Sunday 21 October 2018

Movie Review: Do The Right Thing (1989)

A social drama with biting humour, Do The Right Thing takes a hard look at street-level race relations, and finds no heroes but plenty of boiling anger.

On a scorching hot day in a mostly black Brooklyn neighbourhood, Italian-American Sal (Danny Aiello) runs a popular pizza joint with his two sons Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson). Mookie (Spike Lee) is their laidback delivery guy, taking long breaks and mostly ignoring his hispanic girlfriend Tina (Rosie Perez) and toddler son. Mookie's younger sister Jade (Joie Lee) appears to be the smarter of the two.

The neighbourhood is full of characters, including jovial drunk Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), overseer Mother Sister (Ruby Dee), and brooding boom box music fan Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn). DJ Mister SeƱor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson) spins tunes at the local radio station. A Korean couple run the local grocery store, while three elderly black men spend their day chatting on the sidewalk. Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith) is mentally challenged and roams the streets selling pictures of Martin Luther King with Malcolm X.

Mookie's excitable friend Buggin' Out (Giancarlo Esposito) takes offence at Sal's "wall of fame" pictures, because no blacks are featured. He tries to organize a boycott of the pizzeria, with unintended consequences.

Director, producer and writer Spike Lee's third feature film is a seminal achievement. Eschewing a conventional plot, Do The Right Thing roams the baking streets within a few small blocks of Sal's pizza joint, and finds a collection of people dependent on each other, superficially getting along and yet seething with barely contained rage fanned by hurling insults. Lee creates the conditions for a bonfire rich with fuel and ready to burn, just waiting for a spark.

Few of the characters, and none of the ethnicities, escape with a clear conscience. Most are operating within shades of grey, with individuals like Pino at the darkest end expressing outward racist thoughts, while Sal and Mookie are more tolerant and inclined to get along. Lee makes it a point to emphasize black on black discord, a community quick to turn on itself and put down people like Da Mayor. Between the various visible ethnicities the fences are also thick, the Korean store owners subjected to black abuse for having the temerity to start and run a business, and the battle lines between blacks and Hispanics drawn over music volume.

Towards the middle are the clutch of people seemingly resigned to their fate, depressing as it seems, and willing to spout either cushioned or more brazen contempt against each other. The middle ground can be nudged to either extreme, and the film explores the territory between Martin Luther King's pacifist dignity and Malcolm X's more hardline attitudes, represented by the exceptionally limited space between the Love and Hate rings on Radio Raheem's fists. Violence is the potential weapon, easy to reach for but unquestionably placing the ultimate goal further out of reach.

Do The Right Thing bursts with the colours of heat. Yellows and reds dominate as Lee creates a fiery palette, capturing scorching temperatures and equally hot tension. The neighbourhood hums to the tunes of Love Daddy, and he along with Mother Sister constitute the only two people willing to give love a chance, although their relative passivity risks being trampled.

In a film with hardly a narrative thrust, Do The Right Thing creates a remarkably gripping imperative to find a resolution. Undoubtedly the simmering tensions need an outlet, and Lee provides a sadly predictable climactic release valve. In the eternal story of communities struggling against forces of history, poverty, and limited opportunities, the wrong thing is easy to discern, but it's much more difficult to know what the right thing is. The one certainty is that at the end of each day, the sense of injustice will have increased on all sides.

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  1. This is my favorite movie of all-time and I approve of this review.

    1. Thanks, and it's remarkable how relevant it remains today.

  2. In my top 10 films of all-time, do the right thing is spike lee's greatest achievement and arguably the only film of his that has universal appeal, beyond black audiences.

    1. Fully agree this is his greatest achievement, but 25th Hour and Inside Man are much more mainstream movies.


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