songs all, but none holds a candle to "Fight the Power", not just as a song, but specifically for its use in its movie.

    Also, I'll always have respect for Kim Basinger for her appearance at the 1990 Academy Awards, when she took the stage, in her dress designed by Prince, to present a clip of Best Picture nominee, "Dead Poets Society", but prefaced her remarks by going off script to point out the nomination oversight of "Do The Right Thing".

    1. Agreed, Fight the Power is an all time classic. Just a small correction - Spike initially contracted Redhead Kingpin to do the theme song. When he brought Spike "Do The Right Thing" the first lyric was "Do the right thing, not talking about a black or white thing"...and Spike was like WHAT?! That's exactly what this is about, so he rejected that and turned to PE for "Fight the Power." If I missed that he rejected a PE song as well, I apologize.

    2. I didn't know about the Redhead Kingpin song and history. Good information. On the "Fight the Power" history, I found clarification regarding the "second song" thing with Public Enemy. It's my mistake. It seems that the case was more of, first, Public Enemy submitted to Spike Lee a not-very-good rough draft version of "Fight the Power", as the movie anthem, after Chuck D and Spike Lee had discussions over the concept. Some time later, while the movie was still in production, Spike Lee got Public Enemy's final version of the song, and Spike Lee mistakenly thought it was a different song.

      The following youtube clip has Chuck D and Spike Lee talking about "Fight the Power" in 2014: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zYHPWzg0iXA

      Also, this Rolling Stone article from 2014 has further information: http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/riot-on-the-set-how-public-enemy-crafted-the-anthem-fight-the-power-20140630

    3. Nice! I did not know this either!