Do the Right Thing

0703_do-the-right-thing On June 30, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing turns thirty. It still hasn’t lost a step. Aside from some hairstyles and a few of the songs, it doesn’t read at all like an ‘80s film. It’s truly an end-of-a-decade work. In some respects it’s almost experimental; some of the scenes play like short theater pieces, and the movie is full of words — debate, disputation, denunciation, or just plain shooting the breeze — yet we never question it as a work of cinema. The way cinematographer Ernest Dickerson paints with skillet-hot colors, or the way editor Barry Alexander Brown snips scenes to release our laughter as well as to propel the story, or the way Ruth E. Carter dresses the characters to sketch them for us in an instant — these and more put Lee’s film, only his third, into the realm of art alongside entertainment. Its concerns are timeless and, as the film itself wearily admits, will ever be.

Nobody is really the main character of Do the Right Thing — the Bed-Stuy community itself is, it’s a group portrait — but Lee picks out Mookie, played by himself, as the character who interacts with most of the others. As a delivery guy for Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, Mookie sees the same faces a lot; one of the first things we see him do is direct an exasperated “Hell no” to a pair of girls who look like they want to talk to him about God, or get him to sign a petition, or something. Mookie does this as though this is far from the first time he’s waved these girls away; the same is true, mostly, of his relationship with the neighborhood disabled guy Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith). Everyone who lives or works here is by and large tired of each other, but nobody can afford to go on a vacation away from them, and it’s going to be a brutally hot day. (The movie takes place on August 5, 1989, according to the newspapers we see.)

The only thread of narrative we get is the attempts of the abrasive Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) to shame Sal (Danny Aiello) into putting up photos of black celebrities alongside the Italian stars on Sal’s “wall of fame.” Buggin’ Out’s logic is that Sal’s clientele is mostly black, so the decor should reflect that; like almost everyone else in the movie, he’s not wrong, but that doesn’t make him completely right, either. Buggin’ Out’s mission is debatable; the whole chatty, pop-art-colored film is. The very title has been discussed endlessly. Does Mookie, in an act of destruction that may or may not be intended to draw collective ire from flesh towards property, “do the right thing”? Lee’s line has always been that white people always ask that question and black viewers never do. Put another way, does anyone here “do the right thing”? When, to paraphrase Martin Luther King, there is no dialogue but only contrapuntal monologue, and when there are two sets of rules, one for people of color and one for everyone else, it can be nearly impossible to know if there is a “right thing.”

To Lee’s credit, he writes dialogue (or guides his actors into improv) that allows his characters to open themselves up, justify themselves, let us see how they see themselves. Even Pino (John Turturro), Sal’s rancidly bigoted son and the closest thing the movie has to a villain other than the cops, is given some breathing room to suggest why he’s so angry. (His cronies back in Bensonhurst give him a hard time for serving food to black people.) In short, everyone would like to think he or she is doing the right thing; everyone is the star of his or her drama, each of which plays itself out on the stoops and egg-frying sidewalks of New York on the hottest day of summer. Lee’s movie is as much about a community of psychically isolated people as about racial tension. Nobody can see past their own scrim of rage, sadness, regret. Everyone is irritable.

Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), one of the movie’s many great archetypes seldom seen in major films before, calls out the dichotomies that make up Lee’s film with his Night of the Hunter parable about love knocking out hate. Originally, when Robert Mitchum delivered this, it was a hypocritical little ditty that turned out to be ironically prescient. Radio Raheem looms around the neighborhood all day toting a massive, deafening boom box (playing Public Enemy’s instant classic of electric urgency “Fight the Power”) but is essentially harmless; in a way he is the film’s Jimmie Blacksmith figure, who ultimately becomes unhinged when the white power structure severs him from how he defines himself. Once he begins to lash out, he is doomed from that moment. But in his love/hate scene, Radio Raheem seems to be speaking hopefully.

And naïvely? Love, in this movie, seems short-lived, and hate persists. Mookie’s baby mama Tina (Rosie Perez in a vivid debut) closes out her time in the film cussing out Mookie. The neighborhood elders Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) and Mother Sister (Ruby Dee) — whose presence as onscreen antagonists and as real-life couple always brings a fond smile to my face — seek cover together after the climactic event. They seem sobered, though not driven into each other’s arms as a more conventional story would demand. Before that, we see Mother Sister screaming “Burn it down!” and not much later crying “No!” in despair over and over; there you have the opposite sides of the movie’s moral coin, all in the emotional inferno of an old black woman who has seen and lived great heartache. Do the Right Thing did not turn out to be the fire this time (pundits in 1989 worried about copycat violence; number of Mookie-inspired riots: zero), but the right and wrong things it deals with haven’t gone anywhere. This is, and seems more than ever like, the great American movie of the last thirty years.

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