Top Fifty Films of the 80s — Number Thirteen

right thing 13

#13 — Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989)
I first saw Do the Right Thing in the apartment of an upstairs neighbor when I was in college. We watched a rented VHS copy on a tiny little television–though a decent success at the time of its release, the film was far to, ahem, “urban” to get anywhere near my small, whitebread college town–and the film had a smashing impact on me, despite the compromised quality of the picture. Director Spike Lee built his kinetic images masterfully for the small screen, but it was the ferocious, challenging ideas embedded in the film that hit the hardest, transcending any diminished size, shrunken picture or woeful intrusions on the aspect ratio. When I got back to my apartment, I dug through the pile of movie magazines and other old periodicals in my closet–an ample collection that would have earned an admiring gaze from the most prolific pack rat shut-ins–and read every last thing I could about the film: the process of making it, the filmmakers, the actors, the reactions for and against it, the controversies that swirled up about what supposedly didn’t include about the inner city experience, the fears about violence at public screenings. As I developed from someone who watched films and simply reacted to someone who understood, processed and explicated those reactions, Do the Right Thing was one of the touchstone experiences. Perhaps more than ever before, I wanted to fully and completely understand the film I’d just experienced.

Set on a punishingly hot day in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn, Do the Right Thing aims to be nothing less that a full-scale deconstruction of the different racial tensions that shaped the daily experience of life in one of the sections of America’s vast melting pot most prone to roiling that can’t be easily quelled. The plot’s primary focus is on the tension that exists between an Italian-American pizzeria owner, his two sons of markedly different temperaments and the more politically militant residents of the predominantly African-American community where he peddles his slices. While that’s true, the film offers a far broader examination of the prejudices that spring into the human psyche like second-nature expressions of fearful individuality. The sequence that expresses this most overtly is a daring montage of different characters looking directly at the camera that presses in on them as they offer monologues of incendiary, dismissive language. The variety of offhand hatefulness that’s fueled by racial and ethnic differences exists in the film in a more thorough and absorbent fashion as all manner of interactions around the block are tinged with some degree of social conflict. The pizzeria owner may forcefully refuse to add a “brother” to his Wall of Fame array of pictures, but that’s not necessarily a greater affront to communal sensibilities than the black men who can’t make a purchase from the local Korean-run grocery without resorting to mockery. Lee’s film is a condemnation of prevalent racism, but it openly acknowledges the flaw as a sad shared trait that emanates from a place of human nature rather than some institutionalized mandate owned by the white ruling class.

Only the third full-length feature from Lee, Do the Right Thing established the filmmaker as a vital voice with a vivid style. From the jolt of the opening credits featuring Rosie Perez dancing to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” (accompanied at one point by a title card “Introducing” her, the term seeming like the height of understatement once she’s been furiously gyrating across the screen for several minutes) on, Lee delivers an inventive, dynamic, wildly colorful directing job. Without resorting to overly distracting tricks, Lee continually brings a striking creativity to his shot construction and editing rhythms–bolstered by the exemplary efforts of cinematographer Ernest Dickerson and editor Barry Alexander Brown–finding ways to meld storytelling clarity with marvelously surprising visuals. What’s more, Lee understands the necessity of making the neighborhood into a intricately drawn, fully realized place. The impact of the story absolutely depends on it and the inspired work of the assembled actors–led by Danny Aiello, John Turturro, Giancarlo Esposito and the peerless pair of Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis–makes it feel like a bustling, living place rather than a mere movie setting.

I’ve watched the movie many times since that first one, under circumstances that were at least closer to the optimum. While I’ve occasionally marveled over different individual elements, the overall impact has always been largely the same as that very first viewing. I take it as testament to the intellectual and emotional intensity of Lee’s effort. No matter how I’ve seen, the power always comes through.