Why Do The Right Thing Is Spike Lee's Greatest Film
Wake uuuuuuuuup! Up your wake, up your wake, up your wake! Do The Right Thing is 25 years old today, and it has never been more fresh. Spike Lee's confrontational masterpiece has now been around for a quarter of a century, and watching it in 2014 is still a two-ton megabomb that burrows under your skin and explodes.
Last week we honored Batman, twenty five years old and one of the most influential blockbusters of all-time. But this week, Do The Right Thing hopefully re-enters the lexicon to remind fans that Spike Lee's best film is also possibly the greatest American film of the past twenty five years.
For those who haven't seen Lee's sweat-soaked summer serenade (seriously, what's wrong with you?), the picture follows Lee's Mookie, a hustler earning extra cash by delivering for Sal's Pizzeria. Sal, a mountain of a man played by a terrifying Danny Aiello, values his business as the latest in a proud lineage of Italian-American achievements. But tensions spill over during the course of the year's hottest day, as scores of Sal's primarily-black clientele bristle against social injustices, withered relationships, and Sal's ultimately-human cheapness.
The black and white debates in Lee's Do the Right Thing remind us how far we've failed to come, and in fact how we may have regressed racially over the years. Sal's kinky-headed son Pino (John Turturro) openly speaks ill of Mookie's skin color, but in a telling moment, it's revealed that all of Turturro's favorite people are black. It's a harsh scene today, not only for the racial epithets that Mookie and Pino exchange, but also as a snapshot of a culture and a time when actors like Eddie Murphy, athletes like Magic Johnson and musicians like Prince could conceivably be embraced by a monoculture that includes people like Pino, who condescendingly qualifies them as "more than black." Never mind that Michael Jackson or Michael Jordan could have also added to that conversation; an earlier scene where Mookie and Pino's brother Vito (Richard Edson) debate Doc Gooden versus Roger Clemens sadly hasn't aged as well, as sports fans can attest.
Much of that racial tension translates to today's New York, particularly the of-the-moment cultural references. "Tawana told the truth" reads a graffiti message in the background of a particularly heated moment, referring to Tawana Brawley. In the late eighties, Ms. Brawley claimed to be the victim of a brutal rape that left her degraded and abused beyond imagination. A grand jury considered the event to be a hoax, a charge that, several lawsuits later, Ms. Brawley still disputes. Lee does as well, given that the grand jury findings occured during filming of Do The Right Thing. And the ultimate fate of Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), the young man taken down by police brutality in the film's close, inspires chants from the characters of "Howard Beach!" This calls back towards the racially-motivated murder of young Michael Griffith in 1986, a 23 year old black man chased down and murdered by a white mob. The divisions caused by the recent, controversial death of Trayvon Martin allows the viewer to understand that the primal scream at the heart of Do The Right Thing is still relevant.
Of course, Do The Right Thing isn't just some "angry black man" film, though scores of viewers may have written the film off given Spike Lee's defiantly inconsistent filmography and noted outspokenness. The picture is filled with such glorious joy, created by a community that genuinely cares for and loves each other. Every character who disagrees eventually also shares moments where they're suddenly on the same page with their nemeses, amused glances powered by inside jokes. Rosie Perez's debut performance is like a foghorn of foul language, but as an actress, her scream rattles the walls, and her tender moments with Lee are an erotic highlight. You'll catch a young Samuel L. Jackson and Martin Lawrence here, having the time of their lives as a smooth-talking deejay and a local slow-voiced teen, respectively.
And your heart aches when you see Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee together. The two had been married for forty years before she played the saintly Mother Sister and he featured as Da Mayor, both of them walking romantic circles around each other. Da Mayor is a disillusioned boozehound who can't even stand straight, and Davis doesn't shy away from creating a pathetic shell of a man who'll curse the sky for not getting lit quick enough. But when he begins to reveal the immense generosity of his heart to Mother Sister, and her exterior slightly cracks to reveal mutual affection, it's impossible to not melt. Ms. Dee passed away last month. You can only hope Mother Sister finds Da Mayor somewhere in Heaven, where he's waited for her for almost ten years.
The central debate of Do the Right Thing can be found in the title. In the film's close, Mookie navigates an angry mob and opts to provoke them into action, firing a garbage can into the window of Sal's Pizzeria. It's an ugly and terrifying moment, charging an already-upsetting scene and sending a bubbling hatred to the surface. I personally used to find the film ironic, noting that, in my eyes, no one had truly done the "right thing." It was Radio Raheem's boombox that caused a physical altercation, it was Sal's belligerence that led to a scene, it was the police's overreaction that earns the ire of the entire community.
But Mookie. Mookie's trashcan firing into that window echoes in cinematic eternity, for the questions it raised, but also the questions it answered. I now know how I feel about whether anyone truly did the right thing. The beauty in the film is that you might disagree, and we could probably debate it forever.
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