A cultural touchstone in modern American cinema, Spike Lee’s breakthrough tell-it-as-it-is treatment of racism is even more sobering to view more than 30 years later.
Dir. Spike Lee
1989 | USA | Drama | 120 mins | 1.85:1 | English, Italian, Spanish & Korean
M18 (passed clean) for coarse language and partial nudity
Cast: Spike Lee, Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Richard Edson, John Turturro
Plot: On the hottest day of the year on a street in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, everyone’s hate and bigotry smolders and builds until it explodes into violence.
Awards: Nom. for Palme d’Or (Cannes); Nom. for 2 Oscars – Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Screenplay
Subject Matter: Moderate – Race
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
Viewed: Criterion Blu-ray
Spike Lee’s third feature, Do the Right Thing, is even more sobering to view more than 30 years later. Nothing seems to have changed in America even though people appear to be more race-conscious (though not necessarily race-sensitive) in an increasingly polarised nation.
Lee’s Brooklyn Bed-Stuy setting is the perfect space for boiling point to be reached, a predominantly black neighbourhood with idling old men and exasperated youth. And it is even easier to get agitated with the stifling heat.
With his ensemble cast, Lee’s work does at times resemble a stage play, with most characters having their own playpen to throw diatribes at others or to each other.
“Hey, Sal, how come they ain’t no brothas on the wall?”
The most conspicuous of the lot is Sal’s Pizzeria, run by a family of three white Italian-Americans (Danny Aiello plays the boss in an outstanding performance), where much of the action happens, and in the film’s extraordinary climax, in the most despicable fashion possible.
Lee plays Mookie, who earns his keep delivering those sought-after pizzas—and as such, covers a lot of ground. His brief conversations with an array of characters over one day and night give Lee’s film the momentum it needs to reach its emotionally-charged denouement.
Competed for the Cannes Palme d’Or (which went to Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape that year), Do the Right Thing’s tell-it-as-it-is treatment of racism—as it straddles the personal, political and institutional—remains a bold and necessary work advocating for equality and justice for the oppressed.