Do the Right Thing
It’s a rare film that can feel as provocative and timely 27 years later as it must have the day it came out. It’s an even rarer film that feels even timelier and more provocative 27 years later.
All in due time, I will give Do the Right Thing the discussion it is well-afforded as a work of revolutionary black art and a powerful statement that has only grown to hit closer to home in the intervening years. But I actually want to start with something that isn’t necessarily underappreciated, but is maybe lost in all the talk around Spike Lee in the intervening years since, and something that we maybe just rediscovered with the recent release of Chi-raq.
That being that Spike Lee is a fucking phenomenal filmmaker, and it’s possible that no film has ever made that statement better for him than Do the Right Thing, which is why it’s remained his most enduring work.
Let’s start at the nuts and bolts. Do the Right Thing is a slice of life picture, giving us a portrait of the Bed-Stuy neighborhood on the hottest day of the year. There’s no real driving plot, just Spike Lee’s camera (and he himself, playing main character Mookie) zipping through the neighborhood and catching little moments of the diorama Spike Lee has set up.
Little moments being operative there. Do the Right Thing is not a melodramatic picture, in fact, minus a few of its brilliant stylistic flourishes and its gripping ending, it almost seems marked by how everyday the events are. A work dispute, a relationship fight, an old man wandering around looking for a beer. Nothing you haven’t seen before, and nothing that everyone else isn’t used to.
What Lee did with Do the Right Thing was create a cinematic neighborhood in the same way one might create a clockwork town. Everything runs on its own, as a viewer you’re just supposed to step back and watch the pieces move. They sometimes feel like they barely need the director to happen, that’s why he can drop himself inside the movie and live in that world. His camera is just about capturing the details.
The details, though, are the secret weapon of Do the Right Thing. The film feels lived-in in the way that everyone interacts with each other, there’s specific bits of body language and fights that speak volumes about the history that these characters have. We don’t need to be told that Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) loves to start shit with Sal (Danny Aiello), we see it in their short exchange over the pizza that Sal is selling him.
The film feels alive in the way Lee paints the frame. We’re sitting in this neighborhood on the hottest day of the year, and the film actually feels hot. The lighting is sharp and oppressive and there’s a kind of wavyness to the film, like heat rising from a blacktop. The colors of the neighborhood are reds and oranges and blacks, colors that make the viewer feel as hot as the characters must. There’s a lot of vibrancy in their dress. In fact, the only characters dressed plainly and coolly are the cops, which contributes to them feeling like outsiders.
The film feels like a world in the characters that populate it. Lee’s script knows he’s creating a diorama of symbols, and each is standing in for a type of person. That means he wastes no time establishing everyone, giving them quick quirks and identifiable characteristics that make everyone a thread in the unraveling tapestry. And every performance is pitched perfectly, not melodramatic but not entirely down to Earth.
The quiet rage of Bill Nunn’s Radio Raheem and the much louder rage of Esposito’s Buggin’ Out. The exasperated Sal and the scumbag that Turturro creates in Pino. The quiet graceful dignity of Ruby Dee’s Mother Sister and the wise foolishness of Ossie Davis’ Da Mayor. Everyone is absolutely game to play and giving exactly what they need to.
Hell, one of my favorite things I noticed this go around was the teens in the film and their love of the Black Panther, a Marvel hero who’s about to have a major moment. It’s the little things.
More than anything else, Lee crafted a story that lives in the world around beyond the end of the film. When Do the Right Thing originally came out, a number of white critics implied that the film would lead black audiences to riot. While a ridiculous notion, that Lee rightfully called those reviewers out on saying, there is a certain anger seething under this film that makes it clear why the filmmaking and the storytelling ever could have that power.
Moreover, I think it speaks to the fact that this film should have any audience rioting today.
Do the Right Thing is a film of escalations, where the travails of day to day life, whether interpersonal or institutional, begin to build and boil over. The heat is there to make everyone just a little more on edge, a little angrier, to feel as uncomfortable as the world these people have to experience can be.
When it finally boils over at the end, when Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) is killed by the police, it doesn’t feel like a turn into drama. It feels like the ever-growing sense that something is gonna go wrong is finally being fulfilled. It feels like the interlopers throughout the film, the police, have finally fulfilled the sinister worry that they fill the viewer with.
In fact, that worry feels even more palpable now. There’s something about watching Radio Raheem’s death in a world after the death of Eric Garner. The physicality, the way he’s killed, the tragedy. The hell, the way that it’s just so damn visible. There’s something deeply affecting at that moment, almost 26 years before it ever happened, Spike Lee saw it happening.
It’s the struggle to simply exist as black. That no matter how difficult the internal struggles are, it’s those external institutions that will push back down. Lee is righteously angry against a world that makes simple life all too difficult.
Mookie is doing the right thing, because he’s turning their righteous rage onto the property, away from the people. Though we shouldn’t have to ask that question, Lee nevertheless answers it. He knows the people, the community is more important.
It’s a film of rage, yes, but a film of small reconciliations. The idea that this shit is gonna happen, but the community has gotta keep moving. Gotta fight against the shit, yes, but can’t let that tear them apart. You gotta fight the power, not each other.