Movie Rewind: “Do The Right Thing” (1989)

In honor of Spike Lee’s birthday today, it could not be a better time for a Movie Rewind of Do The Right Thing, a film that is always the first to come to mind when someone asks what my favorite movie is. Yes, Do The Right Thing is my favorite movie of all time; it’s also one of the most powerful movies ever made. I knew this the moment I first saw it when I was 12, for it was also the moment I knew I wanted to watch movies and talk about them for the rest of my life. Here was a film that shook me to my core, that introduced me to the idea that movies and art could be more than entertainment and do more than just make me feel happy or sad. Here was a movie that wasn’t a movie at all but rather a conversation, one about people, relationships, society, race, identity, culture, language, the clash of public and private. As I always tell myself: Do The Right Thing is the Bar Mitzvah of my movie lifetime – I was a boy before watching it and a man after, fully changed and wiser. If I could only recommend one movie, it’s this one.

Of the many controversial films of our time, from Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange to Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct, none has ever caused a commotion as vigorously loud as Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. Upon its release in 1989, Do The Right Thing was met with massive critical opposition; some, such as Roger Ebert, praised the film, exclaiming, “Most movies remain up there on the screen. [This one] penetrates your soul,” but many cried foul, claiming the film was a “Blaxploitation” mess that, as New York Magazine writer Joe Klein agreed, would encourage rioting and revolution from the black community.

And yet, from the moment Rosie Perez began to vigorously dance to Public Enemy’s anthemic tune “Fight the Power”, I was hooked and couldn’t look away. Here, for the first time in my life, was a film with a purpose far beyond to just entertain me. Awesome plot? Larger-than-life characters? Surprising twists? Forget about it! What made Do The Right Thing so important was that it did something no movie, or song, or painting, or any form of art had ever done – it forced me to revaluate my own actions and admit that, like so many of the characters in the film, I had done wrong too. Here is a film not to encourage rioting, but to suppress it, and not to entice revolution, but to beg the audience to finally wake up and to start making changes.

For those who’ve never seen the film, the plot couldn’t be more basic – over the course of one hot, simmering day in Brooklyn, we meet a multitude of characters, from struggling mother Tina, to local drunk Da Mayor, to hot-headed Buggin’ Out, to pizza shop owner Sal and his delivery boy Mookie, all of whom, plus many more, are just trying to make it through the long day by any means necessary. Mookie wants to get paid. Sal wants no complaints. Tina wants Mookie to be a better father. Buggin’ Out wants some black people added to Sal’s wall of famous Italians. Da Mayor wants to solve all the problems on the block, and so on. The mastery of the film, however, rests in Spike Lee’s direction, which slowly and subtly exposes the community’s public and private problems that boil beneath the surface and rapidly escalate throughout the day. Over the course of the film, Lee paints an extremely realistic portrait of neighborhood life, so much so that he subconsciously makes the viewer the film’s main character without ever letting him/her know.

That’s the beauty of Do the Right Thing – though we mostly follow around Mookie as he spends the day delivering pizza pies for Sal, he isn’t the protagonist; in fact, there aren’t any protagonists or antagonists or even characters – there’s only people, real people like the ones you and I have met in our lives. While many consider Mookie the film’s core character, he never alters our perceptions of others; in the film, we meet people naturally, and we also judge them before every knowing them, just as we do so often in our personal lives. This mindset that Lee puts you in is what makes you so invested in the actions on screen, and it’s probably why many believed the film would cause riots, for when the third act literally erupts into a brutally violent climax, part of you wants to join in because you’ve come to know and understand the characters involved – you like some, you despite others, you trust a few, you’re skeptical of many, but either way you want to fight with them.

While Do The Right Thing is certainly not filled fully with brotherly love, it’s also not filled with hate either. The argument that the film would cause blacks to riot was essentially the white way of coming to terms with the film’s radical ideas. In a Midwest Quarterly article, Jennifer Radtke dispelled the hoopla over the film, claiming, “[Lee] wasn’t crafting a typical “characterization”, instead the film really extends to a representation of a diverse totality of a black community…these techniques are much less familiar to those who’ve not grown up amidst them or studied them, a fact that ended up causing confusion and, in the ensuing fear, even dire predictions of violence from several critics.” In other words, the film was true to the neighborhood it was portraying, and for the blind white eye, the themes and plot were instantly marked as dangerous simply because they were unfamiliar.

In reality, the film is more about stopping racial violence than strengthening it – so much happens over the course of the day in the film that it’s almost unbearable to watch at times, but here in lies the foundation of the film: to encourage the viewer to make the right decisions, to consider outcomes before retaliating, and to make connections based on emotions, not race. After viewing the film, you realize that so much could have been prevented if the characters actually acted as opposed to turning the blind eye, and it’s that notion that exposes the hypocrisy of the critical backlash. When taking Radtke’s words into consideration, it’s funny that the backlash over whether or not the film would cause riots stems from the misjudgment of white communities about black ones, which is the very idea the film tries so hard to dispel. If one actually understands just how real the community in the film is, than he/she will take away with him/her the power to understand one another, not misjudge.

If anything, the film exposes the real problems with our society, from the previously mentioned misjudgments of people to the unjust power of the police force, a group the film seemingly criticizes for abusing power so often against blacks. The powerful thing about the movie, however, is that it doesn’t preach you its many ideas; instead, you come to see them for yourself and then realize them in everyday life. While walking around Boston the other day, for instance, multiple signs reading, “Stand Clear – Police Take Notice” stuck out to me. Even today, decades after I first watched the film, the fear and power of the police are consistently used to make sure pedestrians don’t step out of line. This notion that the police and the law control our every move, a concept you come to realize while watching Do The Right Thing, makes me angry, but in no way would I retaliate against the law like the characters in the film. Instead, I’ve learned the power of peaceful protest just as Mookie, Tina, Da Mayor, Sal, and so many other people, both real and fictional, have.

While many have preached against the film and it’s stimulating issues, I think, as Roger Ebert said, “…those opinions say more about their authors than about the movie.” At the end of the day, Do The Right Thing is a movie that can be beloved by anyone of any race, age, or gender because it’s ultimate message is so universal. The film demands you’re attention, yes, but it never forces you to think a certain way; instead, the expierence is all natural, all the time – the movie never makes judgments, you do. So nowadays, when I hear that people may be encouraged to riot after watching the film, I laugh, for here is a film that calls to stop violence, and anyone that disagrees is simply feeding into the film’s criticism of misjudgment – and that’s the triple truth, Ruth.

Article by Zack Sharf


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