Do the Right Thing

Directed by Spike Lee
Starring: Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Richard Edsen, Giancarlo Esposito, Samuel L. Jackson, Spike Lee, Bill Nunn, Rosie Perez, John Turturro.
MPAA Rating: R for sexuality, violence and racially offensive language.

Review by Shawn Drury <shawn@filmhead.com>
April 13, 2000

It has been over ten years since Spike Lee changed the face of film with his masterpiece Do the Right Thing. Lee, a pioneer of independent filmmaking, irrevocably changed the motion picture industry with his film. However, more important, since its release, a new tone has been brought to the discourse that exists between all races. Whether or not that is merely a coincidence is, of course, up for debate.

Since racial strife has flared up again recently in New York City (the cases of Amadou Diallo, Patrick Dorismond and Abner Louima) the film has a renewed urgency.

The film takes place in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn on the hottest day of the year. The film ripples with music and vibrant colors. Lee has a message, yes, but he and cinematographer Ernest Dickerson want to depict a community fascinated by colors other than those of a person's skin. It becomes obvious that there is a sense of community in this community. They are not ignorant of the larger world, yet the people we meet in this movie maintain fierce civic pride. Lee presents such a cross-section of characters that it seems he's trying to say that this neighborhood is like hundreds of others throughout the country. There's a wise spinster (Ruby Dee), an elderly man who speaks in platitudes (Ossie Davis), an activist (Giancarlo Esposito), a deejay (Samuel L. Jackson), a single mom (Rosie Perez), a music-lover (Bill Nunn) and a semi-retarded man to whom all are affectionate. There is also a trio of has-beens who sit in the sun admiring the women, drinking beer and insulting everything and everyone. The only non-blacks in the neighborhood are Korean grocers, a thirtiesh white man who dons a Larry Bird jersey, and the family who owns and operates the local hangout—Sal's Pizza.

The stage for most important action is in the film is Sal's (Danny Aiello). His two sons are disparate in terms of their feelings toward their black clientele. One son, Pino (John Turturro), debates the delivery boy (Lee) about black and white athletes, actors and musicians. He dosen't attempt to conceal his disdain for blacks. The other son, Vito (Richard Edsen), has a crush on a black girl.

At the beginning of the film, all is relatively harmonious. Slowly, fissures are uncovered. The Korean family that runs the grocery store are the victims of harassment. Nunn—like Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter—has the words "love" and "hate" tattooed on his massive hands. The retarded man carries around the famous photo of the meeting of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King—two men with very different views on racism. Esposito reminds Lee, who works for Sal, a white man, to "stay black". Later, Esposito attempts to lead a boycott of Sal's for perceived slights by the pizzeria toward the customers. Lee is planting the seeds of unrest.

By making so obvious a reference to a film released in 1955—Night of the Hunter—Lee seems to be telling us that the Jim Crow days of the previous generation still endure but in a less blatant way. The reference to King and Malcolm X being presented by a muted voice indicates that the idealism of the 1960s is fading away. Lee and Esposito represent the dichotomy that is modern black America. Their responses to racism fuel the film. Like so many other contemporary tragedies, the flames of violence in Do the Right Thing begin with a mere whiff of smoke. Aside from its unforgettable content and imagery, the film launched the careers of Esposito, Jackson, Nunn, Perez and Turturro to a large audience. Aiello, previously a minor character actor, was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Amazingly, the only other Oscar nomination the film received was for Lee's screenplay.

Do the Right Thing was released in the late spring of 1989. In August of that year, a gang of whites in Bensonhurst, Queens murdered a young black man named Yusef Hawkins. By the time the film was in nationwide release, the Hawkins murder was referenced in the film. The heat on then-mayor Ed Koch grew more intense with the release of Do the Right Thing. Moreover, there are many observers who believe the film doomed Koch's re-election bid later that year. A black candidate, David Dinkins, defeated him. Indeed, the film closes with a not-too-subtle reminder by the deejay that Election Day is nearing, and the community needs to exercise its right to vote.


For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
Do the Right Thing (1989)

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Do the Right Thing (1989) -- VHS
Do the Right Thing (1989) -- DVD


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