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Great Movies Roundtable: Do the Right Thing

#96 on AFI’s “100 Years, 100 Movies” 10th Anniversary List  is “Do the Right Thing.”

There is so much I could say about this movie, I feel like I could write 10,000 words.  But I won’t!  I’ll try to keep it brief and hit the major points.

“Do the Right Thing” was very controversial when it was released in 1989.  Critics both loved and hated it; most notably, a few New York critics felt that the film was dangerous and irresponsible, and that it might provoke black audiences to violence.  This, in my mind, is no different than Thomas Jefferson saying in 1780 that he thought slavery was wrong, but he feared what would happen to white people if the slaves were freed.  Roger Ebert, on the other hand, said (in his 2001 Great Movies review,) “ I have been given only a few filmgoing experiences in my life to equal the first time I saw “Do the Right Thing.” Most movies remain up there on the screen. Only a few penetrate your soul.”

It’s notable that “Do the Right Thing” was nominated for a few Oscars, but not for Best Picture in 1989.  Maybe it’s ironic that the big award that year went to “Driving Miss Daisy,” another movie about race, but one that vigorously reinforces all the usual stereotypes about kind, gentle, soulful black folks who help white folks work through their issues and become better people. The Academy wasn’t ready for “Do the Right Thing” in 1989, and, from the look of things, isn’t any more ready for a film like this in 2016.

“Do the Right Thing” takes place over the course of one day (and the following morning.) It’s about a bunch of people in a Brooklyn neighborhood who have known each other for years.  The neighborhood is primarily black, but there are also Puerto Ricans, Koreans, and Italians, most notable Sal and his sons, who own and operate Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, where Mookie (Spike Lee) works. As the day goes on, tempers get short, until an incident at the pizzeria devolves into a tragedy that will affect everyone involved forever.  It’s probably safe to say that, for every character, “Do the Right Thing” is about the worst day of their life.


General Thoughts? 

CRH: I was supremely impressed by the movie. It has humor and drama and uses art to address a deeply troubling issue which is race in America. The film gives all the points of view there due and is able to tell the truth yet being fair and entertaining. It has nuance and refuses to be sentimental.

This film is loaded with talent! Samuel L Jackson, Jon Tuturro, Ossie Davis, Danny Aiello, Ruby Dee, Martin Lawrence and many more. The thing that shocked me was how well Lee handles the huge cast and gives them all their due and uses them to tell his story and is able to showcase their talent fully.

WK: You’ve hit on one of my favorite things about this movie. It’s so balanced in its portrayal of the characters.  There are no heroes and villains, there are just a bunch of people in a neighborhood.  Race is part of who they are, and part of how they relate to each other. And it’s the hottest day of the year, and maybe they all do things they regret.  No one is really having a good day in “Do the Right Thing.”

CRH: It’ a movie about that actually talks about race and what it means. Most films fall into either a more conservative versus a more progressive viewpoint.  Some films tend to get sentimental;  all they have to say about race is “We’re All in This Together.”   On the other side is something about white devils and etcetera. This film treats every character in it as human beings. It’s funny that you bring up Driving Miss Daisy. Another film that was released pretty close to this one was “Mississippi Burning,” which is repugnant in its violence and unsatisfying fatalistic ending. “Do the Right Thing” manages to avoid both of these pitfalls and finds the ambiguity but also the drama in the human condition that makes art eternal.

WK: It’s about race, not “the problem of racism.”  There’s a subtle but important difference.


Favorite Scenes?

CRH: The dialogue right in the middle of the movie where Radio Rahim gives a speech about left hand and right hand the story of Good and Evil. I love how it was simultaneously an homage but also a reinterpretation of Robert Mitchum’s famous speech in “Night of the Hunter.” I thought that was really clever and touch of genius.

Also, the one where the three older black men and the two cops face off against each other on the street. It’s a great scene because it communicates that there’s a mutual animosity and both sides assume they know what’s wrong with the other side. The cops feel that the black men are not living up to their role. The black men see the cops as an arbitrary Force of uncaring brutality. They both assume they know each other because they both say what a waste! Really loved that scene it was great!

I also love the very end of the movie where Sal and Mookie are trying to conclude this relationship. It’s brilliant the way that one scene defines race in America. There is a complete lack of understanding between one man and another. Part of the whole theme of the movie is that if there is compassion and empathy we can learn to live together in equity in friendship. However it’s hard because our emotions run high and humans are at their nature irrational. An example would be the conflict that brews throughout the whole day all about the simple nature of the picture of celebrities at a wall. Sal seems to be just trying to get rid of Mookie by giving him too much money however Mookie merely wants what’s fair. Sal is probably not going to leave the neighborhood neither is Mookie. So in essence it’s the story of race in America. Black will not go away, nor White. gray is unsatisfying so there must be a higher answer. I think there is a slight glimmer of hope at the end but it’s the hope of a long road.

WK: I love that ending scene, too.  I feel like there is respect and even affection between Mookie and Sal, even after all that’s happened. In the end, they want good things for each other.



CRH: I think the style occasionally has too much flair. Like how the camera occasionally is tilted. The high colors is very late 80’s which kinda dates it.

WK: That’s funny, because I think both of those choices are intentional, and integral to the telling of the story.  Lee wanted to convey heat with every shot – it’s important that this is the hottest day of the year, and that’s why people act the way they do.  That’s why there are so many reds and oranges in the pallete.  Also the tilted camera – technically called a “dutch angle” is intended to convey how everything is getting more and more off balance.  Lee makes a bunch of choices like these to show us that this isn’t just any day, or every day in this neighborhood – this is a particularly hot, particularly bad day.  On a different day, these things wouldn’t have happened. On a different day, Mookie would have stopped the destruction of Sal’s, instead of instigating it.

I do have a few problems with “Do the Right Thing,” though.  Probably my biggest issue is with the characterization of the Asian grocery store owners.  In a film that portrays so many nuanced characters, they are the same old stereotype of Asian people.  The scene near the end, when the mob decides not to trash the grocery store makes no sense at all.

Also, Rosie Perez has said in interviews that she was extremely uncomfortable with the nude scenes, but that Lee pressured her to do them. That her face is cut out of the scene where he is rubbing the ice across her breasts because she is crying. That really, really bothers me. Especially since that particular nude scene adds nothing significant to the movie.  There surely was a way to film it that respected Perez. Usually, I won’t recommend a movie if I found out an actress feels she was exploited.  But Perez has also said that she’s really proud of the movie, and glad she was in it.  So I guess just like the situation the movie is about, the making of it isn’t quite as clear cut as I’d like it to be.  Spike Lee is neither a good guy or a bad guy.  Hopefully, like Mookie and Sal, he’s a guy who regrets some of the decisions he’s made.

Buying or Selling? 

WK: I was astounded by the quality of this film. I’ve seen it before, in college I think, but I clearly didn’t get most of it then.  At this point, “Do the Right Thing” is probably in my top 10 films of all time. It towers so far above any other movie I’ve ever seen about race in America.  I mean, what can you even compare it to?  “Crash?”  “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”?  It’s so much better – deeper, wiser, more compassionate – than those movies, it’s hard to even consider it in the same class as them.  It’s really in a class by itself.

Will it rise on AFI’s list? Probably not. The AFI doesn’t seem very progressive.  I just scanned the list quickly (so I could be wrong,) and the only other movie I see on it that is directed by a person of color is “The Sixth Sense,” which isn’t about race at all. That means we’ve got a list of 98 white male directors, a Spike Lee joint, and a ghost story.  So while I really think it ought to be in the top 10, I guess we should be happy it’s on the list at all.  I really hope it doesn’t fall off in the next edition.  But I wouldn’t be surprised.

CRH: I think you’re right people need to watch this movie. But the American Film Institute does show a penchant for conservatism. It might be the way they compile the list which ultimately illustrates the point that Spike Lee is trying to make.  Our art still seems to be somewhat separate in America. And that needs to change but I think it has begun to. Like the ending of the movie, it’s hopeful but it’s without guarantees.


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Posted in All Reviews, By Courtland Hopkins, by Will Krischke, The Classic Movie Series.

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