Do the Right Thing: Anniversary of Spike Lee’s Masterpiece

Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” his third (and best) feature, made in 1989, is now being released in a special DVD 20th anniversary edition, including illuminating commentary from writer-director Lee, who was Oscar-nominated for his scenario, and some previously unseen deleted scenes.  The movie is must-see for viewers interested in Spike Lee’s career, the New American Independent Cinema, and African American Cinema, of which Lee should be considered its leader.

In the same year, another indie icon, Soderbergh made a splashy debut with “sex, lies and videotape,” a movie that forever changed the image of indies and of the Sundance Film festival, where it received its world-premiere.

“Do the Right Thing” is 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’s film offers no resolution for the racial 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 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


The film was nominated for two Oscars: Supporting Actor for Danny Aiello and Original Screenplay for 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.”