Spike Lee’s masterpiece is still frighteningly relevant today – and stunning film-making
Director: Spike Lee
Cast: Spike Lee (Mookie), Danny Aiello (Sal), Ossie Davis (Da Mayor), Ruby Dee (Mother Sister), Giancarlo Esposito (Buggin’ Out), Bill Nunn (Radio Raheem), John Turturro (Pino), Richard Edson (Vito), Roger Guenveur Smith (Smiley), Rosie Perez (Tina), Joie Lee (Jade), Steve White (Ahmad), Martin Lawrence (Cee), Leonard L. Thomas (Punchy), Christa Rivers (Ella), Robin Harris (Sweet Dick Willie), Paul Benjamin (ML), Frankie Faison (Coconut Sid), Samuel L. Jackson (Mr Señor Love Daddy)
When it was released in 1989 it was like a punch in the solar plexus. Spike Lee’s third joint was a powerful, dynamic and deeply thought-provoking and challenging piece of cinema. This demanded you sat up, took notice and understood that underneath the happy lies America tells itself, the country was deeply divided and a tinderbox waiting for a spark. Perhaps the most painful – and shocking – thing about Do the Right Thing is how little has changed. You could make the same points today and the film’s tragic ending in police brutality, violence and uneasy truce could be repeated in the headlines as readily tomorrow as it was in 1989.
Set on one swelteringly hot day in New York City, Lee’s film is a kaleidoscope of diverse lives in the predominately Black neighbourhood of Bedford–Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. Just about the only people here not Black are Pizzeria owner Sal (Danny Aiello) and his sons Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson). Working for Sal is Mookie (Spike Lee), drifting through life but determined to get paid, who has a son with Tina (Rosie Perez). In this neighbourhood anything could be a spark. Perhaps it will be Buggin’ Out’s (Giancarlo Esposito) objection to Sal’s pizza parlour ‘wall of fame’ being exclusively Italian? Perhaps the bored kids schlepping around the street? Maybe imposing Radio Raheem’s (Bill Nunn) ghetto blaster constantly pumping out ‘Fight the Power’? Or will it because of the Korean convenience store owners, or the police officers who ride into the neighbourhood like it’s a war zone?
What’s really striking about Spike Lee’s film is it is neither polemic nor hand-wringing exercise. Perhaps what really outraged people in 1989 when it was released – let’s not forget it’s the year the vaguely similarly themed but deeply reassuring Driving Miss Daisy won Best Picture – was that it offered no answers. Instead, it holds a mirror up to America for a long, uncomfortable, look. While other films presented racism as a journey towards peace, Do the Right Thing shows it as a systemic problem with no easy solutions. Any reconcilement is tentative or grudging at best, few lessons are learned and there is very little sign that this won’t all happen again.
Lee’s film is an electrically confident piece of film-making. It’s also amazing what a glorious mish-mash of styles Do the Right Thing is. You get everything from music video to action set-piece, kitchen-sink drama to comic book dutch angles, soft porn to comedy, odd-couple romance… Almost every scene as it moves around its smorgasbord of characters takes an influence from a different genre, held loosely together by Samuel L Jackson’s 24/7 DJ Mr Señor Love Daddy. But never once does one scene jar up against another or does the general impact of the film feel blunted.
Perhaps it works because the entire film is awash in the messy unpredictability of life and the simmering resentments hidden below the surface. Sal and his sons are awkward fits in the neighbourhood, legacies of a bygone age – a whole other generation of usurped immigrants – keeping an uneasy truce with their customers. Not that there are obvious lines drawn here: John Turturro (in an excellent performance of great depth) plays a racially aggressive man, fascinated with Black culture. Sal, superbly played by Danny Aiello, balances genuine affection for some customers with baseball-grabbing antagonism for others.
It’s sometimes hard to tell what they might face, as the Black community is widely disparate in its feelings. (Spike Lee has written critically of the tendency by some to lump “Black people” together into a homogenous lump). There are stark generational. Da Mayor – a superb Ossie Davis, stumbling, well-spoken and ineffective – and Mother Sister (a sensational Ruby Dee), the neighbourhood matriarch, belong to an older era of Civil Rights, Malcolm X and MLK. The younger generations – those kids bombing loudly around the neighbourhood, including a young Martin Lawrence – don’t give a toss about their legacies and are barely interested in the world around them. Others, like Buggin’ Out (a firecracker Esposito), speak a semi-coherent collection of political phrases, mixed in with righteous but largely pointless anger about trivial events, that most people ignore.
In the middle of all of this, Lee himself plays Mookie, an everyman character for Black America, young, drifting, uncertain about where he is going. Mookie shirks fatherly duties – Tina literally has to order a pizza from Sal to get him to visit – and often does little more than punch-clock. But he also offers a fine, level-headed understanding of the various personal and community clashes around him. He’s an effective sounding board for every character, listening carefully and constantly torn about what doing the right thing might mean.
There is a sort of brilliantly brave ambiguity around Do the Right Thing. There are no heroes, only people, warts and all. Casual fights are picked but not seen through – like Buggin’ Out confronting John Savage’s well-to-do commuter for scuffing his trainers. The kids demean Da Mayor as a drunk wash-out who never made anything of his life (perhaps, subconsciously, worried his present is their future). Racial prejudice works every way – in one of Lee’s many flourishes, several characters (Mookie, Pino, a Hispanic man, a police officer and Sonny the Korean shop-owner) break the foruth wall to speak a flurry of racial insults to Italians, Blacks, Hispanics, Asians and white Americans, giving vent to private feelings, but also showing how close these are to the surface.
Do the Right Thing is made up of a series of brilliantly sketched vignettes as its many characters mix and mingle over the long day, some sharing insights, some butting heads. The film zigs as much as it zags – Mookie confronts Pino’s racism not with anger but calm, reasoned discussion. Our three breeze-shooting old timers are as irritated at the loud and brash kids as they resent the cops. Heavy-set Radio Raheem (a stoic Bill Nunn) puts aside his ghetto-blaster to talk about love beating hate. That ghetto blaster will exact a heavy toll.
It’s at the heart of the explosion of violence that caps the film. It’s tragic that the police violence which ends the film – and the resulting riot – is still no stranger today. A troublemaker meets a death far exceeding their crime by being effectively lynched by the police in a choke hold (Lee cuts to his feet twitching in the air, as he is lifted by a truncheon around the neck). This police murder (and the police flee the scene, taking the body – and the evidence – with them) slams the political message home. People are flawed, tensions are high – but no one does anything even vaguely approaching deserving death, and the fact the authorities ‘resolve’ problems through brutal force is everything that’s wrong with America.
But Lee is not one to excuse all violence. The mob – and it becomes a mob, with Lee not afraid to show cash tills being looted as well as furious, righteous anger – nearly turns on the Korean shop next, seemingly for no other offence than being foreign. People we would never expect, scream passionately for the world to burn. But then, Lee also makes the key point: when the world is as unjust and dangerous as this, isn’t the right thing sometimes to let out a primal scream. After all, what is a building when weighed against a man’s life?
What is the right thing to do? It’s a complex message the film grapples with. Mookie arguably starts the riot – or at least directs its anger – with a window smash. But by doing so, he also side with his community. In many ways it is the right thing to do. After all, Sal started the spiral by responding to intense, loud baiting with a flurry of racism. Mookie is, in some ways, a fixed labourer – Sal, for all his affection for Mookie, can’t imagine a world where Mookie won’t be working in his pizza parlour – and siding with the crowd is a defiant assertion of his independence and identity.
It’s just a flavour of the complex and challenging ideas in a film that avoids easy answers. As Sal and Mookie, the next day, stand in the ashes neither of them willing to forgive and forget, but also neither of them wanting to return to violence, they stand like representatives of America, struggling to process its race-related history. It’s a million miles away from the easy messages and gentle fixes of liberal Hollywood. Tension here settles for coexistence – but acknowledges that explosions of rage and anger are an inevitable part of that. That’s not a message America wanted to hear in 1989 – hell its barely one it wants to hear today – but it’s a powerful part of this landmark masterpiece.