Do the Right Thing: Spike Lee’s 1989 Racial Drama More Relevant Today

Universal is celebrating the 30th anniversary of Spike Lee’s masterpiece, Do the Right Thing, bringing the new 4K restoration of the racial drama to theaters on Friday and to select one-day only showings on Sunday, June 30, the actual day of its limited release in 1989.



























Our Grade: A (***** out of *****)

Times have certainly changed.  Three decades ago, Universal was being pressured not to release the film, or at least push the picture back out of the summer months for fear of racial unrest. “Tom Pollock, the president of Universal, was 100 percent behind the film,” director Spike Lee told the Hollywood Reporter. “Universal was not afraid.”

“People forget that Tom Pollock had just went through hell with Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ when he received death threats. So, he could have easily said to me, ‘Spike, I can’t put my family through this again.’ He didn’t do that. Tom Pollock was not scared at all.”

Revisiting Do The Right Thing three decades later shows that it is still–perhaps even more–relevant to the great divide of political debate in the Trump era.

But the climate of ideas–the zeitgeist–was very different in 1989.  Several New York film critics, Lee claims, fanned the flames of racial divide with their first takes. “The atmosphere was sparked by the racist reviews of David Denby, Joe Klein and Jack Kroll. These reviews were absolute racism. Racism. Blood was going to be on my hands. ‘Spike Lee is playing with dynamite.’ The film would spark riots,” the filmmaker says.

My Original Review of 1989

Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, his third (and best) feature, is must-see for viewers interested in the New American Independent Cinema, African American Cinema, and the genre of social problem pictures in Mainstream Hollywood.

In the same year, 1989, another indie icon, Steven Soderbergh made a splashy debut with “sex, lies and videotape,” a movie that had forever changed the image of low-budget indies and of the Sundance Film Festival, where it received its world-premiere (though it didn’t win any award there).

Lee’s chef d’oeuvre, an explosive film that captures the zeitgeist of urban America in the late 1980s, reacting against a decade of mostly retro, inspired by President Reagan and his conservative regime. With bravura filmmaking skills, manifest in brisk pacing, deft balancing of comedy and drama, and mixture of colorful stylization and realism, Lee established himself as one of the prominent filmmakers of his generation.

Based on several real-life racially motivated acts of violence in NYC, Lee’s politically charged and polemic drama stirred controversy even before its release. The film was widely praised for its exciting filmmaking and flamboyant visual craftsmanship. Like his previous films, “Do the Right Things” presents a slice-of-life look at a predominantly black environment, in this case a block of Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood.

Lee’s portrait is both celebratory and critical: the mise-en-scene, music and dialogue are rich in allusions to African-American cultural history (a deejay’s litany of black musical stars mixes with the score written by Lee’s father, jazz bassist Bill Lee).

As in “School Daze,” his second, unsuccessful musical feature, Lee unflinchingly presents the divisions within the black community by centering the film on a photograph of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King and ending it with seemingly opposing quotations from both men.

More importantly, “Do the Right” Things focuses its tense drama on the interracial violence that occurs between Bed-Stuy’s black underclass and the white family that runs the local pizzeria. Climaxing with the killing of a black youth at the hands of white policemen and a fiery street riot,

Lee and his film are not naive enough to offer a resolution for the racial violence, which has plagued New York City and American society at large.  In presenting both the inter-and intra-racial problems that have marked recent American history, Lee’s films collectively call for an awakening of consciousness. A sleeping character in Joe’s bed-Stuy Barber Shop is hailed with the line: “Wake up. The black man has been asleep for 400 years.” The same refrain introduces both the film and Lee’s Mookie character.


Structured as a contemporary Greek tragedy, “Do the Right Thing” obeys the three unities. The story takes place in one setting, Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant, on the hottest of the summer. And there are also continuity of time, which spans about two days, and unity of action.


There’s also a Greek chorus of three elderly men, ML (Paul Benjamin), Coconut Sid (Frankie Faison), and Sweet Dick (Robin Harris) commenting wryly on every action. As Greek myth’s Tiresias with sight as well as insight, Ossie Davis plays the wise old “Mayor” whose words of wisdom are: “Do the right thing!” But what does it mean?


Tensions begin to boil when a customer in a pizzeria owned by Sal (Danny Aiello) why all the pictures on the wall are of Italian and Italian-American stars: Sophia Loren, Sinatra, Al Pacino. “Why no brothers” Sal is stunned by the question since he’s one white resident who chose to remain in the neighborhood, after all the others had fled to the suburbs


Lee makes Sal (and his place) the real focus of the film.  Sal is a man who can’t comprehend that there might be a legitimate claim to racism (more latent and subconscious); he believes it’s nothing more than his right to express his Italian pride.  In the film’s climactic scene, Mookie (Spike Lee), initially a mellow youth employed by the white pizza-store owner in a black neighborhood, has been transformed, by embittering experience, from an apologist for the whites to an inciter of violence. That this violence is directed not against the white policeman who killed Mookie’s friend, but against his compassionate boss Sal makes the story all the more controversial.


Lee suggests that, right or wrong, Mookie did the only thing he could. Which also explains why as director he decides to end the movie with two seemingly contradictory quotes, one from Dr. Martin Luther King, insisting
violence is always counter-productive, the other from Malcolm X, endorsing violence when all else fails). Reflecting the zeitgeist, Lee has handpicked the graffiti for a Brooklyn wall himself with “Run, Jesse, Run,” a reference to Jesse Jackson, and “Tawana Told the Truth,” a reference to Tawana Brawley.


Lee’s narrative is built around the heat wave, which is used both literally and figuratively as a metaphor that pushes forward the dramatic action, where characters’ petty bickering increasingly grow into angry frustration until they explode. Most of the characters are fighting to cool off in the heat, which gets worse as the day progresses, from the Mayor’s feverish mission to buy a cold beer, to Mookie’s partner Tina cooling her face in a basin of water.


Visually, the movie is vibrant and innovative courtesy of cinematography Ernest Dickerson, who uses various lenses, wide camera angles, and color film stock printing. The street looks bizarre, like a real Brooklyn neighborhood spruced up imaginative production designers. The illusion of slice-of-life naturalism is undercut by a visual sense of purpose. The entire film is saturated with the impression of unrelenting heat by the glowing tones of Dickerson’s luminous color cinematography; the oppressive glow is often compounded by the presence of the color red in key scenes.


The denouement is rather ambiguous. The yarn ends with a depiction of the aftermath of the destruction of Sal’s place. Some things have changed, like the Mayor who’s now communicating with Mother Sister, who had previously berated him. But some things have not: Mookie’s day begins just as it always has, with Tina reproaching him for neglecting his duties as a father.


Oscar Alert

Oscar Nominations: 2

Best Supporting Actor: Danny Aiello

Best Original Screenplay: Spike Lee.

The winners were: Denzel Washington, who would collaborate with Spike Lee on several films, for “Glory,” and screenwriter Tom Schulman for “Dead Poet Society.”