IT’S THE HOTTEST DAY OF THE SUMMER. YOU CAN DO NOTHING, YOU CAN DO SOMETHING, OR YOU CAN DO THE RIGHT THING.
Back in 1989, Do the Right Thing was hotly debated. Spike Lee was beginning to have an impact as a filmmaker, one of very few African-Americans, and this film became his definitive breakthrough. It didn’t quite get the recognition it deserved at the time, but the movie has only increased its standing over the years. It is now widely regarded as one of Lee’s finest films, one of the most potent treatments of racial issues in America.
We’re in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. On one of the hottest days of summer, racial tensions become more tangible than usual. As always, a small group of people do their best to ignite the flames. Buggin’ Out (Giancaro Esposito) never misses an opportunity to get agitated whenever he feels slighted, always turning it into a conflict between black and white. Pino (John Turturro) is the son of a pizzeria owner, Sal Fragione (Danny Aiello), and helps his dad and brother run the place even though he detests its largely African-American clientele. Everywhere you look in the neighborhood, there’s blacks fighting with Korean storeowners, Italian-Americans and Puerto Ricans trying to carve out a niche for themselves in a heavily black district, and white cops regarding the people of Bed-Stuy with contempt and suspicion.
In the middle of this is Mookie (Spike Lee) who works as a delivery boy for Sal. He strictly avoids letting racists like Buggin’ Out and Pino bother him… but the heat is far too effective a catalyst.
A temporary, disorganized visit
I’ve only mentioned a small part of the people portrayed in the neighborhood; Lee also introduces us to a local drunk called Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) who’s courting a woman (Ruby Dee) even though she’s had enough of men like him. There’s also Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) who carries around a boombox wherever he goes, usually playing Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”. Comments are provided by people like three black men sitting at the corner of a street, trying to solve the problems of the world while having a beer or three, and the local DJ (Samuel L. Jackson) cooling heads with the best of black music.
The movie is a temporary, disorganized visit to a community about to burst. Leading up to the inevitable climax near the end are emotional and provocative scenes of these people loving and hating each other fiercely; regardless of what goes on, Mookie making tender love to his girlfriend, or arguing with Pino who can’t stand him because of his color, Lee makes sure the entire film vibrates with passion. When the release finally comes in the shape of a riot, Mookie is the main instigator. This was one of the reasons why the movie was so controversial; many primarily white critics interpreted the scene as Lee supporting violence in response to perceived injustices.
But that’s simplifying things. The director shows one common way of resolving problems and wants the audience to think for themselves. The film is packed with clashes between people but the mechanics of those conflicts are quite clear and too often they are caused or amplified by unthinking individuals, social circumstances and unforeseen events.
Do the Right Thing is brilliantly directed and photographed by Lee and Ernest Dickerson who truly bring the heat down on the streets of Bed-Stuy and throw the showdowns right in our face with those intense close-ups. The music plays an important emotional part, both Bill Lee’s score and the contemporary songs. Heartfelt performances by Aiello (who’s never been better), Turturro and Davis as Da Mayor, a title that is ironic only as long as he decides that’s the way it should be.
Do the Right Thing 1989-U.S. 120 min. Color. Produced, written and directed by Spike Lee. Cinematography: Ernest Dickerson. Music: Bill Lee. Cast: Danny Aiello (Sal Fragione), Ossie Davis (Da Mayor), Ruby Dee (Mother Sister), Richard Edson, Giancarlo Esposito, Spike Lee… John Turturro, John Savage, Samuel L. Jackson, Rosie Perez, Martin Lawrence.
Trivia: Robert De Niro was allegedly considered for the part of Sal.
Last word: “It was shot over eight weeks, but it couldn’t look like that — it was supposed to take place in one day. That’s hard to do. And the challenge we gave the cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, production designer Wynn Thomas, costume designer Ruth Carter: We wanted audiences to feel the heat. I wanted people to be sweating from watching this film, even though they might be seeing it in air conditioning. Everybody used their skills to convey that feeling of heat. We painted that red wall. In many shots, our great cameraman Ernest Dickerson would put a butane lighter underneath the lens.” (Lee, Rolling Stone)