Director: Spike Lee
Cast: Spike Lee, Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Giancarlo Esposito, Bill Nunn
Watch Do the Right Thing online in the UK: iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play
With this year’s Oscars right around the corner, it seems natural to revisit Spike Lee’s 1989 classic, Do the Right Thing. In 2019, Lee has only just received an Academy Award nomination for Best Director. This is a director who exploded onto the scene with his debut film, She’s Gotta Have It (1986), and has remained a constant force with an impressive collection of films. Do the Right Thing remains one of his best known and most loved and is somewhat famous for being snubbed at the 62nd Academy Awards.
Set during a baking hot summer’s day in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, Do the Right Thing follows Mookie (Spike Lee), a 20-something pizza delivery man working for Sal (Danny Aiello), the pizzeria’s Italian-American owner. Sal struggles to control his hot-headed son, Pino (John Turturro), who dislikes Mookie, and fights with his own brother, Vito (Richard Edson), who is friendly with Mookie. Mookie’s friend, Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito), questions Sal about his “Wall of Fame”, a wall decorated with photos of famous Italian-Americans. Buggin’ Out demands that Sal put up pictures of black celebrities since Sal’s pizzeria is in a black neighbourhood. Sal replies that it is his business, and that he can have whomever he wants on “The Wall of Fame”. Buggin’ Out attempts to start a protest over the Wall of Fame. Only Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), and a mentally disabled man, called Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith), support him. As the day gets hotter, tensions rise along with the temperature, escalating towards a devastating climax, the consequences of which mean that the neighbourhood will never be the same again.
Do the Right Thing remains one of cinema’s greatest films about race relations. Lee manages to capture the tensions felt by an entire country and he does so in a way that is authentic and honest. It is hard not to be moved by the film’s conclusion, and it is a film that leaves a lasting impression, like a dream that haunts your consciousness. Upon the film’s release, there were a few critics who feared this film would spark race riots, but Lee is a professional, who understands that every situation is complex and complicated. We are lucky to bear witness to how this one unfolded; in real life, many of us do not know the story behind the headlines, and we are only witnesses to the aftermath. In less capable hands, Do the Right Thing could have been over-dramatised and come across as melodramatic. Instead, Lee delivers a film that is fun, lively and entertaining, but, at its core, has a powerful and important message.
Each character is unique, and has their own history attached to them – a testament to Lee’s writing. The neighbourhood is made up of eccentric individuals such as Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), Mother Sister (Ruby Dee), Coconut Sid (Frankie Faison), and Sweet Dick Willie (Robin Harris), all of whom play their role within the neighbourhood’s political structure. Each character is fully developed and fleshed out; there are no clear-cut good guys or bad guys, just people who are struggling and trying to get by.
Lee has an ear for dialogue and many of the exchanges between the characters flow like poetry, even when the language and the topics of discussion are less than PC-friendly. A scene that stands out for its language is Radio Raheem’s monologue: “Let me tell you the story of Right Hand, Left Hand. It’s a tale of good and evil. Hate: it was with this hand that Cain iced his brother. Love: these five fingers, they go straight to the soul of man.” This speech stays with you after the film’s ending and offers us hope that hate can be KO-ed by Love. Do the Right Thing remains a culturally significant film and will stay a classic for many more years to come; if you haven’t seen it already, do the right thing… and watch it immediately.