DO THE RIGHT THING (1989)

  • Director: Spike Lee
  • Writer: Spike Lee
  • Starring: Spike Lee, Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Richard Edson, Giancarlo Esposito, Bill Nunn, John Turturro, Samuel L. Jackson, Martin Lawrence, and Rosie Perez
  • Accolades: AFI 2007 Top 100 list (#96), 2 Oscar nominations (Best Supporting Actor – Danny Aiello, Best Original Screenplay)
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming (with ads) on Peacock, Rent or Buy on Amazon Video, YouTube, or AppleTV

Spike Lee’s Do the Ring Thing feels vibrant, alive, and extremely relevant 31 years after its initial release, and not just because it climaxes with a Black man being choked to death by the police. It ends with twin quotes by Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, one advocating peaceful protest and the other supporting violence where necessary to protect the rights of the oppressed, seeming to imply that there really is no definitive answer out there. When the film debuted at Cannes, and afterward, numerous critics decried it, worrying that it would spur Black audiences to riot. Lee rightly condemned this attack as racist, noting that Black audiences are just as capable as others of understanding they’re watching a fictional movie. “Nobody says that White people are going to go out and murder people after watching Arnold Schwarzenegger,” he argued. With distance has come increased appreciation for the movie’s achievements, thankfully. That one day the lead film critic for the New York Times would name this his all-time favorite film must have felt incredibly unlikely during its days as a sort of insurgent cause celebre

The movie trundles around a Brooklyn neighborhood on a very hot summer afternoon, poking its head in wherever it finds it interesting. At first, events seem random, but they gradually gain momentum on their way to a racial confrontation at a pizza shop owned by an Italian man, Sal (Danny Aiello). In addition to writing and directing, Lee plays the closest thing the movie has to a main character, Mookie the pizza delivery guy. As he travels around the neighborhood we hear life going on around him. Veteran actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee are perhaps the most memorable, but everyone is interesting. Samuel L. Jackson (billed as just “Sam Jackson”), in one of his earliest roles, plays an underground radio DJ who serves as a sort of narrator of proceedings. This was the very first film role for both Martin Lawrence and Rosie Perez, the latter playing Mookie’s girlfriend (Lee discovered her when he saw her dancing in an LA nightclub). But things do spiral out of control, there’s a fight at the pizza shop, one of Sal’s sons calls the police, and they choke Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) to death. In the angry aftermath, Mookie throws a trash can through a window of the pizzeria and it ends up looted and burned down. Viewers and critics continue to debate whether Mookie throws the trash can out of genuine anger or whether he is trying to deflect the anger of the neighborhood from Sal himself to the building.

Do the Right Thing is a very rare animal, a movie about race that empathizes with everyone in it (with the possible exception of the police, but even they are portrayed as more of a force of nature than as villains). Aiello’s character and his sons are not villainized, even though they use racial slurs and become angry at inopportune moments. As such, the movie becomes something of a Rorschach test for viewers. One contemporary review in New York Magazine infamously lamented the loss of Sal’s Pizzeria without ever mentioning the murder of an actual human that precedes it. But what it is not is an exercise in gritty, downbeat realism. This movie is angry, but it is an exuberant anger, an anger with bright colors and wonderful and inventive camera work. A lot of directors can put their characters through hell, it is a rarer one that can depict them living their lives in loving detail. Lee does that with every character in this movie.

Lee is smart enough to both be angry and to know that there aren’t easy answers to assuage his anger. One central sequence includes a series of characters yelling racial insults, seemingly in a sort of dream, about various other ethnic groups, directly at the camera. In another, Mookie’s friend Buggin’ Out (a completely unrecognizable, bespectacled Giancarlo Esposito) questions why the “Wall of Fame” in Sal’s Pizzeria includes only famous Italian-Americans, with no pictures of Black people. Sal’s response is that Buggin’ Out is free to open his own pizzeria and put up pictures of anyone he wants. Of course, Sal’s entire clientele is Black, they keep him in business, why shouldn’t they be represented? Yet he’s right, there are no Black-owned businesses that we see on the street, it’s only the pizzeria and the Korean grocery, a fact that’s also lamented by the trio of old men who sit on the corner. Is that solely based on hard work by the other groups, or is it because of a history of systemic discrimination preventing Black people from opening their own businesses? And so on, and so forth. 

This is only the third feature-length “Spike Lee Joint,” three years after his debut, She’s Gotta Have It. Those who haven’t followed his career closely will be surprised to find that he’s directed films in a wide variety of genres, including the biopic Malcolm X, 25th Hour (starring Edward Norton as a convicted criminal in his final day before he has to report to prison), the heist movie Inside Man (starring Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, and Jodie Foster), and the upcoming Vietnam War movie Da 5 Bloods. The latter has sadly ended up as Chadwick Boseman’s final film, and is considered to be a strong possible contender the next time the Oscars roll around, whenever that may end up being.

You might think this movie would feel at least a little dated, given how fresh and new it felt thirty years ago, and also because it has major characters with names like “Buggin’ Out.” Yet it does not at all. It still feels fresh and smart and interesting, and its anger feels just as raw as it ever did. Do the Right Thing may be the most 2020 movie you can watch, even though it came out in 1989. Lee says that he is still frequently asked by some viewers and critics whether he thinks that Mookie, in the end, did “the right thing.” His reply is that no Black person has ever asked him that question.

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