Wednesday Editor’s Pick: Do the Right Thing (1989)

by on August 24, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Wed Aug 31 at 7:00 & Sun Sept 4 at 1:30 at the Museum of Modern Art [Program & Tix]


Hot and Humid: Summer Films from the Archive” continues at MoMA with a no-brainer. But have you seen Spike Lee’s Bed-Stuy masterpiece on the big screen?


Danny Leigh for the Guardian:

Set in a heatwave, it’s a film that brings you out in a sweat; yet for all its underlying gravity, it is often wildly funny. But what’s impossible to know is quite what it would all mean to anyone under 20 today. Would those to-camera asides and furious face-offs still feel so incendiary to an audience for whom Lee’s flat top and Public Enemy’s righteous screech might now just as well be from a 30s newsreel?


It would, to our notional teenager, also be a movie without any familiar stylistic footholds to get comfortable with. After all, unlike the wilfully substance-free Tarantino further down the line, Lee’s greatest movie was never subject to a feeding frenzy by rip-off artists. Even in the context of its director’s other work, it’s not as typical as it might look at first – the glut of plotlines and onscreen aggro that became Lee’s trademark were so fresh in contrast with the shtick of later years, it could almost have been made by a different film-maker. The result is, in some ways, the least influential masterpiece of modern times. There again, it was always going to be that way. With its endless back-and-forth of uncomfortable ideas, and its defiant refusal (right up to the famous double quotations ending) to let on what its own conclusions were, it was and remains a true one-off – a film at once as intense as a city in the grip of a heatwave, and as bracing as the storm that comes after.



Jason Matloff introduces an invaluable oral history for the Los Angeles Times:

On Christmas Day, 1987, the 30-year-old Brooklyn-based filmmaker Spike Lee started working on the script for his third feature. His first, the 1986 surprise hit “She’s Gotta Have It,” was a trailblazing romantic comedy about young upscale African Americans, and his sophomore effort, “School Daze,” a musical look at black college life, was in the can and set to be released two months later. In this new project, Lee wanted to examine the racial tension that enveloped New York City at the time, most of which was due to an incident that occurred in the predominantly white Howard Beach section of Queens a year earlier: A group of white youths attacked three black men outside a pizza place for simply being the wrong color in the wrong neighborhood. One of the black men, 23-year-old Michael Griffith, was chased onto the Belt Parkway and was struck and killed by a car. ? The new film, which Lee titled “Do the Right Thing,” wound up detailing how a single block in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant — one with the white-owned Sal’s Famous Pizzeria at its heart — erupted in racial violence on the hottest day of the year. It featured a striking visual style, an idiosyncratic blend of comedy and tragedy, and an extraordinary ensemble cast including Danny Aiello as Sal, the pizzeria owner; Lee as Mookie, an unambitious deliveryman; and Ossie Davis as Da Mayor, the local drunk. It also instantly established Lee as a major talent who couldn’t be ignored or dismissed.


Joshua Alston for the Daily Beast:

Considering all the effort put into shrouding Barack Obama in swarthy otherness during the election, it’s a wonder that one biographical factoid went without much scrutiny. On their first date, he took Michelle to see Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, the dystopian meditation on race relations that, a full 20 years after its release, remains the hottest firebomb in Lee’s provocative filmography…


Do the Right Thing demands that the viewer make an uncomfortable value judgment: what’s more important, a white man’s property or a black man’s life? Lee was unconvinced that white America would reach the right conclusion, as the film ends with a mayor’s statement on the riot, read by a radio announcer: “The city of New York will not allow property to be destroyed by anyone.” (That line, Lee admits, was aimed directly at then-mayor Ed Koch.) It would be nice to write off Lee’s pessimistic view of race relations, particularly as the police are concerned, but the deaths of Amadou Diallo in 1999 and Sean Bell in 2006 bear out the notion of police killing innocents, then dressing up racial malice in gross incompetence’s clothes. If Lee made the film in 2009, it would probably be more indignant rather than less, the election of Obama notwithstanding.



Matt Zoller Seitz for the L Magazine:

Although Lee’s offscreen remarks about which characters he personally sided with understandably confused the issue, the film itself is not an argument for or against anything. Nor, for that matter, is it meant to be taken as a journalistic representation of big city culture clash. The characters are as emblematic and the situations as metaphorical as those in a stage play, a medium Lee goes out of his way to evoke, demonstrating special affection for Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, a drama which, like Do the Right Thing, includes a character who’s a stand-in for the playwright: Mr. Senor Love Daddy, the storefront DJ who provides an ongoing pop score for the neighborhood residents while watching their drama through a plate-glass window and offering history, commentary and context. It’s telling that the only character invited to use Senor Love Daddy’s microphone to address the neighborhood is Mookie, the deliveryman for Sal’s Famous Pizzeria — a character played by the writer-director.


That’s not the only nod to theatrical convention. Honoring guidelines laid down by Aristotle, the story unfolds during a self-contained period in a single location. And while that location was a real block in Bed-Sty, Brooklyn, Lee and his cinematographer, Ernest Dickerson, chose to light and shoot it in a highly artificial manner that makes it look like a set. Many conversations are blocked in a foursquare manner, as if the actors are on a stage. And from start to finish, Lee bruises or outright breaks the fourth wall by having characters deliver lines straight into the camera.


The result is a boisterous, rude, colorful, sentimental cinematic twist on what used to be called “a play of ideas.” It presents many arguments, many prejudices and many words of wisdom, some compelling, others nonsensical. Then it shows what happens when people lose control of their emotions and transform hostile thoughts and feelings into words and actions.


Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times:

The riot starts because Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) is offended that Sal has only photos of Italians in the wall of his pizzeria: Sinatra, DiMaggio, Pacino. He wonders why there isn’t a black face up there. Sal tells him to open his own store and put up anyone he wants. One answer to Sal is that he’s kept in business by the black people who buy his pizza. An answer to that is that we see no black-owned businesses on the street, and if it were not for Sal and the Koreans who run the corner grocery, the residents would have no place to buy food. And the answer to that is that economic discrimination against blacks has been institutionalized for years in America. And around and around.


The thing is, there are no answers. There may be heroes and villains, but on this ordinary street in Brooklyn they don’t conveniently turn up wearing labels. You can anticipate, step by step, during a long, hot summer day, that trash can approaching Sal’s window, propelled by misunderstandings, suspicions, insecurities, stereotyping and simple bad luck. Racism is so deeply ingrained in our society that the disease itself creates mischief, while most blacks and whites alike are only onlookers.


Seeing the film again today, I was reminded of what a stylistic achievement it is. Spike Lee was 32 when he made it, assured, confident, in the full joy of his power. He takes this story, which sounds like grim social realism, and tells it with music, humor, color and exuberant invention. A lot of it is just plain fun.



Spike Lee in an interview with New York Magazine, on the film’s 20th anniversary:

This was your third film. What was different?
That’s when I became a director. She’s Gotta Have It and School Daze, I really didn’t know what I was doing. And the biggest indicator of that was the acting. Do the Right Thing was like the first film where I really felt comfortable working with actors.


Your cast was nearly very different.
Originally, I wanted Robert De Niro. He wouldn’t do it. And it turned out to be a blessing, no disrespect. For it to work, it had to be an ensemble piece, and a star of that magnitude would have changed everything. So Danny Aiello was great. Then we had Sam Jackson—before he was Samuel L. It was Martin Lawrence’s first film. The great Robin Harris. Ossie and Ruby, Frank Vincent, John Savage, Bill Nunn, my sister Joie Lee, John Turturro. Richard Edson, who I knew through Jim Jarmusch, two years ahead of me at NYU … It was a hella fine cast, hella fine.


You met a few actors by accident.
March 20, 1988: School Daze had just come out. “Da Butt,” by EU, was a huge hit—I did the video. So we had my birthday party in L.A. at this club called Funky Reggae. There was this girl dancing like mad on a speaker. I said, “Will you please get down before you break your neck and I get sued?” She cursed me out. I never heard a voice like that. I said, “What’s your name?” She said, “Rosie Perez.” That’s where I got the idea that Mookie should have a Puerto Rican girlfriend.


How did the script come together?
I had the title of it before I had anything else. Then it was bits and pieces—it was going to take place on the hottest day of the summer on one block in Bed-Stuy. Then I added the whole Italian-American–African-American conflict, which I’ve touched on in three films, Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever, Summer of Sam, and now my new film, Miracle at St. Anna, which is about the black soldiers who fought in Italy during World War II.


Why do you keep coming back to that?
The reason for this is very simple: My family, we were the first black family to move into Cobble Hill. At that time, it was predominantly Italian-American. The first day they called us niggers. But after that, it was cool.


Do the Right Thing never won an Oscar.
Remember what Kim Basinger did? Onstage she said, “The best film of the year is not even nominated, and it’s Do the Right Thing.” I didn’t even know her. But when Driving Miss Motherfucking Daisy won Best Picture, that hurt … No one’s talking about Driving Miss Daisy now.


Click here to listen to NPR’s “Tell Me More” examination of the film 20 years later.



Eric Henderson for Slant:

Some reviewers, largely the same nervous nellies who warned the movie might incite race riots, took issue with Lee’s perceived free pass to eschew political correctness, especially in Bush I’s “kinder, gentler nation.” But that’s precisely the point of Do the Right Thing. It takes political concepts away from the lip service of cloistered authority figures (including the film’s dirty cops) and dissects them through the lives of those who are forced to live by them. In this context, the radio DJ Mister Señor Love Daddy’s stately, nearly two-and-a-half minute roll call of great black musicians carries as much weight of the Emancipation Proclamation…


What critics in 1989 called incendiary and angry should more accurately be characterized as challenging. Do the Right Thing is no staid civics lesson; instead, it’s a microcosmic test case in the form of a seamless ensemble piece. Anyone who thinks Spike Lee movies are perpetually disappointing would be forgiven for thinking so if they’re comparing the director’s works against this perfectly balanced one. If other movies in Lee’s body of work have approached it in confidence, few movies by Lee or anyone else have better feng shui. Like Rear Window to Alfred Hitchcock, like Nashville to Robert Altman, like Playtime to Jacques Tati, Lee’s Do the Right Thing is an undiluted representation of its creator’s artistic command.



Natalie Hopkinson for The Root:

Together Do the Right Thing and Chuck D’s single “Fight the Power” made a pitch-perfect argument for a United States of Black America, composed of a constellation of urban outposts like Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, that were free of white patriarchy. USBA was a place where black people owned the restaurants, businesses and schools, and inhabited their own black worlds free of oppression. The film’s fiery conclusion, with the Italian-American Sal’s Famous Pizzeria going up in flames after the police murder of Radio Raheem, was the perfect denouement, a catharsis for every sleight at the hands of white people… Two decades later, it feels humiliating to watch Buggin Out beg a white man to put a black picture on his personal Wall of Fame. Why didn’t he just open his own damn restaurant?


…In 1989, Do the Right Thing rightly railed against police brutality and institutional racism that reduced the life chances and quality of life of many black people in urban areas. If combating those conditions, which still exist, is what we mean by fighting the power, I will be the first to put on boxing gloves.
But 20 years on, Buggin Out’s kind of fight feels futile. Symbolically and literally speaking, we are the Power. We need Sal’s Famous Pizzerias in the neighborhood, and we need the Mookies of the world to open their own businesses, too. It’s messy. It’s sometimes tense, often uncomfortable. We won’t always understand each other. But come on back. We need that slice.


Jonathan Rosenbaum on his blog:

It’s readily apparent by now that Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing is something of a Rorschach test as well as an ideological litmus test, and not only for the critics. It’s hard to think of another movie from the past several years that has elicited as much heated debate about what it says and what it means, and it’s heartening as well as significant that the picture stirring up all this talk is not a standard Hollywood feature. It’s been reported that a major reason why Do the Right Thing failed to win any prizes at the last Cannes film festival was the objection of Wim Wenders, the president of the jury, that Mookie didn’t behave more like a hero. Wenders’s implied critique is that Lee should have made Mookie into a role model, superior to every other character in the film–a character who would exalt the either/or principle, which would imply, in turn, that the world is as simple a place as most movies pretend that it is, where simple and unambiguous choices are possible. The world of Rambo, in short–a world that is, curiously enough, not normally accused of fostering and encouraging violence to the degree that Lee’s film has been.


Ironically, it is the moment at which Mookie throws the garbage can that he comes closest to functioning as a Rambolike hero–and closest to demonstrating how false and reductive the notion of such simpleminded heroism can be in a world as cluttered, splintered, and confused as ours. If role models are needed, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X seem much better choices–not to mention Mister Senor Love Daddy (Sam Jackson), the local disc jockey whose patter periodically serves as narration; his most important message on a very hot day is for all of the characters to cool off.


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