From its opening frame, Do the Right Thing instantly proclaims it’s making a statement: This is not a movie – This is a Spike Lee joint. “Fight the Power”, by Public Enemy, blasts, as Rosie Perez break dances, and you’d have to be deaf and blind to not instantly see that this is a bold and ostentatious piece of art. Nearly 30 years after its original release, Do the Right Thing remains just as relevant, as cutting, and as powerful as it must have upon its original release.
Written and directed by, and starring, a young Spike Lee (just 32 years old!), Do the Right Thing tells the story of the hottest day of the year in New York’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood, as racial tensions flair between white and black and Asian. A vibrant cast of characters fill the tableau: Giancarlo Esposito’s (unrecognizable to the Breaking Bad crowd) Buggin’ Out, Bill Nunn’s enigmatic Radio Raheem, the hilarious radio DJ Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson), like Da Mayor and Mother Sister; there’s even a trio of characters who can best be described as the Greek chorus of a tragedy. At the center of it all is a local pizzeria owned by Italian-American Sal (Danny Aiello) and his sons, Pino and Vito (John Turturro and Richard Edson). In a mostly black-and-brown neighborhood, Sal lines the walls of his restaurant with pictures of famous Italian-Americans. Their delivery boy, Mookie (Spike Lee), wears a Jackie Robinson jersey. The contrast is instantly apparent.
It’s sheer mastery on display – every detail chosen for a reason, every moment early on paying off later in the film. At the heart of it, everyone’s just trying to stay cool, but it’s not hard to see that the heat is just bringing existing tensions to the surface. We see Spike Lee’s subtle touch with race in a scene where Mookie and Pino (Lee and Turturro) are talking; Mookie points out that Pino’s favorite athlete is Magic Johnson, his favorite musician is Prince, his favorite movie star is Eddie Murphy, and yet he can’t reconcile this with his feelings about blacks, and more broadly about race.
As events escalate, the film comes to a boil, and violence breaks out. The kind of racial violence we see in Do the Right Thing is blistering, almost as much because of how little things have changed as because of the violence itself. The film culminates with the choking death of Radio Raheem by a police officer, a death that feels eerily similar to any number of recent events including the 2014 death of Eric Garner (though of course, this film was made in response to contemporary events). The violence explodes into an all-out riot, and we’re left questioning whether the actions taken by these characters mattered, whether they’ve erred, what the “right thing” to do in these situations are. If the police can kill a black man with no repercussion, is violence not justified? Shouldn’t people be on the streets, rioting? Shouldn’t black athletes be allowed to call attention to a real problem?
And yet, the film ends on a positive note, with differences reconciled, with a recognition that life goes on in the wake of racial injustice, and with crucial quotes by Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X that contrast, but both serve to reframe the film in subtle, but important ways. The truly impressive thing about Do the Right Thing is its subtlety, it’s avoidance of anything preachy. Spike Lee doesn’t tell us what to think, and doesn’t paint anyone as a victim or a villain. Instead, it simply observes a neighborhood in chaos, and lets us draw our own conclusion. A great film can be a mirror upon which the filmmaker forces us to reflect upon our own point of view, and by that standard Do the Right Thing is a great film.
Do the Right Thing is, sadly, a film that has not aged even one iota. I could say that had aged poorly, that no longer felt relevant, but no. Every moment of this film feels perfectly calculated for the modern moment. Do the Right Thing is like a blistering tone poem; it’s easy to look at this film and instantly see the genesis, on almost every level, leading to a modern day artist like Kendrick Lamar, with To Pimp a Butterfly. There may not be a better film about racial tension than Do the Right Thing, a more crucial statement on a problem that we’ve struggled to reckon with for centuries. I hope that one day in the future, I can look back on this film as a relic of an era, but for now, this is as relevant as ever.