Spike Lee/ USA/ 1989/ 120 min
Spike Lee’s public persona might be that of an intimidating, but repetitive presence with only anything to say on the topic of race relations in American society. However, any intelligent analysis of his work will reveal a personality that is smart, comical and angry; with many frustrations at the way things are and an enviable hope about how they could be. Never has such personality unveiled itself so confidently as in his third feature film Do the Right Thing.
Taking place over a single day in a small Brooklyn neighbourhood, the film’s narrative wanders casually in and out of the lives of the various residents across the hottest day of the year. What these fragments of life reveal to us is a community built atop simmering racial tensions, and it won’t be long before things explode into violence & chaos.
Lee not only writes and directs the film but also stars as its semi-passive protagonist Mookie; an unambitious delivery man for the local pizzeria. Whilst it would be easy to say that Lee isn’t up to scratch against the actors he surrounds himself with (Danny Aiello, John Turturro and Samuel L. Jackson amongst others) his stiff, uncomfortable nature helps reinforce the perception that Mookie couldn’t give a rats arse about the rut he’s stuck in – not to mention that the costumes designed by Ruth E. Carter make him look like the world’s coolest movie star in waiting.
As the film proceeds, it begins to loosen its already weak grasp on the idea of narrative and structure – at times turning into the cinematic version of beat-poetry-meets-performance-art as characters monologue to the camera with both harrowing and hopeful outlooks on the world at large. Lee isn’t so much interested in solving America’s problems as he is highlighting that things won’t change without some sort of dialogue first.
That the final confrontation of the film is eerily similar to injustices felt by African Americans in their home nation even 30 years after the film’s release is a depressing testament to the vision of its creator. Over the course of that time, many people have tried to understand what “the right thing” is – despite the fact that this is never made that clear. Instead, the film asks its audience to confront the realities faced by black people and consider for themselves what will lead society on the path towards justice and equality. Does that path contain violence along the way? Well, the film doesn’t quite say that – but it doesn’t not say it either. And it’s this confrontational yet hopeful attitude – exemplified by the use of quotes at the end of the film by both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X – which has allowed the film to remain essential throughout the years.
Films like Do the Right Thing don’t come along too often. When they do, they deserve to be much more than just watched – they deserve to be listened to. Otherwise, societal attitudes which should be dated as quickly as possible risk becoming dangerously timeless instead, and – in the words of Samuel L Jackson’s Mister Señor Love Daddy – “that’s the truth, Ruth!”
Available on Blu-ray Mon 26 Aug 2019