Do the Right Thing (1989)

Spike Lee | 2hr

On a sweltering summer day in a tight-knight Brooklyn community, tensions are brewing. A small argument erupts between pizza deliverer Mookie and his girlfriend, Tina. Police patrol cars coast slowly down the main road, suspiciously eyeing off a Greek chorus of middle-aged men who casually philosophise about the world around them. Mookie’s verbose friend, Buggin’ Out, takes issue with the Italian-focused ‘Wall of Fame’ at the local pizzeria for its lack of African-American representation. Many of the conflicts we witness spark into embers, but are quickly doused by diplomacy or mutually silent disdain. But by the end of the one day which much of Do the Right Thing takes place over, some of these fires will spread through the community, continuing to escalate with neither side backing down. It certainly doesn’t help that this is the hottest day of the year, as almost every character present in Spike Lee’s ensemble seeks out shade or water to escape the burning sun. And with Lee himself stoking the flames in his frenzied cinematography and intensely warm colours, an all-consuming, fiery conclusion only seems inevitable.

Spike Lee’s dazzling colours and warm lighting bring a humid heat wave to this Brooklyn neighbourhood.

Though controversy that has frequently accompanied Lee’s public appearances and films over the past thirty years, there is little that has topped the controversy that was ignited by Do the Right Thing upon its release at Cannes Film Festival in 1989. It is important to recognise though that his major breakthrough is as brazenly artistic as it is political, confidently wading into the murky waters of morality to pick apart the frustratingly tricky details of what “the right thing” actually is when it comes to addressing the horrific injustices perpetuated by the police on Black citizens.

For a film that deals with such complex issues as these, Do the Right Thing is surprisingly unafraid of indulging in humour. In fact, one might compare its first two acts to a Shakespearean comedy, complete with an ensemble of vibrant characters who trade barbs, play with contemporary slang, and deliver off-the-cuff soliloquys, with each one taking ownership of their role and status in this community.

A diverse group of characters populate this film, many of whom remain siloed off in their corners of the neighbourhood until a third act collision.

Da Mayor, the cheery town drunk, is wiser than he appears, and gradually works his way into the heart of Mother Sister, a peevish woman who watches the world go by from her apartment window. Sal, the owner of the local pizzeria, is one of the few white men living in this predominantly Black suburb, but carries out his work with pride even as he mediates tensions between his bigoted sons and clientele. The mentally disabled Smiley walks around town selling pictures of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Radio Raheem carries a portable radio blasting “Fight the Power” wherever he goes, local DJ Señor Love Daddy is our narrator providing a running commentary from his broadcast studio – this community is alive and breathing, and Lee doesn’t hold back in his unabashed visual experimentations that turn even ordinary brownstone apartments into bright red architectural expressions of urban living.

At times, long tracking shots move between close-ups and wide shots of city streets, keeping an energetic momentum in the movement of Lee’s camera, but then just as we feel we have tuned into this pacing, we jump into montages and conversations made up of harsh cuts between canted angles coming from every direction. Even on the rare occasion that the camera is completely static for long stretches, there is always movement in the shot, whether it is the rotating shadow cast by a ceiling fan over an intimate encounter between Mookie and Tina, or character interactions spread across layers of the frame, with each of these boldly creative decisions bringing a restless joy to the mundanity of everyday living.

This is one of the first movies you would have to mention when talking about the expert use of canted angles in cinema history.

And yet when all is said and done, Do the Right Thing is not a comedy. It is the tension between its dualities of drama and humour, fire and water, and right and wrong where Lee’s central thesis emerges, and which is most accurately captured in Radio Raheem’s “right hand/left hand” monologue. His speech isn’t the first direct address to camera we have seen in this film, but here Lee demolishes the barrier between passive spectator and participant in swinging his camera round from a third-person to Mookie’s first-person perspective, then takes the time to let Raheem deliver his allegory of the battle between love and hate, where love ultimately wins out. If each of the characters in Do the Right Thing are grounded in some sort of fictional archetype, then Raheem is a vessel of innocence who believes that such clean dichotomies can be upheld with a clear victory of good over evil.

But such easy definitions and clear-cut conflicts have no place in the reality of this Brooklyn neighbourhood. Though there are characters and sequences which may make us laugh, Lee is not building this narrative to a comical punchline, but rather a climax which holds a dark mirror up against everything that has come before – the blessing of water from a fire hydrant in an earlier scene is inverted as a high-pressure hose blasts gathering crowds, the climbing temperatures throughout the day manifest as a vicious fire ripping through Sal’s pizzeria, and worst of all, Da Mayor’s rescue of a young boy from being ploughed down by a speeding police car is turned on its head when America’s forces of corruption, violence, and racial prejudice bring down the hammer of injustice upon the sweet, soft-spoken Radio Raheem. With this devastating loss of life, Lee lays all his cards out on the table, revealing Do the Right Thing to be a fatefully foreshadowed Shakespearean tragedy above all else.

Brooklyn erupts in flames, a devastating pay-off to the climbing temperatures throughout the day.

The matter of how one reacts to this devastation is another issue altogether, and one that Lee realises is just as complicated as the web of relationships within his sprawling ensemble. As Mookie picks up a garbage can and smashes it through the window of the pizzeria where he works, his face bears the look of resignation, with no resolute conviction of whether he is doing the right thing at all. As a result, this act of violence becomes something entirely pure: an unadulterated outpouring of rage and grief that renders all moralising irrelevant.

If the one day which much of Do the Right Thing unfolds over is a microcosm of contemporary American society, then the day which comes after is just a small glimpse of what lies beyond – a long, difficult healing process that may never erase the scars left behind by this sudden loss. A loss which might initially seem at odds with Lee’s stylistically bombastic colours, compositions, and rhythms, and yet which effectively becomes part of the fiery, expressive clash between righteous anger and profound joy, both of which will continue to burn in this community for a long time into the future, defining the lives of these rich, eclectic characters.

An image of fiery, indignant rage.

Do the Right Thing is currently available to stream on The Criterion Channel, and available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

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