I think people tend to overlook just how much of a wild landscape New York was for a great deal of America’s history. It wasn’t until Rudy Giuliani (ew.) came into mayorhood in the ‘90s that Times Square went from a porn-theater-crime-ridden place to avoid in the city to the modern city center that it’s become in recent years, mostly through the eradication of lower-income people from the area.
Spike Lee’s 1985 film “Do the Right Thing” is, to me at least, a perfect film from frame one to the end of the closing credits, as well as one of my favorite movies ever made. You could chalk this up to any number of things, and I could talk about this movie all day, but the best thing I could say is to go out and watch it right now. If you’re unconvinced by such a high recommendation right off the bat, I guess I could get into it.
To start, I should say that you should steer clear of “Do the Right Thing” if you’re made uncomfortable by depictions of racism and police brutality. The movie was made to make people uncomfortable, but not exactly in that way. I will also mention that I am history’s whitest human being, and as with everybody else, I am far from perfect in addressing the themes of this film, but I’ll do the best I can given how much I love it.
“Do the Right Thing” follows a Brooklyn neighborhood over the span of 24 hours on a sweltering summer day and the cavalcade ensemble of racially diverse residents, from Black to Italian to Korean to Latino, as their relations hit a fever pitch resulting in a small riot. No one single figure can be seen as the protagonist due to the vignette-y nature of the whole affair, but the film mainly follows Mookie (played by Spike Lee), a pizza delivery boy for the local Sal’s Pizzeria.
Such aforementioned vignettes include local drunk Da’ Mayor saving a boy from getting hit by a truck, a gentleman by the name of Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito, more on him later) getting his Jordans scuffed by a white guy riding his bike, Mookie’s girlfriend Tina (Rosie Perez in her debut film) and their son, radio station DJ Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson) presiding over it all as both a narrator and a constant voice in the background.
“Do the Right Thing”’s opening credits are some of the best ever put to film. Rosie Perez dances over the credits to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” a common leitmotif throughout the movie, in front of a projection of Brooklyn streets. The sequence is striking in how outstandingly colorful it is right off the bat for a movie, especially one at the tail-end of a decade that was relatively stagnant in terms of bold up-and-coming directorial voices such as Lee’s. It sets the tone immediately, one that doesn’t let up for one second.
The most salient sequence of the film is the minute and a half stretch in which every manner of racial slur and hate speech is launched both from and against every race present in the film. I don’t have a lot to give in terms of meaningful commentary, but the biggest recommendation I can give is to watch the scene in context.
Sal, of the eponymous pizzeria, runs the local establishment with his two sons, Pino and Vito, and comes into direct opposition with Black residents of neighborhood, particularly Radio Raheem–Bill Nunn’s imposing figure carrying a large boombox blasting “Fight the Power” and who delivers the film’s best monologue–and Buggin’ Out, resulting in tensions boiling over into an altercation that begins with Mookie throwing a garbage can through the window of Sal’s, and ends with the police brutality death of Radio Raheem. The following day is much cooler in temperature, but the burns on the neighborhood obviously remain.
I absolutely love Buggin’ Out. People tend to give Giancarlo Esposito (much deserved) praise for his villainous work on TV in “Breaking Bad,” “Better Call Saul” and “The Mandalorian,” but Buggin’ Out is a cut above. A family favorite, Mr. Out is big from the moment he comes on screen. He’s loud, he’s outspoken, the outfit is absolutely incredible and Esposito never lets up on being near-cartoonish in every gesture and look and line reading. He deserved the Oscar that year! (As did everything about this movie! It was only nominated for Adapted Screenplay and Supporting Actor–for Aiello! The white guy!)
Deserving of mention, however, is “Do the Right Thing”’s relationship to women. Beyond Joie Lee, sister to the director both on- and offscreen, and Ruby Dee as the older Mother Sister, the only other prominent woman in the film is Perez as Tina, whose mistreatment during the film’s most intimate scenes have been expounded on by her in the years since the release of the film. Sure, one could say (incorrectly) that the film is about racism and gender isn’t necessarily a factor, but the imbalance is noticeable nonetheless.
I rewatched the film for this article with the 1995 Criterion commentary from Lee, cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, production designer Wynn Thomas and Joie Lee on, and some key things stuck out to me. Much of the commentary is focused on the technical aspects of the film, incredible in their own right, but much of what may be really challenging to most viewers is found as the racial tensions erupt.
The quote that began this article comes from the final scene between Mookie and Sal after the latter bemoans the loss of his restaurant. Lee mentions in the commentary that the only audience members who have asked if Mookie “did the right thing” are white. To Black audience members, this isn’t even a question. Joie Lee goes on to say “People go ‘Aw this is so tragic; the pizzeria is gone.’ Yeah, because Radio Raheem’s life isn’t respected.”
The movie challenges, in one part of countless, the lengths to which audiences will rationalize defending replaceable buildings in the face of the irredeemable death of a community member. It’s a challenging movie that encourages the viewer to make their own conclusions, a point Lee himself makes in the commentary.
For me to say “Oh wow, ‘Do the Right Thing’ is oddly prescient today!” as a white commentator is absurd and irresponsible to the history of non-white people in the United States. It was the reality then, the reality for centuries before the movie came out, and it’s the reality now.
By Evelyn Lopez Rap/Hip-hop Journalist As February comes to an end, it is important to recognize that this month holds a special place for James Dewitt Yancey, a.k.a. “Jay Dee” or “J Dilla.” Ranking highly in my list of favorite Aquarians of all time, Dilla was born on Feb. 7, 1974, and died on Feb. 10, 2006. God sent, Dilla was a product of talented musicians. His mother […]
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