Written and directed
by Spike Lee.
by Ernest Dickerson.
Music by Bill Lee..
Starring: Danny Aiello, Spike
Lee, Giancarlo Esposito, Sam Jackson, Joie Lee, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Bill Nunn, John
Turturro, Rosie Perez, Richard Edson, Robin Harris.
Rated: R -- language, nudity, violence.
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I think Do the Right Thing is
a masterpiece -- certainly one of the most invigorating and moving experiences I've ever
had at the movies. But, even more than that, it's a movie I love and connect with in
a deeply personal way. Watching it, for me, was like being inside somebody else's
head -- somebody I felt very much in tune with -- and really seeing through his eyes
(which was sort of like how I felt when I saw Lee's first film, She's Gotta Have
It). To be sure, it's a deliberately unsettling and provocative film, but
it's also brimming with joy and color and physicality. The first hour is so
exuberant that I sometimes almost forget the dark clouds that are about to descend -- and
that makes the last part of the film all the more painful to watch.
By Jim Emerson
That was the final
rallying cry of Spike Lee's previous picture, School Daze. And Do the Right
Thing -- Lee's purposefully ambiguous exploration of escalating racial tensions on one
Bedford-Stuyvesant block on the hottest day of the summer -- picks up where School
Daze left off: with the very same rousing words.
"Waaaaake up!" calls Mr. Seņor Love Daddy
(Samuel L. Jackson), the 24-7-365 DJ for neighborhood radio station WE-LOVE as he holds a
ringing alarm clock next to his studio microphone. From an intimate close-up of Love
Daddy's lips, mic and clock, the camera pulls back, through the glass front of the WE-LOVE
booth and out onto the street that is the sole setting for Do the Right Thing.
In both School
Daze and Do the Right Thing, those words -- "Wake up!" -- are
aimed directly at the movies' characters -- and audiences. They're words Lee hopes people
will carry with them as they leave the theater and head back out onto the streets
themselves. Virtually all the colorfully eccentric characters who populate Lee's movies
could use a little consciousness-expanding to wake them up. And after eight years of
blithe complacency and denial under Ronald Reagan, so could most Americans.
Do the Right Thing, Lee's third feature, is by far his most complex and
accomplished to date, a movie teeming with life, ablaze with sunny colors (mainly
brilliant reds, oranges and yellows), pulsating with music, and charged with unresolved
tensions and contradictions that gradually accumulate in the sweltering air. A variegated
assortment of Bed-Stuy personalities bump into and bounce off of one another throughout
the day, their myriad frictional encounters and moral dilemmas punctuated with potent
bursts of humor.
As Mr. Seņor Love Daddy announces the beginning of what promises to be a scorcher of a Saturday, the
neighborhood slowly rouses itself: There's Sal (Danny Aiello), the proud Italian-American
who has run Sal's Famous Pizzeria on the same corner for 25 years; Sal's two sons, Pino
(John Turturro), an angry young bigot, and Vito (Richard Edson), who's friends with the
pizzeria's irresponsible delivery man, Mookie (Lee himself); Mookie's sister Jade (played
by Lee's sister Joie), who is always trying to get her "big" brother to face up
to his responsibilities; and Tina (Rosie Perez), Mookie's screechy-voiced Puerto Rican
girlfriend and mother of his infant son Hector.
Other block denizens include: Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), an alcoholic elder who's become a
neighborhood fixture; Mother Sister (Ruby Dee), who sits in her window all day and
watches; Buggin' Out (Giancarlo Esposito), a b-boy who wants Sal to put up some pictures
of black people alongside the ones of Joe Dimaggio, Robert DeNiro, and Frank Sinatra on
the pizzeria's Wall of Fame; Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), a very big man who parades up and
down the street with a ghetto blaster that seems oversized even for him; Sonny (Steve
Park), a Korean grocer; Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith), a retarded man who sells
hand-colored postcards of the only photo of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X together; and
the hilarious Corner Men, ML (Paul Benjamin), Coconut Sid (Frankie Faison) and Sweet Dick
Willie (Robin Harris), who comment on what's happening on the block like a lazily comic
orchestrates all of this and more, just as he interweaves his father Bill Lee's
magnificent, melancholy, minor-key jazz score with blaring rap (Public Enemy), reggae
(Steel Pulse), go-go (EU) and other urban street sounds on the soundtrack. The movie's
bold, bright stylization resembles a Hollywood backlot musical done street-style. Lee and
cinematographer Ernest Dickerson playfully contrast the artificial and the realistic, so
that the picture seems to take place in a world that isn't quite either, but both.
From its sizzling titles sequence (in which Rosie Perez dances in front of images of
Brooklyn to Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" -- Spike, nobody's gonna
read those credits!) to its sad, muted after-the-storm coda and the final juxtaposed
quotations from Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, Do the Right Thing is
thoroughly engaging, mesmerizing filmmaking.
With a lot of help from his actors, who improvised portions of scenes, Lee packs the
picture full of intriguingly ambivalent details and provocative contradictions on every
level. We see conflicting sides to, and harbor opposing feelings toward, almost every
For example: In a
double-edged comment on the economic underpinnings of racism in our society, both Mookie
and Sal view money as the solution to all problems -- Sal thinks he can buy off trouble by
slipping a few dollars to Da Mayor or Smiley or Mookie; and Mookie's a wage slave who
doesn't seem to care about anything except "gettin' paid." The first -- and last
-- time we see him, he's counting his money. And Buggin' Out, who becomes the catalyst for
the movie's violent climax over the Wall of Fame issue, is played by an actor who is
himself half-black and half-Italian.
Because of his appealing presence and the funny underdogs he's played before -- Mars
Blackmon in She's Gotta Have It and Half-Pint in School Daze -- Lee's
Mookie will probably the the character with whom audiences are most eager to identify. And
Lee has shrewdly anticipated that: Mookie is the movie's pivotal figure, the one who
finally expresses his rage and frustration in a single, decisive but confused act that
touches off a riot and destroys Sal's Famous.
An argument between Sal and a black customer who refuses to turn down his music escalates first into
racial name-calling and then into a brawl. When the police arrive, they use excessive
force and end up strangling a friend of Mookie's. An angry crowd gathers around Sal's and
Mookie throws a trash can through the front window. All hell breaks loose.
Does Mookie "do the right thing"? He does what he feels is necessary at that
moment, but is then stunned and overwhelmed by the chaotic forces he unleashes. You start
thinking: If only Sal, who is always yelling at everybody, hadn't had such a quick temper.
If only the customer had just turned down the volume on his radio. If only...
There are no uncompromised heroes, no clear-cut villains here or in any of Lee's movies. And some
viewers may find this frustrating, confusing, even infuriating. But it's that space
between right and wrong, justice and retribution, reason and outrage, that Spike Lee wants
to urge his audiences to explore for themselves. The heated critical debate that has
already arisen around the film indicates he's succeeded there.
The movie itself is not incendiary, an incitement to riot. Lee skillfully moves the
audience through the violent emotions of the riot into a quiet, sad and contemplative
epilog the morning after, in which Mookie and Sal achieve a sort of uneasy equilibrium.
The picture ends with Love Daddy (the movie's voice of conscience, along with sister Jade)
telling his listeners to "chill," warning that today is going to be even hotter,
and encouraging peolple to vote. "Are we going to learn to live together?" he
When the lengthy quotations from Dr. King ("Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both
impractical and immoral.... a descending spiral ending in destruction for all....")
and Malcolm X ("... I don't even call it violence when it's self defense, I call it
intelligence,") crawl slowly up the screen, viewers sits in rapt silence, trying to
absorb and intellectualize what they've just seen.
Radio Raheem, who wears a brass-knuckle ring that says "LOVE" on one hand and
"HATE" on the other, gives a speech in the middle of the movie that's a riff on
Robert Mitchum's famous talk in the surrealistically stylized Night of the Hunter,
in which he symbolically describes the continual struggle between these two elemental
forces. When Mookie throws the trash can, he blindly screams: "HATE!"-- and it's
this same, unresolved struggle that every moviegoer will feel churning inside while
watching Do the Right Thing. Rage is understandable, maybe even justifiable
-- but is it "right"?
What it all comes down to is that nobody else in America is making movies that engage, entertain and
challenge viewers the way Spike Lee does. And, as Love Daddy says: "That's the truth,
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