With spring-summer approaching, I’ve been recently thinking about the many movies that take place in that warm time of the year. After going over the titles I could cover, I realized it would be a perfect opportunity to look back on the first film I ever saw by one of my favorite filmmakers Spike Lee, that being his controversial 1989 masterpiece Do The Right Thing.
The film immediately bombards viewers with its explosive opening credits sequence in which Rosie Perez (who also co-stars) performs a kind of urban wardance to Public Enemy’s old school hip hop anthem “Fight The Power”. Perez is the embodiment of that “Maniac” Michael Sembello sang about with her fierce movements. The lyrics of the song delivered by Chuck D and Flavor Flav hit hard and provide us with a main theme of which will be replayed again and again throughout the story being unfolded.
In the Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, a pizza place owner Sal (Danny Aiello) and his two sons Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson) arrive at their shop in the heart of the urban village. They’re getting ready for another long, hot day of making pies and other delicious snacks for all the neighborhood folks. Sal is clearly a proud man who built his establishment from the ground up years earlier and it is a representation of his own Italian heritage to him. It has become a special place for the residents to enjoy themselves as well. The only non family member who works at Sal’s is their deliveryman “Mookie” (Spike Lee) a young upstart who hates his job hoofing pizzas around and is obsessed with “gettin paid”. Although Mookie is essentially an outsider, Sal treats him like a third son and it’s clear that he likes him and his sister Jade (Joie Lee) alot. Pino and Vito also look at Mookie like one of the family too, always giving him a hard time to make sure he’s working and not slacking off (as he’s known to do).
Outside Sal’s Famous Pizzaria, we’re introduced to the different characters who live in the neighborhood such as “Da Mayor” (Ossie Davis) a friendly old deadbeat in wrinkled clothes that likes to give advice, a local radio DJ “Senor Love Daddy” (Samuel L Jackson) who acts as a kind of musical narrator/voice of reason. On the corner, Sweet Dick Willie (Robin Harris) and his two pals try to relax in the shade as they joke with each other. A kind old woman nicknamed “Mother Sister” (Ruby Dee) sits in her apartment window observing things. Noone even has to explain who she is, it’s a given she’s seen it all. A mentally handicapped man named “Smiley” who is obsessed with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King makes the rounds stuttering and annoying people with his sudden outbursts.
While Mookie delivers pizzas to the locals, his firey Puerto Rican girlfriend Tina (Rosie Perez) is stuck taking care of their young illegitimate son Hector. We get a comical look at Mookie and Tina’s rocky relationship when he arrives at the apartment where she lives with her mother. It’s clear Mookie is a bit of a player and doesn’t want to be tied down with a family. His love for Tina is very much like a high school romance and the two seem to either be making love or yelling at each other constantly.
Every neighborhood has its troublemakers and Bed-Stuy has two characters each of whom are loose cannons on the verge of going off. Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) is the type of guy who has problems with the entire world. He rants and raves about injustice while his electric shock of hair and round thick glasses give him the appearance of a deranged Jack In The Box. If Buggin Out is the local wannabe revolutionary, the lumbering “Radio Raheem” (Bill Nunn) seems to let his boombox speak for him. He blasts Public Enemy’s Fight The Power loudly/constantly as he walks around the hood daring people to tell him to turn it down.
As the heat rises to sweltering levels, the lower class residents try to keep themselves cool by staying occupied with a variety of traditional pasttimes such as drinking, flirting, playing in the homemade fireplug water fountains, eating and holding court on their stoops. Meanwhile, the city’s white police officers (who seem to have an ominous, unfriendly aura) cruise back and forth anticipating some kind of trouble.
Not to be ignored by the many people who he tries to provoke, Buggin’ Out decides to take his socio-political frustrations to Sal’s where he points out that there are no black people on the wall of the restaraunt, just Italian Americans. Sal lets him know that it’s his place and he’ll put up pictures of who he wants. This just spurns on Buggin’ Out more and inspires him to lead a boycott of the pizzaria. He does his best to persuade the minority folks to stop buying anything from Sal’s (the only white owned business around) until a black persons image is installed. This action by Buggin’ Out begins what the film was really made to address: the racism and cultural bias that is always simmering right below the surface in our society. While Spike Lee’s Mookie is an understanding, level headed man whose only real aim is making money, Buggin’ Out could be seen as his angry alter ego, the part of him who wants to cause a disruption, stir things up and lash out at the oppression he sees every day.
The story essentially works as a potboiler, not in a traditional thriller sense but as a steady rising of the inner anger all the people who live in Bed-Stuy have inside towards each other. In one of the most memorable sequences the characters spit out an array of racist remarks right at the camera. It’s equally repellant, comical and cathartic showing us what they REALLY want to say in their minds. While the racism is everywhere (yet being dealt with rationally) coming from everyone in some form, Buggin Out is the main spark that ignites the fire which leads to a tragedy that ultimately breaks the tolerant community down.
Spike Lee’s personal passion as a filmmaker is in every frame pulsing with energy. One of his best moves was getting together such a phenomenal cast of New York actors who are all spectacular at their craft. He even got his real sister to play Mookie’s sister which adds another touch of realism to the story as the two bicker with one another throughout the movie.
At the heart of Spike Lee’s urban tale is the yin and yang shown through the points of view from two legendary Black leaders: Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. On one side is the fighting back “by any means necessary” stance, on the other is the forgiving humane side. Do The Right Thing brilliantly combines these two concepts within its ensemble structure making it a powerful, resonant and highly entertaining work of American cinema.