Skip to main content

Empire Magazine Greatest Movies List - #403: Do the Right Thing

Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” (1989) depicts a hot-summer day in Brooklyn, New York, that slowly boils into an explosion of racial tensions. Its wide cast of characters have many things in common: they all eat and shop in the same streets, they each endure the oppressive summer heat, they all have more or less the same economic background, and they all have that indelible New York identity. Unfortunately as the day goes by, small conflicts make them forget their similarities and make them only focus on their differences resulting in tragedy.

When it was first released, several newspapers stated the film could incite black audiences to riot. Even though no such riots occurred, Lee criticized the critics for implying black audiences could not restrain themselves. As a white Canadian male who randomly saw the movie on TV in Quebec City two years ago, I can’t really speak to the racial tensions of the times in that part of the world. The most I know about African-American culture is what I learned during a course in Cultural Studies at the University of Sherbrooke. We didn’t watch “Do the Right Thing,” but we did listen to “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy, which plays a prominent part in the movie.

Although the movie focuses on many characters, most of the action takes place at a pizzeria owned by Sal Frangione (Danny Aiello) an Italian-American who has lived in the neighbourhood for 25 years. Mookie (played by Lee) delivers pizzas for him. Sal has two sons, Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson). Sal treats Mookie like a respectful employee, Vito sees him as a friend, but Pino wears his racism on his sleeves. He frequently uses the “n” word when talking about African-Americans who live in the neighbourhood, yet Mookie points out he never uses that word when it comes to black athletes or artists.

Outside the pizzeria the rest of the neighbourhood characters go about their day like a well-oiled machine. There is Radio Raheem (Bill Nun) a hulk of a black man who walks around with a boom box blaring Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” The late great Ossie Davis plays the local drunk called Da Mayor, who has his eyes on Mother Sister (Ruby Dee), who has her eyes on the streets from the window of her brownstone. A trio of older men (Robin Harris, Paul Benjamin, Frankie Faison) sit on the same street corner every day and provide comments on the day’s events. They are of course known as the Corner Men. Every village, small town, or neighbourhood has men like that. Providing the soundtrack for all of these people and many other young people suffering the heat in the street is Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson) the local radio DJ.

As the clock turns, tensions begin to rise. Radio Raheem annoys both Puerto Rican men and Sal with his loud music. Teenagers open a fire hydrant to cool off, causing the police to intervene. Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito), a friend of Mookie, is angry at Sal for not putting any pictures black men on the pizzeria’s wall of fame. Instead Sal has it covered with pictures of prominent Italian-Americans such as Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro. Sal has a valid argument: it’s his place he can do what he wants. But Buggin’ Out won’t let it go, and by the time the sun sets, all of the day’s hatred and racial tension will explode into the pizzeria. Some of the hatred will even come out of Sal’s mouth in a moment of anger.

Spike Lee, who also wrote the movie, is smart enough to show that racism doesn’t just flow one way. Not everyone is guilty, but not everyone is innocent. Pino is openly racist and is not helping anyone with his prejudices. On the other hand Buggin’ Out almost gets into a fight with a white man for stepping on his shoes and asks him why he decided to live on his side of the street.

A clever thing Spike Lee the director does is have some of the characters speak directly to the camera to spew out the things they are thinking, but dare not say in public. This use of soliloquy shows us what is happening beneath the waves in theses character’s minds and makes us wonder whether or not some of us in the audience actually think like that too. It’s a clever device, which Lee would later use again in “25th Hour” (2002) with Edward Norton.

So how much has changed in America between 1989 and today, in terms of racism? Again, I can only offer the opinions of a white Canadian observer watching from afar. Culturally speaking things seem to be no doubt different. Another song we listened to in Cultural Studies was Ice-T’s “Cop Killer” (1992), which was perceived as glamorizing the killing of police officers. Now Ice-T plays a cop on NBC. Yet racial tensions are by no means gone. Was it not only last month that a black teen was shot and killed in Florida because a neighbourhood watchman thought he “looked suspicious?” That was definitely not doing the right thing.      


Popular posts from this blog

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #70: Stand by Me

Another clear influence on Stranger Things, Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me (1986) portrays American kids from a lost era in which they could go on an adventure away from home. Nowadays if children go missing for more than an hour parents try to locate them using cell phone apps, but in the story written by Stephen King four boys in 1959 Oregon go walking in the woods during a long weekend to look for, of all things, a dead body. Their lives are sometimes at risk, they have no way of communicating with their parents, but they will definitely have a story to remember for the rest of their lives.
For many North Americans adults this movie fondly reminded them of a time in their childhood despite the inherent danger. Not so for me since, first of all, there was no time in my childhood when I could possibly go out of the house for more than three hours without my mom getting in her car to go look for me. The there is the fact that I spent a good chunk of my childhood living in Chile and Peru, an…

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #77: Spartacus

Spartacus (1960) is an interesting movie in Stanley Kubrick's filmography because it doesn’t really feel like a Stanley Kubrick movie. I don’t exactly know why, but his signature style doesn’t seem to be present unlike in classics such as The Shining, A Clockwork Orange, or Dr. Strangelove. It does however feel like one of those big sword-and-sandals epics in which you have British thespians acting as Roman politicians with the occasional big battle sequence. In that respect it is spectacular and features Kirk Douglas at his best as the titular hero.
The story of the rebel slave Spartacus has inspired a bloody and sexy TV series (so far unseen by me, but I hear it’s great) and the story behind how it was made is one of those cases of life imitating art. The Bryan Cranston film Trumbo tells how screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was blacklisted in Hollywood during the 1950s for his communist beliefs and had to rebel against the system by writing screenplays for cheap movies under a fake nam…

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #79: The Thin Red Line

I once saw an interview in which Christopher Plummer said that what Terrence Malick needs is a writer. He was referring to his experience shooting The New World, which saw his role considerably reduced. The same happened to a much greater extent with Malick’s war movie The Thin Red Line (1998), which saw the screen time of many movie stars reduced to mere minutes amid a 170-minute running time. However you have to hand it to the guy: he knows how to make anything look beautiful, including the carnage of war.
Malick’s movie came out the same year as Saving Private Ryan, so I think that year I had my fill of ultra violent war films and was no too interested in seeing it. Sixteen years later I finally caught up to it on Netflix, but in hindsight the big screen might have been a better option since this is a very visual story. The plot is pretty loose, following one American soldier and sometimes some of his brothers in arms as they make their way through World War II in the Pacific theat…