Do the Right Thing (1989)
Directed by Spike Lee
WWJD…What would Jordan do? Spike Lee (as producer, director, writer, and star–a quadruple-threat) pins a Magic jersey against a Celtic-green Larry Bird rag to represent racist tensions in NYC. A bumping, bouncing, danceable soundtrack screams from Radio’s boombox…“fight the power.” The Greek chorus, a black trio sitting under an umbrella on a sidewalk. A snapshot of late ‘80s fashion. This is what doing the right thing looks like.
It’s a scorcher in Brooklyn, and the heat is driving everyone insane. Racial tension heats up between local black residents and a restaurant owner, Sal (Danny Aiello in an Oscar-nominated role), and his two sons (John Turturro and Richard Edson). Eventually, the racism results in an outburst of emotion and physical force that leaves Mookie (Spike Lee)–a loyal employee of Sal’s but also a black man–struggling to pick a side.
The water cooler got its share of company in the days years following “Do the Right Thing.” Is Spike Lee racist? Is he playing with stereotypes? Would this situation actually go down like this? Is he promoting the outcome of the tension as “the right thing”? The best answer Lee can give is that there are no answers. It’s in the eye of the beholder. Treat its Oscar-nominated script like a sermon, because it gets you to think, reflect, and have some sort of cinematic epiphany.
Lee acts as well as he directs and writes and produces and attends Knicks games courtside. His adorable chemistry with Rosie Perez, who plays Mookie’s girlfriend Tina, brightened my day. His spars with Turturro are as entertaining as anything. His supporting cast, which includes a young Martin Lawrence and Samuel L. Jackson, is just as phenomenal.
The camera work is personal and awkward, but intentionally. It pins people closer together than they actually are by showing facial close-ups and aims up and down and tilts the camera every which way to get the optimal effect. “Whatchu laughin’ at!?” Giancarlo Esposito (as a character known as “Buggin’ Out”) shouts through the camera, looking into the audience’s eyes but directing his words to Danny Aiello on the other side of the shot. Or was he? Lee lets awkward silences mingle with explosive shouting matches where the audience can’t hear what’s being said. It’s loud, it’s real, and it’s intimate. “Do the Right Thing” uses an old drunk to shed some truth on the situation and a mentally disabled local to unveil everyone’s bigotry. It’s a genius technique. Only Spike Lee would have been able to pull off this story in the way that he does. I was going to end it by telling you to “do the right thing and see this movie,” but I thought that sounded cliché. But really…