In continuing my streak of seeing older films that I admire for the first time on the big screen, this week I caught both writer/director Spike’s Lee most well known work, as well as the defining film on racism that’s ever been made in the United States (or anywhere else for that matter). It’s also perhaps maybe the single most important film to date outside of maybe Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” (1993). Lee’s work, especially his work throughout the eighties and nineties, were arguably his best, and anyone that knows me knows that I have been and always will be an avid Spike Lee supporter. Even if the last really good project he’s released was the Hurricane Katrina documentary – “When The Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts” (2006). It is because of this one film, “Do The Right Thing”, now 26 years old; but just as prevalent as it is in the present day as it was way back then, that I will always have nothing but the utmost deep respect and admiration for Lee the artist, even if he never puts out a single good film ever again.
It’s interesting to me now when I think about the fact that we live in a society and culture that’s both so entrenched and sculpted by the language, music, art, and aesthetic of hip hop, that there was actually a time where the force of that movement hadn’t been tapped into yet. At least certainly not in the filmmaking world. And at the same time thinking how commercial, materialistic, and shallow much of this music has become. It was once an actual youth movement that stood for something where the music was radical, subversive, and even revolutionary. “Do The Right Thing” was the first film to capture that point in time where hip hop or rap music was urgent and conscious while also channeling a lot of the issues of Black America at the time – racism, racial pride, class struggle, and urban living.
The film’s opening credits are set to an assault of beats and bombastic music of the hip hop elders and icons – Public Enemy and their single “Fight The Power”. We then meet the many different characters that occupy a dense Brooklyn neighborhood as they face one of those unbearable stretches of heat in the summertime. Most all of whom are vibrant, loud, and eccentric who ultimately cross paths and intersect and various points throughout the film. The film is anchored by its main character, Mookie (Spike Lee), a pizza delivery boy who traverses back and forth throughout the neighborhood and through who we get to meet the film’s many vibrant characters while doing so. There’s his girlfriend (played by the then newly discovery Rosie Perez), the two elders (the late great Civil Rights activists and actors – Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee – who were married in real life), the neighborhood youth as represented by; among others, Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) and Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito), and the Italian pizzeria owner Sal (the Oscar nominated Danny Aiello) and his two sons – Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson). Rounding out this large group of characters are three late middle-aged men (one of them played by one of the greatest Black comedians of all time – Robin Harris) whose scathing commentary on the day’s events provide a lot of the film’s funniest scenes. As the hot summer day progresses and tempers start to flare ordinary events take on extraordinary significance.
I’ve always declared that “Do The Right Thing” was one of my top 25 favorite films of all time. And this viewing; again my first time on the big screen, just solidified why I consider it to be such a major and important work, and yet another film that I can honestly say I have a relationship with, or a special bond to, that I do with only my very favorite of films. Lee’s expertly written (which he would receive an Oscar nomination for for Best Original Screenplay) and utterly confident piece of directing is astonishing to watch. But even more importantly, are the themes; many of which I listed above, that he interweaves into his morality play on racial tensions in America. How seemingly ordinary daily exchanges by people of different races, creeds, and colors, can explode into fiery bursts of violence (the climax of the film; which apparently caused riots in certain cities in the US upon its release, is brutally powerful and utterly devastating) and showcased police brutality and the fracturing within a community of people. This winds up being a clear metaphor for the state of the late 20th century’s American race relations. Forget Paul Haggis’ Oscar winning “Crash” (2004) that tried to tackle similar themes yet failed miserably at trying to do so. “Do The Right Thing” is a unapologetically angry film, but it needs to be in order to speak to the themes in which it explores. But even despite it being so, Lee expertly handles these difficult themes in a balancing act that’s also filled with images of black love and social camaraderie that is both so real and so rare to find, especially nowadays, in American cinema that they seem radical (and were) for their time. Shot beautifully in bright, vibrant colors that represented much of hip hop culture in the eighties, with skewed camera angles that almost make it look like it was framed to look like a comic book, along with a fine example of film editing that reflects the energetic thrust of the film. “Do The Right” thing has become one of the most influential movies in the history of filmmaking, not only stylistically, but for being the first film that gave other future filmmakers permission to draw from the experiences of lives (specifically that of Black America) that previously had been ignored or distorted in both Hollywood and independent film. It’s Lee’s calling card to the entire country in hopes of waking us up or rendering us more conscious of how racism exists and functions in America. And for it I am forever grateful.