I have to admit; I was prepared to dismiss Do the Right Thing solely on how much I do not like Spike Lee as a person. As much as he’s done to advance black filmmaking and open eyes to racial relations, I personally think he has the tendency to be as racist as he calls out other people to be, and even if he isn’t, he is certainly one of the surliest and most dislikable people working in the industry today. Based on how he is, I expected his films to be really, really concerned with racism, pretty much to a fault, so that he would come across as a one-trick pony of filmmaking. Holy god damn, am I ever so happy to be completely wrong. The elements of racial tension are still present, but they are nowhere near the only issue, and the film as a whole just does so much that’s right that, as the credits began to roll, I found myself seriously reassessing Spike Lee as a filmmaker, and a damn good one at that.
The film is a menagerie of characters over the span of a single day in Brooklyn, how they act and interact, and how their interactions, coupled with the scorching heat, eventually comes to a boil. The film hopscotches from groups of characters to other groups as they go about their business, and really, I can look back on a film like Slacker and point to this film as more than just a passing inspiration. This film has probably the most eclectic and daring opening credits sequence I’ve ever seen, with its extreme use of color on New York’s landscape and featuring urban women dancing to Public Enemy. All of this was carried over into the film itself; the great use of color (the production designer reportedly repainted a lot of the buildings in red and orange hues to evoke the heat wave of the film), the incredibly kinetic sense of energy, and a damn near flawless editing style. You can look as specific scenes like Mookie’s interjection with his sister over her relationship with Sal the pizzeria owner, and even the lead-up to the riot at the end of the film, and just stop and look at the way the film is cut together, line by line by action by reaction, and it is frankly a wonderment that this was not nominated for, or won, the Best Editing Oscar. What was nominated was Lee’s screenplay, which was very urban and cultured without being denigrating or gratuitous, and Danny Aiello’s supporting role as Sal, which, along with John Turturro’s turn as one of Sal’s sons, was a consistent highlight of the film.
Lee ends the film with two rather large quotes; one from Martin Luther King, Jr. and one from Malcolm X. The two quotes are basically contradictory to each other, and throw into question exactly the message that people have made the case the film tries to impart upon the viewer. To that end, some might take exception with the morals and points the story itself tries to make, such as whether Mookie “does the right thing” by basically starting the riot at the end of the film, but most of these questions are asked simply because we don’t know what would’ve happened had the characters made different decisions. Did Mookie essentially save Sal’s life by redirecting the crowd’s hatred toward Sal’s store instead of Sal himself? Was Mookie in the right coming back to Sal the next day and demanding his pay for the previous day’s work? I, personally, haven’t a clue, and reading some of the reactions that people have had to the film’s climactic sequence, I’d rather have it that way. That all aside, I want to repeat what I said in the opener: I’ve never been more happy to be proven wrong than I was about Spike Lee as a filmmaker. Do The Right Thing does exactly that; it gets just about everything exactly right. I may not care to be in the same room with Lee when a serious discussion of some kind breaks out, but if this is any indication of his other work, I will gladly sit down and watch one of his films, after seeing this one.
Arbitrary Rating: 9/10