Do The Right Thing (1989)


Spike Lee, WHY MUST YOU?!
Spike Lee, WHY MUST YOU?!


Genre: Drama

Starring: Spike Lee (Jungle FeverSchool Daze), Danny Aiello (Léon: The ProfessionalOnce Upon a Time in America)

Directed By: Spike Lee (Malcolm XInside Man)

Overview: On a sweltering-hot day in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood, racial tension heats up at an Italian pizzeria.

I have a history with Do The Right Thing. It wasn’t good to me the first time around – back when it was still current. And now, as is plentiful in my 1001 tome, I need to re-watch it so that I can complete my quest of writing a review for each of the films in the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book. Sometimes work feels like work. But I’ve aged, and I have far more cinematic knowledge and context to make Do The Right Thing work for me rather than against me. What’s more, I had an eager friend who wanted to host it for me – so again, something to look forward to. Let’s see how Do The Right Thing fared for me this time around…

On one of the hottest days of the year, in the Bedford-Stuyvessant neighborhood of Brooklyn where Mike Tyson grew up, Mookie (Spike Lee) is a deliveryman working at an Italian pizzeria run by Sal Fragione (Danny Aiello) and his two sons. Being in a mostly black neighborhood, the Italian-Americans running the pizzeria face some racial differences, including one customer who insists that Sal’s Wall of Fame - which features famous Italian-Americans – needs to include blacks. With the temperature rising in a neighborhood that’s becoming all too aware of the gentrification happening in their streets, doing the right thing is becoming increasingly difficult.

Here's some actors who decided to choreograph their STANDING.
Here's some actors who decided to choreograph their STANDING.

Let’s get the horrors out of the way first: of all the scenes I dreaded, the opening credit sequence was, by far, the one I recall being most traumatized by. It was even more brutal the second time around. It was four minutes of Rosie Perez dancing like a buffoon in different outfits, including one as a boxer complete with gloves. Get used to the opening song, Public Enemies’ “Fight The Power”, because it never lets up. It is a tiring omnipresence throughout the film. The fact that it’s intentionally annoying doesn’t make it sound any better. There’s Smiley, a mentally handicapped character who sells pictures of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. This character was not originally in the script. The man who played that character, Roger Guenveur Smith, wanted to be in Spike Lee’s film. Well I guess Spike Lee felt bad enough for him that he let Roger’s Smiley character tip the scales to make sure that Lee’s film would become an embarrassing farce. I don’t know what it was like in ’89, but Smiley is almost downright plain offensive today.

Do The Right Things exposition is palpable. For as script written in two weeks, I’m not surprised. Aside from the three main characters, nearly everyone is a caricature. The worst offenders include Buggin’ Out, unpleasantly played by Giancarlo Esposito of “Breaking Bad” fame. His one dimension of blind racial outrage is already tiresome by the time he gets in a white guy’s face for getting his new sneakers stepped on – and that’s barely halfway through the film. There’s Radio Rahim (Bill Nunn), a big black man with a big black ghetto blaster playing the same damn big black song in every single scene he’s in – you guessed it, “Fight the Power”. His ‘cause’ is playing his music wherever he wants to and drowning out everyone else. Clearly, a wonderful purpose to have in life. Now I admit that having characters who are fallible makes for added nuance and dimension, but Spike, come on, way over the line, seriously.

I am ecstatic that Giancarlo has matured as an actor and doesn't go around FREAKING OUT at every little thing in "Breaking Bad"
I am ecstatic that Giancarlo has matured as an actor and doesn't go around FREAKING OUT at every little thing in "Breaking Bad"

I think that about covers the ‘wrong’ of Do The Right Thing. The ‘right’, well, would be the entire finale. It’s dramatic, it’s worthy, it’s poignant. Danny Aiello and John Tuturro played their parts brilliantly. They made the film something to enjoy. They made the pizzeria scenes something to look forward to. It may very well be the best role of Danny’s career. His character has dimension, has values we can understand and streak of compassion that makes him real. Drink in his role, it’s refreshing.

I’ve said that Do The Right Thing wasn’t good to me back when it was still current. Today it holds up even less. It’s dated. It’s fundamentally theatrical, feeling more like a play than a movie. Too often did the scenes look like they were busting out of a Broadway musical, with overstated acting and choreographed group reactions. Yet, though the racial message is loud, it’s not drilled into you constantly like in 2004’s Crash. Do The Right Thing is still entertaining thanks to the climactic third act, and thanks to the talent of Danny Aiello, John Turturro, and Ossie Davis.

Luckily, I saw this with a friend who was passionate about the film. Seeing it alone, well, that would surely have been a bitter pill to swallow.

Ah, Serenity.
Ah, Serenity.

Performance: 7 Cinematography: 7 Script: 7 Plot: 7 Mood: 7

Overall Rating: 70% (Aaaaand Done)

One thing I noted - and have been unable to decide if I should appreciate it as an homage or be downright upset at Spike’s blatant rip-off - is Radio Rahem’s speech about the rings he wears on his hands. On one, his fist sized ring reads LOVE, on the other, HATE:

Let me tell you the story of Right Hand, Left Hand. It's a tale of good and evil. Hate: it was with this hand that Cain iced his brother. Love: these five fingers, they go straight to the soul of man. The right hand: the hand of love. The story of life is this: static. One hand is always fighting the other hand, and the left hand is kicking much ass. I mean, it looks like the right hand, Love, is finished. But hold on, stop the presses, the right hand is coming back. Yeah, he got the left hand on the ropes, now, that's right. Ooh, it's a devastating right and Hate is hurt, he's down. Left-Hand Hate KOed by Love.

Those savvy cinephiles out there will recognize this as a paraphrasing of the same love/hate speech by the Reverend Harry Powell in Night of the Hunter (1955). In his case, his knuckles are tattooed with those words.

Ah, little lad, you're staring at my fingers. Would you like me to tell you the little story of right-hand/left-hand? The story of good and evil? H-A-T-E! It was with this left hand that old brother Cain struck the blow that laid his brother low. L-O-V-E! You see these fingers, dear hearts? These fingers has veins that run straight to the soul of man. The right hand, friends, the hand of love. Now watch, and I'll show you the story of life. Those fingers, dear hearts, is always a-warring and a-tugging, one agin t'other. Now watch 'em! Old brother left hand, left hand he's a fighting, and it looks like love's a goner. But wait a minute! Hot dog, love's a winning! Yessirree! It's love that's won, and old left hand hate is down for the count!

Yeah, I know it's an hommage, but I still feel robbed.
Yeah, I know it's an hommage, but I still feel robbed.

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