Spike Lee’s angry masterpiece about tensions fanned to a flame on a broiling summer day in Bed-Stuy. Its secret is that it isn’t necessarily “about” racism, or about “getting whitey” (as many stupid commentators charged), or really about anything except a day in the world Lee has crafted so lovingly. The title suggests a command, but Lee’s film itself almost puts a question mark on the end of it: What is the right thing? That’s why some critics looking for an example of “the right thing” being done were confounded. In Lee’s view, the right thing is subjective and situational and driven more often than not by intense emotion. Is Mookie (Lee himself) doing the right thing by tossing the trash can through the window of the pizza place, therefore deflecting anger away from the people who work there? Is Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) doing the right thing by demanding that Sal (Danny Aiello), the owner of the pizza place, put photos of black luminaries on the walls? The whole movie is up for debate. Lee may be saying that in a world where racism is so deeply ingrained and ethics are so bifurcated — one set of rules for whites, another for everyone else — it’s hard to define “the right thing.”
This is generally acknowledged as Spike Lee’s peak (though he has made fine films since), mainly because his filmmaking has seldom been more unified — his visuals are on the money (Ernest Dickerson, who was Lee’s cinematographer from the early days up until Crooklyn, can take a bow) and so are his characterizations. The large, gifted cast — including the electric Samuel L. Jackson (playing the radio jock Mister Señor Love Daddy, a name worthy of Francesca Lia Block), the not-yet-unfunny Martin Lawrence, the hilarious Robin Harris, the stoic Bill Nunn (who was well into his thirties when he played Radio Raheem but managed to look like a damn teenager!), the irritable Rosie Perez, the sad, wise Ossie Davis, the no-nonsense Ruby Dee, the puckishly racist John Turturro (his character Pino, that is, not the actor), the radiant Joie Lee, the pissed-off Frank Vincent (“Moe and Joe Black”), the poignant yet funny Roger Guenveur Smith as “Smiley,” the amiable Richard Edson — comprise one of the finest ensembles ever seen in a movie. Much of the film, up until the final tragedy, is actually pretty light and funny (it’s endlessly quotable — one of my favorites is “D, motherfucker, D!”); Lee gradually turns the heat up until we believe that the bottled-up tensions can lead to death and destruction. This is Lee’s Nashville, his Godfather, his Taxi Driver — the movie his subsequent work will (perhaps unfairly) be measured against for the rest of his life.