Thirty years on, Do The Right Thing still wields the power to up your wake.
Set on the hottest day of the year in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood, Spike Lee’s third feature film incited a cultural riot. Major newspapers warned that the new, inflammatory movie about racial tensions – which debuted on June 30, 1989, in the wake of racially-charged seminal events like The Central Park Five and the Tawana Brawley controversy – could incite black people to literally riot.
No riots ever occurred, of course, but suffice it to say that even with the notable provocations of Lee’s first two films (She’s Gotta Have It and School Daze), those early efforts focused on issues strictly related to and within African-American culture, namely sex, class, and hypocrisies in the black community.
But with Do The Right Thing, Lee lit his cinematic match to a much bigger fuse.
This time, he broadened his frame to examine the place of the African-American community within America itself and in relation to other ethnicities, not just whites (Italians in this case) but also Hispanics and Koreans.
Lee spared nothing. Innate prejudices festered at the core, and yet while each race shares a solidarity their perspectives aren’t monolithic. There were also existential tensions, and inequities found in broader social dynamics, like how most ethnic immigrants had found their niche within the American Dream in a way that still eluded many black people, even within predominantly black communities.
No group dodged Lee’s indictment, yet all received his empathy, too.
That searing yet nuanced duality was lost on many of the film’s detractors (and still is, even by some who praise it but distill issues through woke binaries), and it’s at the heart of what became Spike Lee’s first masterpiece.
Spike not only had something to say but he knew exactly how to say it – and show it – with an aesthetic rooted in Ernest Dickerson’s vibrant cinematography (and influenced by Lee’s former NYU teacher Martin Scorsese). That was fused with the decade’s burgeoning rap and hip-hop rhythms (led by Public Enemy’s protest anthem “Fight the Power”) and contrasted more classically by Bill Lee‘s orchestral jazz, a lamenting Americana reminisicent of composer Aaron Copeland with evocations of Elmer Bernstein‘s work in To Kill A Mockingbird.
The knee-jerk perception of Lee is more of a Malcolm X (he did, after all, go on to make a bio about the man, in another of Lee’s masterpieces), but there’s just as much Martin Luther King, Jr. in him, too. Do The Right Thing has both philosophies, quite literally (with an inspired dash of Robert Mitchum’s “Love/Hate” Reverend Harry Powell), but they’re not pitted against each other. They are in conversation, and contemplation.
In fact, there aren’t a lot of “debates” in Do The Right Thing. Sure, there are plenty of arguments, most are just as hilarious as they are confrontational (the film probably doesn’t get enough credit for how funny it is), but the screenplay isn’t a pedagogic Lee soapbox. He’s not “explaining” race relations or contextualizing them; he just throws us right into the deep end of them.
Other films and filmmakers that have tried to replicate Do The Right Thing or draw inspiration from it have rarely achieved the same mastery. Recent wannabes like 2018’s Sorry To Bother You and Blindspotting, for example, were didactic, preachy, one-sided virtue-signalers that mistook rage for depth (although admirably, Blindspotting at least attempted to mix joy with that rage, as Lee did).
Yes, these movies had something to say but weren’t nearly as deft at saying it (often because they couldn’t get out of the way of their own import, and were too desperate to impress without having fully formed voices of their own, as Spike had here). Ava DuVernay, Ryan Coogler, Barry Jenkins, and Jordan Peele (who produced Spike’s BlacKkKlansman) are Lee’s more apparent heirs.
A mostly-young cast energized this pulsating ensemble – Lee notably, but also early roles for John Turturro, Samuel L. Jackson, Rosie Perez, Martin Lawrence, Breaking Bad’s Giancarlo Esposito (a scene stealer as the appropriately named Buggin’ Out), Lee’s sister Joie (playing Mookie’s sister Jade) and Bill Nunn’s larger-than-life Radio Raheem – that was anchored by vets like Danny Aiello in an impassioned Oscar-nominated performance as the Italian pizza shop owner, alongside poetic, beautiful, and mournful turns by husband and wife legends Ossie Davis (Da Mayor) and Ruby Dee (Mother Sister).
Police violence, gentrification, and even global warming are other elements that make this feel as if it’s speaking to today – which, I guess, it is. After three decades, Do The Right Thing is as relevant as it’s ever been (hell, there’s even a brief Trump reference). Indeed, as I watched this single locale story unfold in ways that still feel so immediate, it became easy to imagine seeing this adapted and transformed to the stage. Do The Right Thing as a play, or even a musical? Imagine what kind of hot ticket Broadway event that would be.
Do The Right Thing is the experience of race relations, and racial tensions, in the day-to-day. It’s very smart about portraying that experience but it’s not intellectualized; instead, the issues and ideas are incarnated. That approach leaves a lot open to interpretation, and essentially demands conversation.
Here is the incendiary yet necessary truth about Do The Right Thing: it’s an explosive Rorschach that will make you think and feel racist thoughts. I don’t care who you are or how woke you’ve become. It will.
The fact that you will doesn’t mean you’re racist. It means that Lee’s art is honest and authentic. As such, it provokes and requires an internal confrontation with ourselves.
Even against our own enlightened ethics and deeply held beliefs, there remains a primal level where certain scenarios, topics, or events (many depicted here, but the climax especially) will trigger racist impulses, even latent ones that we intellectually and morally oppose (which is hopefully the case for most of us).
These impulses mingle alongside our sense of justice, and that makes them all-the-more confusing, more difficult to grapple with, or to rightly discern. These impulses won’t be the same for everyone. They’ll be felt at different times, directed at different characters, actions, and circumstances, and felt for different reasons, each varying per our own particular experiences, communities, and the histories associated with them.
It’s human nature, and Lee wants us to recognize, identify, and wrestle with that – but also reconcile it. That reconciliation is meant to be our work, not the film’s. Paramount famously wanted two key characters to hug at the end, to which Lee reportedly said “Hell, no f***ing way!” and brought it to Universal instead.
Sure, to make such a ludicrous request is a classic example of studio mediocrity and risk aversion, but it also makes sense. Paramount understood the cultural metrics, ones that – in the same year – led to Driving Miss Daisy winning Best Picture (and hauling in over $106 million at the box office) while Do The Right Thing topped out at $27.5 million and wasn’t even nominated.
New York critics themselves were also divided, not only in their reviews but also at year’s end when Do The Right Thing was virtually ignored by the New York Film Critics Circle. The org chose My Left Foot as the year’s best film, and even tagged Driving Miss Daisy’s Bruce Beresford as a runner-up in the Directing category, only citing Ernest Dickerson’s DTRT cinematography as award-worthy. (The L.A. and Chicago critics groups, however, named DTRT Best Film and Spike as Best Director.)
The irony was thick this past year when Lee’s BlacKkKlansman lost the Best Picture race to Green Book, another middlebrow mid-century chauffeur story that paired two Civil Rights era black and white characters who learn to love and respect each other, but at least this time around Lee won the Screenplay Oscar he was nominated for, making up for an oversight three decades past due.
But it’s not awards that have caused Do The Right Thing to endure. It’s the potency of its ideas, how palpable they feel, and how unavoidable they still are. No matter how controversial some may still find its exploration to be, the counter to those criticisms couldn’t be more plain than the title itself.
This is Spike Lee talkin’. Always do the right thing. That’s it? That’s it. Got it. I’m gone.