Classic review: Do The Right Thing

Photo: Universal

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Woody Allen once called Spike Lee one of the great New York filmmakers, and nowhere has he better represented the city than in his incendiary racial drama, Do The Right Thing.

Despite the film’s focus on just one street in Brooklyn, over the course of the two-hour run time, audiences get to know the neighbourhood and its inhabitants intimately – their histories, circumstances, hopes and fears, as well as their prejudices brewing just beneath the surface, waiting to explode.

The very finest of Spike Lee ‘joints’ opens with an energetic street dance sequence to Public Enemy’s Fight the Power, a refrain for the film that plays during many of the most important scenes. What follows is a long day’s journey into night, where we are introduced at dawn to the ensemble cast – Italian American pizzeria-owner Sal (Danny Aiello) and his two sons; jive-talking street punks Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) and Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn); neighbourhood matriarch Mother Sister (Ruby Dee); and delivery boy and ostensible protagonist, Mookie (Spike Lee).

The film is structured like a stage play, located in a claustrophobic, confined setting, and each act framed by choric radio presenter Sēnor Love Daddy (Samuel L Jackson). In the morning, tensions between the white and black characters are evident, but everyone co-exists peacefully, with Sal holding his two sons in check, and Mookie placating some of his more unstable friends. As Sal says, the kids on the block grew up on his food, so why would they want to turn on him?

However, as the searing summer day continues, events transpire that catalyse racial violence. A protest begins as Buggin’ Out takes objection to the lack of African Americans represented on Sal’s Wall of Fame, which consists entirely of Italian stars, whilst Sal finds himself accused of miscegenation when caught flirting with Mookie’s sister. The film builds to a crescendo, until the conflicts veer out of control and the neighbourhood goes up in flames, with tragic consequences.

Part of the brilliance of Lee’s film is how it confronts all of the major issues regarding race that were prevalent in the United States in the late ‘80s. Pseudo-scientific justifications for prejudice are deconstructed, police brutality is depicted in a gut-wrenching manner, whilst even characters who appear to get along regardless of background are shown to harbour deeply-held prejudice – one superb, fourth-wall breaking sequence involves every character discharging a slew of insults to the camera, revealing what they really think about one another.

None of this is presented in a didactic or heavy-handed manner. The aesthetic is vibrant and colourful, and Lee’s script is taut, funny and crackles with energy. Lee captures the vernacular of the neighbourhood, and fills the film with pop culture references in a way that would be harnessed a few years later by directors such as Quentin Tarantino – one great scene involves a character reeling off a list of every influential black musician, the film as a whole celebrating African American culture in defiance of their lack of representation on the pizzeria wall.

What prevents Do The Right Thing from being the definitive film about race in America, however, is that it ultimately lacks a coherent message. The finale involves Mookie hurling a trashcan through the window of ‘Sal’s’, his motives never revealed, although we are inclined to suspect that he believes the pizzeria to be symbolic of the irredeemably corrupt white systems of power that resulted in the death of his friend, Radio Raheem. The film abstracted from its context appears to offer no clear-cut position, with quotations by Malcolm X and Martin Luther King displayed before the end credits, condoning and condemning violence as a means to fight oppression respectively. However, Lee himself stated in a recent interview that no black man, with first-hand experience of inequality, unemployment and poverty under white Capitalist rule, has ever asked him if Mookie did the right thing by instigating the final burst of aggression.

Are we supposed to agree, then, with Malcolm X? Maybe in 1989, three years before the LA Riots, but quarter of a century later this stance becomes a little disconcerting. From a detached perspective, the Italian Americans presented here are clearly not symbols of white power, but another marginalised group in US society, and furthermore Sal, asserting his place in the neighbourhood despite intimidation from some of the more irascible residents, never directly does anything wrong in the film. By implying that Sal deserves the retribution he receives, the director appears to draw conclusions during the last ten minutes that most viewers would not.

Do The Right Thing is a classic, an essential film for anyone interested in the continuing problems surrounding racial prejudice, and well worth a watch as it celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary this month. It is only blighted by a blinkered directorial vision, with undercurrents justifying violence that may have felt appropriate when the film was made, but are potentially disconcerting to a modern audience.

Photograph: Universal 

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