Do the Right Thing

September 19, 2011

With each of his films, Spike Lee has upped the ante. His low-budget debut, She’s Gotta Have It, was a clever and catchy take on male-female relations. His second movie, School Daze, was a lively view of life at a black university, no holds barred.

In Lee’s third and latest film, Do the Right Thing, the stakes are higher. Lee, who wrote, directed and produced this movie, and also plays one of the main roles, looks at a single hot summer’s day in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a neighborhood in Brooklyn.

Echoes of Howard Beach and other ugly racial incidents are present in the film’s violent climax, but Lee has imagined his own complete, original world here. The action centers on Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, where Sal (Danny Aiello) and his sons (John Turturro, Richard Edson) serve up the best slices in the neighborhood.

Lee plays Mookie, the pizza delivery man, whose rounds take him on visits to various local characters, including a lengthy stop with his girlfriend (Rosie Perez).

As the sweltering day progresses, there are hints of racial tension, from the innocence of a dispute about whether Dwight Gooden or Roger Clemens is the best pitcher in baseball, to the hostility and fear of Sal’s sons. Then Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito) notices that there are no photos of black people on Sal’s wall, only Italian-American celebrities, despite the fact that virtually all of Sal’s customers are black. Sal figures it’s his place, he can do what he wants.

This minor disagreement eventually turns into a violent scene, and the community briefly goes aflame. Lee is playing with the way volatile elements can suddenly converge, and he does a good job of catching the crackle of the community’s long fuse. He also has made a movie full of funny moments, especially the rhythms of a trio of sidewalk-sitters who comment on the action.

But Lee is also playing with fire here, and it’s not quite clear he knows what he’s doing. He shows different sides to the main characters, as though to give each his say, but in the process the movie doesn’t seem to have a point of view. The issues Lee serves up deserve a deeper treatment.

First published in the Herald, June 29, 1989

As the movie went on to win acclaim, I became less impressed by its undeniably funny comic sequences and more disenchanted with the overall picture; there were some exchanges that might’ve passed muster on an average episode of “All in the Family” in 1971, but were embarrassingly clumsy in 1989. Many people find it an important and significant film.