By Marc S. Sanders
inally, after 30 years, I’ve caught up to a film that has eluded me, Spike Lee’s masterpiece Do The Right Thing. Here is a film from 1989 that really could have been made in 2019. At the very least, it should be rereleased in the theatres. We desperately need this film right now.
My view of Spike Lee has gradually changed over just the last year. It must be due to the current political and socioeconomic climate. I’ve become terribly sensitive to what I see in the news these days.
Following seeing BlacKkKlansman and now this film, Lee really is aware of how low humanity can go. Do The Right Thing offers just a little push that leads to an endless fall, however.
Lee’s film was shot on location in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn. The story takes place on a day where the heat wave has reached a record high, so the predominantly black community has turned on the fire hydrant and Sal’s Pizzeria is open for business. Sal is played by Danny Aiello in an Oscar nominated performance. The main character that everyone knows is Mookie, Sal’s trusted delivery guy, played by Spike Lee. Mookie is well aware of Sal’s mild prejudices towards his customers; mild compared to Pino’s blatant racism (John Turturro), Sal’s older son who works for him along with Vito, the other son.
The film is a day in the life when it appears the same daily routines occur yet again. Mookie delivers pizzas while getting chastised by his son’s mother (Rosie Perez’ debut) for not making more of himself. The middle age men sit on the corner talking about anything random. The kids roam up and down the street goofing off and teasing. Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) seems a little crazy even if we can recognize a life of experience as he’s sipping on a bottle while trying to charm Mother Sister (Davis’ real life wife Ruby Dee) who stays perched on her window sill, and Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) and Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito) are on their own mission to make sure black celebrities appear on Sal’s wall along with the Italian Americans, and “Fight The Power” is rightfully blasting on the boom box.
Each scene in the film plays like a vignette and Lee often times will be as direct as possible with his characters to honestly show what they stand for, whether they are racist or intrusive or even naively annoying. The heat index is nicely displayed through the random commentary from the local DJ portrayed by Samuel L Jackson, and it’s easy to grasp that the temperature serves as a threatening metaphor for what we fear will eventually happen. Our communal mentality is about to boil over.
I easily saw the still controversial ending coming. What’s sad is that it is no longer surprising in today’s era. It’s probably one of the best endings to a film that I’ve ever seen. That’s a bold statement but having watched the film just a week ago, I’ve repeatedly had an internal argument with myself. Who is right? Who is justified? Who is wrong? Why do these activities continue to happen? If I’m still turning this film over in my head after a week, then I can’t deny the impact Spike Lee accomplished. I’m angry. I’m annoyed. I’m sad. Don’t get me wrong. I was also entertained with the film. It’s a great script and a great cast.
Beyond the messages of Do The Right Thing, the film is an assortment of bright colors in costumes and backdrops within the neighborhood. Bedford-Stuyvesant really looks like a beautiful area. It looks clean and the residents really never appear terribly intimidating. Lee finds qualities in all his characters to like, even Pico the most racist of all. Mookie even tries to make a point to Pico about just how racist he seems. It’s a great conversation about the status quo of a black celebrity vs simply another “N-word” who walks into Sal’s for a slice of pizza. I found charm among most of the various conversations in the film. So much so that I said to myself, this is a film that truly could be adapted into a musical or a stage play. There’s so much to tell and so many ways to say it. I wouldn’t be surprised if Lee likely had a hundred more pages of dialogue and a dozen more characters that never made it into the final product.
In 1989, and all the years thereafter, I dismissed this film. I never cared for Lee’s commentary during public interviews. I can’t stand his response to certain issues, and admittedly I just do not like hip hop and rap music. I also may have naively thought that Spike’s viewpoints were a little over the top. I still do, at times. Nevertheless, I was blind, Reader. I truly was.
There’s a terrible truth to Do The Right Thing. A frightening truth. We are very, very far out of reach of racial harmony.
We learn best, only when we fall. Spike Lee’s film shows the shortcomings of the human spirit. Spike Lee’s film makes you think and debate. You have no choice but to question a moral compass.
Whether you have already seen it or not, watch Do The Right Thing today. More importantly, watch it with your children.