Do the Right Thing (1989): Spike Lee’s Oscar Nominated, Most Interesting Film?

Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee’s third feature, is his chef d’oeuvre, an explosive film that captures the zeitgeist of urban America in the late 1980s, especially big cities with large black working class denizens.

Made in 1989, the movie was a reaction against a decade of mostly retro pop culture, inspired by then President Ronald 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 most 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 “She’s Gotta Have It” and “School Daze,” Lee’s previous films, “Do the Right Things” presents a slice-of-life look at a predominantly black environment, in this case a single 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 is mixed 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 Thing” 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’s film offers no resolution for the interracial violence, which has plagued the city.

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 Mookie, the character played by Lee.

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 sort of a Greek chorus, composed of three elderly men, ML (Paul Benjamin), Coconut Sid (Frankie Faison), and Sweet Dick (Robin Harris), who comment wryly on every action that takes place. 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 no one knows what exactly it means?

Tensions begin to boil when a customer in a pizzeria owned by Sal (Danny Aiello, in Oscar nominated performance) raises a legit question, 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, long after the others had fled into the suburbs or better neighborhoods in Brooklyn.

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 than manifest and conscious).  He holds that his choice of photos reflects nothing more than his right to express his pride in Italian and Italian-American suculture.

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 an embittering experience, going from being an apologist for the whites to an inciter of physical 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 do to express his anger.  Which might also explain why as director he decides to end the movie with two seemingly contradictory quotes, one from Dr. Martin Luther King, insisting that violence is always counter-productive, the other from Malcolm X, endorsing violence when all else fails.

Also 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 stylistic strategy 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 fully 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 live-in partner, Tina (Rosie Perez) 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 by 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 photography; the oppressive glow is often compounded by the presence of the color red in key scenes.

The denouement is rather ambiguous, depictining 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

The film was nominated for two Oscars:

Supporting Actor for Danny Aiello

Original Screenplay for Spike Lee.

Oscar Context:

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