Tuesday, 17 July 2007
DO THE RIGHT THING
Do the Right Thing (1989) dir. Spike Lee
Starring: Spike Lee, John Turturro, Danny Aiello
“Do the Right Thing” is just as powerful today as it was 18 years ago. To this day no other film has better captured the passion, anger, and fatalities of race relations in America. It is the quintessential film on the subject. This film should have been made 20 years prior during the height of the civil rights movement, but back then despite the change in values, audiences weren’t ready for the brutal honesties of Spike Lee.
“Do the Right Thing” is set on the hottest day of the summer in Bed Stuy NY, a racially mixed area of Brooklyn. Mookie (Spike himself) is a local pizza deliverer for Sal’s Pizzeria, the popular hangout for the kids. Sal’s is owned by Italian-American Sal (Danny Aiello) who also employs his two son’s Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson). As Mookie walks the streets delivering pizza we get to meet the cultural mosaic of the block. There’s the Korean corner store owners, the three Jamaicans who banter and gawk at the passerbies from their lawnchair street view, there’s the Puerto Ricans who battle for music-playing supremacy, there’s the cops who slowly cruise the streets looking for trouble – and sometimes creating it themselves. It’s a lively community but beneath it is a simmering hatred of everyone else. All it takes is one small spark before tempers flare, fingers are pointed and mob mentality kicks in. Spike Lee dramatizes one extraordinary day with the highest skill, intensity, and rage.
Shot by his then #1 collaborator, Ernest Dickerson “Do the Right Thing” brims with vibrant colours, dynamic and original scenes and stand alone vignettes of great poignancy. For example, the stereo battle between Radio Raheem and the Puerto Ricans, the montage of racial slurs from all the cultures of the neighbourhood, Samuel L. Jackson as the radio DJ, Senior Lovedaddy, and Radio Raheem’s spin on Robert Mitchum's ‘love’ and ‘hate’ speech.
The film brought to mainstream prominence Public Enemy who’s “Fight the Power” became the theme of the film. Other than say, “Hustle and Flow” there hasn’t been a hip hop song with a more potent relevance to its film.
And has there been another film with more scene stealing performances than “Do the Right Thing”? Let’s list some of the great performances, Rosie Perez as Mookie’s Latina-attitude giving girlfriend, Giancarlo Esposito as the white Air Jordan-wearing standing-up-to-the-man buddy of Mookie’s, Bill Nunn as the intimidating Radio Raheem, John Savage as the Larry Bird-loving Brownstone-owning bicyclist neighbour, Robin Harris as the teeth-sucking Jamaican layabout, Sweet Dick Willy, Ossie Davis as the kind-hearted town drunk, Da Mayor, Frank Vincent as the hot-headed Italian mobster who’s car gets sprayed with water, and many many more.
Few films have more effectively built-up tension than “Do the Right Thing”. It’s masterpiece of counter-playing humour with anger and moving between the two emotions so fluidly. Look at the scene where Ahmad’s (Steve White) innocent razzing of Da Mayor turns into an angered verbal assault on his irresponsible freeloading drunkenness, or the climactic confrontation in Sal’s Pizzeria. “Do the Right Thing” was so sharp and intelligent about the racial tension in America and the tightrope wire of violence the inner cities were teetering on. Remember just 3 years later the real thing happened with the Rodney King riots.
“Do the Right Thing” still doesn’t get the respect it deserves. Back in 1989 the film failed to receive any major Oscar nominations (except for Danny Aiello’s Best Supporting Actor nod). It was a travesty then, and it’s still a travesty “Do the Right Thing” isn’t talked about as one of the great American films. After "Raging Bull", I think "Do the Right Thing" is the next best film of the 80's. Fight the power.
Buy it here: Do The Right Thing - Criterion Collection
Listen to the effect of the background music and street sounds in this scene:
Here’s Radio Raheem’s '20 D Batteries' clip: