Review | Spike Lee’s ‘Do the Right Thing’ turns 30
Updated: May 9, 2020
It was just a movie, right? Director Spike Lee in 2012.
(Photo by José Cruz for Agência Brasil, via Wikimedia Commons.)
All filmmakers have that one film they reference when they talk about what informed their style. For me, it was movies like Mamoru Oshii’s cult '80s anime classic Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer, with films like Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Amélie rounding out much of my scope as a young storyteller. But when I sat down in Filmmaking 101 that one Wednesday afternoon in 2005 and watched Do the Right Thing for the first time, my style wasn’t merely informed. It shifted. The movie turned 30 on June 30, 2019, and what it echoes is a harrowing testament to how racial relationships in America have yet to shift.
History repeats itself
Repetition is important. Whether you’re learning a new language, practicing a jump shot, or crafting a narrative that unravels into discomforting, honest introspection, you have to repeat. And when you repeat, you have to meditate on it. And then do it again, if you want to get it right that one time you have to get it right.
Do the Right Thing, directed by and starring living legend Spike Lee, opens with what I like to call a hood overture. Tina (Rosie Perez) dances—if you want to call it that—to “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy. The whole song. In different outfits. Wearing various expressions that are individually fierce in their own right. There’s a fight in her, the kind that could come from pain or for the sake of protection. You can’t tell.
Nonetheless, the credits roll. This is just a movie, right?
This sets up the tone of the whole film. Dutch-tilt camera angles misalign conversing characters’ eye lines to high and low-angled shots that create tension and discomfort. You learn early in film school: these are indicators of power of one character over the other.
Combine that with characters who don’t seem like they’re looking at each other all the time and you have cinematography that puts you right in the middle. And it does this to you over and over again.
Considering the subtext, that’s the hardest place to be in a story like this.
The neighbors always watchin’
Love Daddy (played by the ageless Samuel L. Jackson) introduces the foreboding backdrop first with radio talk that’s laced with hope, enthusiasm, and of course, love, then ends it with the inevitable forecast: “Today’s weather? It’s hot!” Pan over to Mookie, who strides to work at Sal’s Pizzeria. We encounter the charismatic characters, like Mother Sister (Ruby Dee), who’s “always watchin',” and Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) who drops looping wisdom bombs often in drunken stupor. Radio Raheem (Bill Dunn) plays “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy on his boombox, living large and in charge as he walks in stereo. And then there’s Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito), the fast-talking, self-proclaimed troublemaker who wants to boycott Sal’s Pizza. Why?
Because there ain’t no brothas on the wall on Sal’s Wall of Fame, photos of celebrated Italians and Italian Americans.
Sal (Danny Aiello) is caught in the middle. He’s Italian, displaying charm and pride in having an honest business in a Black neighborhood, employing his two sons Vito and Pino, along with delivery boy Mookie. He doesn’t want trouble, but his frustration over his quarreling brothers sparks a haunting premonition that trickles out as an utterance: “I’m gonna kill somebody today.”
Chaotic good in the hood
Buggin’ Out and his crew ruffle with everyone on the block. They question the white man whose bike scuffs Buggin' Out’s fresh new Jordans, throwing out insults and threats and suggesting he go gentrify elsewhere, only to find out that he grew up in Brooklyn. Or they attack Da Mayor’s values, countering his heartfelt soliloquy with “I don’t know your pain. I don’t care to know your pain.”
Radio Raheem contributes his fair share of shaking things up. He confronts the Puerto Ricans’ music with his loud boombox. He gives Mookie an anecdote on the fight between Love and Hate, as performed by the four-finger rings on his fists. And he gives Sal trouble, too, claiming that there ain’t enough cheese on his pizza and that he can play his music anywhere he wants.
Even Vito and Pino fight each other, and Vito calls Pino out on his racism, despite Pino claiming he’s not racist. Mookie calls him out on it, too, revealing how much Pino is a fan of Magic Johnson, Eddie Murphy, and Prince—to which Pino stammers: “They’re not niggas, I mean, they’re not black, I mean, they’re more than black.”
That’s when we get these jarring dolly-zoom shots of characters spewing hate head-on into the camera. Black people hating white people hating Latinx people hating Asian people hating Jewish people with a litany of stereotypes. And it’s as if they’re talking to me. To all of us.
It culminates in a dark night muddled with fire and police brutality.
If I love you, I love you. But if I hate you…
The film amounts to a neighborhood torn apart by racist tensions between Sal and his sons, the police officers who kill Radio Raheem and chase down other black people in the area, the fire fighters who hose down more black people instead of dousing the fire, and Mookie tossing the trash can into the pizzeria’s window to distract the riot.
Did Mookie do the right thing?
That’s not the question to ask. First, there’s no answer to it. Right or wrong is far too binary for something like this. Mookie’s action had less to do with him saving Sal’s life. Him surviving is more about luck than it is a benediction. It’s a response to the bigger picture.
What happened in Do the Right Thing wasn’t new in its time, and it hasn’t dissipated from America’s social canon. Police brutality is still a thing. Racism is still a thing. Social and cultural dissonance is still a thing. It happens over and over again, and yet, as a whole, we’ve failed to shift the narrative.
What Mookie did in the end was not about righteousness, but about a deep-rooted resentment toward a people who have long oppressed those not like them. It’s not even the worst of the narrative, and too often is the focus of controversy that besieges this film (often by white reviewers and critics). Mookie broke a window and property got destroyed and people were caught up discussing the message. Few dissertate about Radio Raheem’s death.
I think Love Daddy sums it up better in the film’s denouement: “My people. My people. What can I say? Say what I can. I saw it but I didn't believe it. I didn't believe it what I saw. Are we gonna live together? Together are we gonna live?”
And that’s the truth, Ruth.