100 Film Favorites – #81: Do the Right Thing
(Spike Lee, 1989)
Time for another reputable, critically-acclaimed film. Coming so soon after the last one, you might start getting the idea that I’m some kind of sophisticated film critic. But don’t worry, we’re still in the first fifth of the list…there’s plenty of room left to fill with B-, Z-, and “popcorn” movies.
Do the Right Thing was the third film written, produced, and directed by Spike Lee (who also appears as an actor in all three). It was also his “breakout” film in a sense, gaining wide acclaim and earning two Oscar nominations (Best Screenplay for Lee and Best Supporting Actor for Danny Aiello as Sal).
The film takes place in an urban neighborhood in Brooklyn, on the hottest day of the summer. While the day starts out like any other, racial tensions gradually rise as the hours pass and the sun beats down. By the end of the day, the tension comes to a head and the residents explode into a veritable race war.
Spike Lee plays Mookie, a young man working at a pizzeria owned by Sal, a white Italian who has run the restaurant for 25 years. The pizzeria prominently features a “Wall of Fame” bedecked with pictures of Italian celebrities. On the afternoon of this hot, hot day, an excitable young black man nicknamed “Buggin’ Out” (played by a young Giancarlo Esposito, known later as Gus Fring on “Breaking Bad”) walks into Sal’s and demands to know why there aren’t any “brothers on the wall.” Since the neighborhood is now predominantly black, Buggin’ Out says, the Wall of Fame should feature pictures of black celebrities as well. Sal dismisses this suggestion, saying that, since he owns the place, he should be able to feature whichever celebrities he wants. “Buggin’ Out” spends the rest of the day trying to rally support for his “brothers on the wall” cause, and though he only receives it from one other person (a towering, boom-box toting youth called Radio Raheem), his efforts eventually lead to a violent showdown between the neighborhood’s black residents, the largely white police force, and Sal and his family.
I don’t want to give away much more of the plot here, so let it suffice to say that I highly, highly recommend Do the Right Thing. I saw it for a seminar course on the films of Spike Lee, and it’s one of the first films in a long time to make me think, “Wow” at the end. The way the tension builds as the glaring sun crosses the sky is gripping, and having the entire story taking place in the course of a single day is ingenious. It suggests that, if this day started out normally, any day has the potential to follow the same disastrous trajectory as the one depicted, due to a simple factor like a particularly strong heat wave.
Do the Right Thing is much like a feature-length, more urban adaptation of the classic Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street.” In the episode, loss of electrical power reveals the underlying suspicions and hostilities the residents of a suburban neighborhood hold toward one another, and Do the Right Thing does the same thing, with a heat wave triggering the latent racial hostilities bubbling just beneath the surface in an urban neighborhood. While this prospect is horrifying, the characters remain very human. Every character, including the wide assortment of supporting characters which the film returns to intermittently throughout the course of the day, is interconnected with the others while possessing a distinct personality of his or her own, from Sal’s older, racist son Pino (John Turturro) to Da Mayor, an elderly man regarded by turns as both a drunk and a sage. The neighborhood and its people seem real, which makes the idea that hatred and the potential for violence bubble just beneath the surface all the more unsettling.
But by addressing this potential, we have a possibility of facing our differences and overcoming them. Maybe, as Da Mayor says at the start of the film, we really can “do the right thing.”
Tidbits: The series Childrens Hospital on Cartoon Network’s “Adult Swim” block recently did an entire episode parodying Do the Right Thing, in which the hospital’s air conditioning breaks down and the heat drives the staff to violence. It was clever.