For a good while now, I’ve been allowed to write article upon article about movies. In the articles, I usually reference or outright mention the 1984 film Gremlins, citing it as my favorite movie of all time. I’ve seen it too many times to count. I’m sure it’s been over 150 times? It’s an insanely important movie to me, launching my love of B movies and the wonders of cinematic escapism.
My next favorite movie, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, is a film I’ve seen significantly fewer times. Maybe 25? There’s a good reason for that. The film is uninterested in letting the viewer escape from reality or from themes that implicate the viewer in the drama. In lieu of little green monsters and phantasmagorical storylines we have the often hard-to-watch communication, or lack thereof, between everyday people. It’s a great movie that inspires discussion.
I wrongly assumed most people have seen Lee’s film, or at least knew of it. But recently, while talking to another movie-infatuated person, I asked him what he thought of Do the Right Thing to which he replied “What’s that?”
Maybe I was just lucky enough to be exposed to it at the right time. It was 1989. Another summer of movies flooding the multiplexes. While films like Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids offered that relief from the heat, Do the Right Thing did just the opposite, offering the viewer very little respite.
Taking place on a block in Brooklyn’s predominantly black Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood during the hottest day of the summer, we watch as the day starts peacefully with the central character, Mookie (Lee), delivering pizzas for Sal’s Famous. We meet a variety of characters like restaurant owner Sal (Danny Aeillo), his sons Vito and Pino (Richard Edson, John Turturro), town drunk Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), Mother Sister (Ruby Dee), Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito), Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), and Senor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson) in the first act. Over the course of the day the heat kicks in (wonderfully captured by director of photography Ernest Dickerson) and racial tensions flare resulting in a fight, a riot, a death, and a pair of conflicting quotes by Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
While Public Enemy and the song they penned for the film, “Fight The Power,” was the initial reason I wanted to see Do the Right Thing, it was an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show that made it clear that I needed to see it. If memory serves me correctly, Spike Lee sat between film critic Roger Ebert and political columnists Juan Williams and Joe Klein while Oprah fielded questions and criticism from the audience directed at the film’s incendiary topic of race and race relations.
One audience member asked why the film didn’t feature scenes of drug addiction, prompting Lee to ask why drugs would need to be featured in a movie about race relations.
Another audience member voiced a concern over the film’s portrayal of white people prompting an eyeroll from Lee. But what drove me crazy with curiosity was when Ebert said the film left him in tears. I’d never heard of a movie doing that to him before. He later recounted the effect the film had on other audience members in his official 1989 review for the Chicago Sun Times: “Some of them are bothered by it; they think it will cause trouble. Others feel the message is confused. Some find it too militant, others find it the work of a middle-class director who is trying to play street-smart. All of those reactions, I think, simply are different ways of avoiding the central fact of this film, which is that it comes closer to reflecting the current state of race relations in America than any other movie of our time.”
At it’s core, Do the Right Thing is a sad movie. Don’t get me wrong — it has some funny moments (mostly provided by the late Robin Harris) and some stunning moments like Rosie Perez’s Bye Bye Birdie-influenced dance sequence that opens the film.
The racial stereotypes montage and Radio Raheem’s “Love/Hate” speech (itself a reference to The Night of the Hunter) early in the film are just as tragic now, considering how little we seem to have learned from history. From a local perspective, you can’t see this film without thinking of Walter Scott or Mother Emanuel or the general political climate. It’s a beautiful film that offers no heroes or villains, preferring to capture humanity at its best, and at its worst.
Do the Right Thing shows for one night only at 7 p.m. this Sun. June 30 at the Terrace Theater.
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