#4 – Do The Right Thing
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.