(Spike Lee, USA, 1989) 120 minutes


Director: Spike Lee
Producer: Spike Lee
Screenplay: Spike Lee
Cinematography: Ernest Dickerson
Editor: Barry Alexander Brown
Music: Bill Lee,
  The Natural Spiritual Orchestra
Danny Aiello (Sal)
Ossie Davis (Da Mayor)
Ruby Dee (Mother Sister)
Richard Edson (Vito)
Giancarlo Esposito (Buggin Out)
Spike Lee (Mookie)
Bill Nunn (Radio Raheem)
John Turturro (Pino)

Reviews and notes

1989 Cannes
2014 Denver
2015 Maryland
2019(restored version) Milano

Thirty years on, Spike Lee’s portrait of a neighbourhood riven with racial tension and sweating in extreme heat feels far more timely than one might wish. Only the director’s second film, it established Lee as a master of the passionate polemic, someone with a keen eye for injustice and a willingness to put it front and centre of his work. This uncompromising classic also demonstrates his sense of place, character and style: the super-saturated colours and oddball characters of this Brooklyn neighbourhood are indelible. Lee creates a remarkably even-handed and nuanced portrait of the way that violence can flare, and how bigotry can build to something much worse, but even he could hardly have guessed how modern this film would feel 30 years later.
- Helen O’Hara, Time Out, July 30 2019.

This is undoubtedly one of the strongest, most idiosyncratic films to achieve major release in many years. Most strong films are idiosyncratic, but most films do not lead audiences into one of the major contradictions confronting the era. That contradiction is between the claim for racially based independence in a system that cannot offer anything as long as it exists in its present form. In other words, American blacks want to be free of the racist constraints of America, while enjoying all the benefits of the liberal dreams to which they aspire.

What does the world do when race, ethnicity and nationality begin to assert themselves like mushrooms popping up through pine needles? Be it Armenia, Bulgaria, Kurdistan, Lithuania or New York, there are major movements internationally that herald potentially exciting and/or dark times ahead for the planet. They are movements which suggest that societies have advanced to the stage where independent ethnic groups can develop the economic, cultural and social coherence that will enable them to live "free" lives.

Black Americans are in the mood for nationhood and statehood. They are making waves that Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jun. could have only dreamed about. Some contemporary American blacks are laying claim to the intellectual territory of their radical parents, who wanted independent social, cultural and economic lives for their children, free of the constraints imposed by racist whites. They are making the moves within a contradiction that asks if it is to be done within or outside the existing white American system of capitalism; or will it even be a capitalist system?

In an abstract sense, the issue looks hardly like a contradiction, but, to the people living at the lower end of the American system, it is indeed a complicated and complex issue (using "complex" here in its correct Freudian sense, where the conscious and sub-conscious worlds create unresolvable tensions that can often be violently expressed).

This is the beauty of Do the Right Thing. It tackles the problem of black politics within the context of black history and white antipathy towards blacks. It prods the subconscious of white paranoia about black revolt, and refuses to resolve the puzzle that the opinions of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jun. presented.

It is fascinating that producer-writer-director-actor Spike Lee selected a handsome, yet almost incomprehensible, stutterer to continually present photographs of Malcolm X and King. Named Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith), he parades through the film with his snapshots of the two black leaders, keen to sell them to whomever will pay. His colorations and decorations of the photographs are a telling subtext of the uncertain relevance of these men in the late 1980s, suggesting that you make your own interpretation of your history.

Selling and making money is a significant sideline of the film as well. Economic independence has been an important debate among black American intellectuals for many years. It began as far back as the turn of the century when Booker T. Washington argued that, "Brains, property and character will settle the question of civil rights ...", while W.E.B. du Bois saw political power for blacks as being essential, regardless of how it was achieved.' It is still a healthy debate.

Do the Right Thing is based around Mookie (Spike Lee), who spends his days and nights delivering pizzas, calling to black brothers "Get a job!", then counting his money, while putting off his girl friend because he has to work. It doesn't seem much, but it is an important and disturbing trend suggesting that work will solve the race problems presented in this film.

While much of the publicity for the film concentrated on its attempt to explain the racism of America and the problems faced by minorities, I do not believe it succeeds in this respect. It is too diverse, too successful in digging into the rich social psyche of its audiences to be bothered with simplistic reading.

Spike Lee has gone on record saying that the film did not win the Palme d'Or at last year's Cannes Film Festival because, among other things, judges like German director Wim Wenders preferred to award the prize to "a golden haired, white boy" like Steven Soderbergh for sex, lies, and videotape.

Comments like these raise the racist spectre, but, in fact, merely express the frustration of filmmakers who feel that they should collect the big prizes once they make a film that mixes in the top league. Of course, the mistake is with Lee. He does not need Cannes or Wenders. More important, he does not need the conventional film industry machinery to promote his films because, as previously mentioned, his idiosyncrasy is his appeal.

The idiosyncrasy of Do the Right Thing is quite incredible. There are risks taken here that could be used as examples of bad filmmaking in first-year film-school courses. The stage scenes and static sets, the incredible absence of method acting, the full-facial lighting, the overly articulated dialogue: it all suggests a healthy disregard for narrative film's obsession with the story. More important, it suggests an ambivalence towards Hollywood's dream machine. There are no suspended states for Spike Lee, no suspension of belief and its ensuing seduction into narrative dreamscapes and fast fictions.

Technically, the film stumbles and rolls like the aged drunkard Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), from one uncertain day to the next. Lee is determined not to allow any indulgence – herein is the nub of the difference between Do the Right Thing, sex, lies, and videotape and other conventional films. Spike Lee keeps his audience conscious. Soderbergh (read Hollywood/conventional narrative film theory and practice) drives the audience into the back of its own sleepy brain to dream its fictions.

Spike Lee's direction combines the following unlikely styles: theatrical stage performances, such as that by the three men in front of the matt red wall and their vaguely relevant, but deliberate, conversation; much of the silent action by Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) until he speaks; and the cinema-verite camera work, such as that in the bedroom and in the home with Mookie's girl friend Tina (Rosie Perez). All coexist in an ungainly fashion within conventional, feature-film construction.

This mixture of styles makes the film awkward, often difficult to watch, but always idiosyncratic. Indeed, its appeal is in its treatment of the material not the characters, although the Italian pizza owners tend to perform character roles.

Where Eddie Murphy (e.g., Going to America, Harlem Nights) takes black characters and makes them parodies of the mass market's experience of blacks, Lee carefully avoids such easy strategies. Even the opening titles incorporate a feminist assertion: black women dancing semi-naked in leotards to Public Enemy's Fight the Power rap, some wearing boxing gloves. There is nowhere to hide among the stereotypes when faced with this originality.

Ultimately, Lee uses all the devices he can — short of experimental treatments — to throw up as many conflicting and contradictory messages on the screen as it is possible to do while maintaining the unsteady momentum of the film. When the momentum finally takes us into the climax, in a frenzy of fire bombing that leaves the viewer breathless at its rapidity and conviction, there is a sense that Lee has concluded his statement.

Radio Raheem is murdered by police in front of a mostly black crowd, and Mookie (who, as the good boy, finally breaks out to do the bad thing) makes the move that brings about the destruction of Sal's Pizza and his income. He returns to the shop the next morning for his wages and there is Sal with enough money to overpay Mookie. Lee will not compromise. He will not resile from his belief that, regardless of what happens, the contradiction will remain: blacks will always be bought out by the American free-enterprise system and almost nothing will be gained.

This is perhaps too rational a reading of Do the Right Thing. Two viewings of the film, however, convinced me that it is an intensely rational film constructed with love by Lee who sees the immensity of the problem for black Americans with exceptional clarity. His rationality will not be appreciated by many people, nor will his appeal to the two major streams of black American history, as evidenced in the statements by Martin Luther King Jun. and Malcolm X that close the film.

It is unfortunate that Do the Right Thing has been tarred with the media brush, whereby its appeal has been limited to the race/racist reading, because it is a much denser film than such marketing will allow. But it is a film that bravely enters into the honest logic of the contradiction facing all progressive Americans.

Because he takes that approach, many people may be unable to cope with Lee's somewhat confusing attitude, but there is little doubt that his work is rapidly elevating him to a position alongside some of the great black American intellectuals and activists. It is a position that accurately reflects reality for many people around the world and that is a major accomplishment.
- Marcus Breen, Cinema Papers, March 1990.

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