Last week marked the 20th anniversary of the U.S. release of Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee’s third and still best film. Watching it again, I found that unlike a lot of other movies I saw in 1989, Do the Right Thing has neither diminished nor grown in my opinion over the course of two decades. What struck me as great and near-great the first time around remained that way; what struck me as crass, shallow and manipulative back then still sticks in my craw today. Its blend of technical brilliance and artistic confusion still crackles and throws off sparks, and the fact that a sippy-cup of Geritol like Driving Miss Daisy was even nominated, much less chosen, for that year’s best picture Oscar is a badge of shame for the academy. “We wuz robbed,” Lee said at the time. He was right. Aside from My Left Foot, none of the other Best Picture nominees deserved to be mentioned in the same breath as Do the Right Thing.
And yet Do the Right Thing might have been designed to illustrate Pauline Kael’s dictum that great movies are seldom perfect movies. Perfect this movie ain’t. All of Lee’s strengths and weaknesses are on display here. The film’s overheated look, carefully and thoroughly worked out with cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, is enough to make you break into a sweat no matter what time of the year you’re watching it. The viruoso weave of characters and incidents, in which small resentments and misunderstandings in the pressure-cooker heat of a summer day culminate in a riot that leaves one man dead and the neighborhood even worse off, is as gripping as ever. Lee was rightly knocked for omitting drugs from his sometimes too rosy neighborhood scenario, and the abrupt tonal shifts from realism to theatricality (including the out-of-nowhere homage to The Night of the Hunter delivered by Radio Raheem) were an early warning that Lee was never going to be a filmmaker inclined to self-edit his worst ideas. But this film is alive and kicking from first moment to last.
The casting was and is superlative: breakout performances from Samuel L. Jackson, Rosie Perez, Robin Harris, Bill Nunn and Giancarlo Esposito; career grace notes from Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee; subtle turns from Frankie Faison and Martin Lawrence that returned to nag at the memory when you saw their subsequent work in films or television. Lee’s reliance on vivid actors to fill in his extremely sketchy, one-note characters was already established.
But in terms of its writing, Do the Right Thing is a deeply confused film. Characters act in ways that reflect the director’s needs rather than any internal consistency, so that a man who expresses reluctant admiration for a Korean grocer in one scene leads a mob to burn down the grocery in the next, or an affable local kid suddenly goes on the offensive against the local drunk because Lee needs someone to take him down a couple of pegs. Like Tom Wolfe’s novel The Bonfire of the Vanities and Lou Reed’s New York album, Do the Right Thing is a time capsule of the late Eighties: Reagan going out, Bush I coming in, Bernie Goetz, dog whistle politics in full effect while the crack wars were destroying inner city neighborhoods, racist incidents on the rise even as civil rights rhetoric was being used on behalf of obvious frauds like Tawana Brawley. To me, the film’s most emblematic scene comes when the neighborhood’s sole white resident, a herald of gentrification played by John Savage, accidentally jostles Esposito’s Buggin Out and leaves a nearly microscopic scuff mark on his snow-white sneakers. The ensuing comic-menacing confrontation, in which mutual incomprehension leaves each speaker convinced the other is insane, nicely sums up the overheated racial mood of the times.
It’s a measure of the antagonism in the air that the 1989 release of Do the Right Thing sparked hysterical warnings of ethnic calamity from the likes of Joe Klein. Lee only added to the confusion by ending the film with paired quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, one eschewing violence, the other endorsing it in terms of “self-defense.” Like many viewers, I wasted far too much time trying to reconcile those quotes with what I’d seen on the screen. The play of events in Do the Right Thing is far too complex to be slotted into either choice. Spike Lee may have thought otherwise — between his tie-in book and the pissing-match interviews he favored at the time, there was no avoiding what he thought — but listening to the art instead of the artist is always the way to go.
So what doesn the art of Do the Right Thing tell us? That the tensions of poverty and racism create an environment in which a petty dispute over the absence of black celebrities on the pizzeria “wall of fame” leads to a deadly brawl. That the instigator of the confrontation is a neurotic clown viewed with a kind of exasperated fondness by the rest of the neighborhood. That an angry mob will turn on any convenient target, appropriate or otherwise, even if it means everyone will be worse off once the smoke clears. That rage over police brutality turns the slain Radio Raheem from an intimidating neighborhood pest into a folk hero literally overnight. That Raheem, while he certainly didn’t deserve his fate, just as certainly contributed to it by trying to kill Sal.
From all accounts we have Danny Aiello to thank for the nuanced depiction of pizzeria owner Sal. The initial script painted Sal as a redneck plantation overseer, prompting Aiello to demand (and get) changes that allowed us to understand why Sal was determined to remain in Bed-Stuy. One of my biggest problems with the film is that Lee didn’t take those nuances into account for the riot scene, so when the firemen trying to save the burning pizzeria use their hoses to push back the attacking mob, Lee’s attempt to evoke Bull Connor’s thugs spraying down civil-rights marchers is cheap and rather disgusting.
Do the Right Thing is also inextricably tied in with Public Enemy’s masterpiece, which appears over a dozen times during the film’s action and remains available in unbleeped form (and with a Branford Marsalis sax solo) on the Do the Right Thing soundtrack disc. Frankly, I can’t decide which makes a better video for “Fight the Power” — the opening credits of Do the Right Thing, with Rosie Perez tearing it up . . .
. . . of the official “Fight the Power” video, which Spike Lee also directed:
So far the most interesting Web response I’ve yet seen is over at The Root, which has a package of Do the Right Thing-themed stories: why trying to boycott Sal’s pizza joint was the wrong idea, what has and hasn’t changed in Bed-Stuy over the past two decades, Spike Lee’s astute use of hip hop on the soundtrack, and the irony of the confrontational Do the Right Thing serving as the First Couple’s first serious date movie. There’s also an article and interview by Henry Louis Gates, and a reminder that Lee’s use of women in his movies remains a dodgy matter. I honestly had no idea Rosie Perez was so angry about the way Lee used her in the ice cube scene, which seemed like exactly the kind of bedroom play lovers would try on a swelteringly hot afternoon.