“My people, my people, what can I say, say what I can. I saw it but didn’t believe it, I didn’t believe what I saw. Are we gonna live together, together are we gonna live?”
Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing celebrates its 23rd anniversary this summer and it still packs a wallop. Lee’s examination of the racial divide in America is as relevant today as its ever been before. The first time I saw it I felt something I hadn’t felt in years, a movie of such relevance, poignancy and incendiary truth- I was stunned, scared, shaken. Radio Raheem still lingers in my head, so does Mookie throwing a garbage can at Sal’s Pizzeria, Buggin Out with his infamous boycott and Pino’s in your face racism. When it first came out people were expecting riots and anarchy but instead we got conversation and reasoning- the essence of what art can do. I got the criterion edition a few years ago but the new Blu-Ray edition supposedly blows that one out of the ball park- the image is crisper and the sound is top notch. It’s still -along with David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull- a landmark movie of the 1980’s.
So after all this praise on my part, it is still a real shock to realize that Do The Right Thing – a movie of unequivocal importance then and now- did not get nominated for Best Picture of 1989. Instead we got a safe, predictable portrait of Racism in “Driving Miss Daisy” winning Best Picture. The four other nominees were better; Peter Weir’s involving ”Dead Poets Society”, Oliver Stone’s “Born On The Fourth Of July”, Jim Sheridan’s “My Left Foot” and the corny “Field Of Dreams”. I’d replace the Costner movie with Woody Allen’s daring “Crimes And Misdemeanors” and of course the artificial “Driving Miss Daisy” with “Do The Right Thing”. Lee’s movie not only aged better than any of the above mentioned but created conversation in the public eye. Hell, even President Obama and First Lady Michelle went to see “Do The Right Thing” on their first date !
Lee’s film opens with Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power” playing as Rosie Perez’s Tina breakdances through the credits. Once that is done we enter a neighborhood like no other. The story is told on one hot summer day, the hottest of the year in fact, in a New York City alive with racism, confusion and corrupt cops. Radio Raheem- one of the film’s many colorful characters- has one hand tattooed with the word Love and the other with the word Hate, a perfect description of the film. Lee knew very well of the struggle that America was going through-and still does- with racism and bigotry. He explored it through characters that had resentment in their blood.
Lee created more than a dozen memorable characters for “Do The Right Thing”, all well sketched out and imperfect in their actions and thoughts. There isn’t really a single heroic figure in the bunch. Mookie, the character that we think is heroic, ends up starting the riot in the film’s blistering finale by throwing a garbage can through the window of Sal’s Pizzeria. Did he do the right thing? It’s left for discussion and after close to 2 decades there are still mixed thoughts Mookie’s actions. What I do know is that Lee did it on purpose, he wanted to create conversation and make a film that would impact our lives. Job well done.
Not everyone took it that way. Reviewers feared that Lee’s film would incite black audiences to riot. No such riots occurred and Lee criticized “white reviewers for implying that black audiences were incapable of restraining themselves while watching a fictional motion picture.” He had a point. The fact that Americans thought black people would riot is the exact reason why Lee made the film in the first place, to show the divide and confusion that reigned in America at the time.
To call Lee’s film a game changer wouldn’t do it much justice It brought impact to a society that needed to be shaken and got audiences asking questions that not only had to do with the movie but had to do with their own ideals. We live in a time when most movies don’t have the balls to create such ambitious, daring work. Lee’s film reminds us of the power that art can have on society as a whole and the whiplash that comes with watching such a visionary creation. He never made a better movie than “Do The Right Thing”, only his second film, not many have since.