Okay, Spike Lee. I concede; you win. I’ve just been beaten over the head with your movie and I’m waving the white flag.
Made in 1989, Do The Right Thing depicts a neighborhood in Brooklyn teetering on the edge of full-scale violence during the hottest day of the summer. Mookie, played by Spike Lee, is the main character who is torn between the African-American residents of the neighborhood and the Italian family he works for at Sal’s Pizzeria. The heat wave only exacerbates the long-running, deep seated racial tensions in the neighborhood as well as the area’s distrust of the police. As Mookie goes on about his business on the hottest day of the year, the neighborhood will bend and break, and Mookie’s forced into making a choice and making up his mind about where he stands. The movie, overall, is about violence – is it acceptable or unacceptable? Lee’s answer seems to be that when justified, when humans are pushed to their breaking point, violence is kinda okay. I don’t think I really agree with that, but it doesn’t necessarily detract from the film for me. I get what Lee’s reaching for here, even if I have some philosophical quibbles with it.
Look, I liked Do The Right Thing. Do I like everything about it? Far from it. But Lee does several things well that are difficult, in my humble opinion, to actually pull off. For starters, he manages to encapsulate an entire neighborhood with characters that are far from fleshed out into a nice little microcosm that you begin to understand. It’s hard to capture a vibrant, breathing little society and then make the viewer feel that they begin to understand the inner workings and nuances of the block, but Spike Lee does it.
Then there’s the brilliant pattern of Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power” laid over every so often. It’s the perfect song for the movie and Lee utilizes it in a smart fashion; by having it pumped out of one guy’s boombox as he strolls the streets.
Sam Jackson is ninety kinds of awesome as the local DJ and when you’ve got actors like Ossie Davis, John Turturro, Ruby Dee, and Danny Aiello chewing scenery right and left, it’s not hard to get a nice, gritty feel to your movie and your characters.
What don’t I like? Lee’s got an odd set of emotions here, where it felt like he’s partly preaching, partly full of contempt for the viewer and party trying to make you understand the bigger picture. It’s a weird thing to have thrown at you from the screen. I don’t claim to be a movie “expert”, just a girl who really loves movies and has seen quite a few of them, but I really don’t get the minutes-long credits in the beginning with Rosie Perez spastically dancing all over the place. What the heck is that? Lee alternates shots of her in spandex garb and boxing gear. Am I dumb? Do I not get it? Was it an excuse to say, “Rosie Perez in spandex, let’s make that happen?” I have no clue.
More than anything, what I appreciate about Do The Right Thing is that it got some discussion going at the time it was released; some of that discussion bordered on absurd and grotesque (would Do The Right Thing incite viewers to riot? Give me a break) and some of it was pretty thought-provoking stuff. Moreover, you can still find a lot to make you question and squirm in your seat a bit almost 20 years later, which means Spike Lee is still doing his job.