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Spike Lee’s masterpiece “Do the Right Thing” still burns hot with truth and wisdom

Starring Spike Lee, Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Richard Edson, John Turturro, Giancarlo Esposito and Bill Nunn. Written and directed by Spike Lee. Streaming everywhere. 120 minutes. 14A

Do the Right Thing


Peter Howell

Movie Critic

Spike Lee’s movies never get old because his theme of racial injustice never loses its urgency.

Nowhere is this truth more searing than in “Do the Right Thing,” his third feature and assured masterpiece, released on June 30, 1989 but even more resonant in 2020. The film’s explosive racial confrontations — which include a Black man choked to death by white cops — sparked fears that the unleashed anger would spill out of cinemas and onto the streets.

That didn’t happen 31 years ago, but the recent murder of another Black man — George Floyd’s suffocation by a white Minneapolis cop — did prompt a cultural explosion that still rages. It’s the right time to reconsider the message of “Do the Right Thing,” a movie which has never seemed more wise than it does today.

Here is my review of the film from its 20th anniversary in 2009, the year when Barack Obama created history by becoming the first Black U.S. president. You can watch “Do the Right Thing” on various streaming services, and while doing so, also check out “3 Brothers,” a short film in which Lee explicitly connects the fates of George Floyd, earlier police choking victim Eric Garner and “Do the Right Thing” character Radio Raheem:

Fight the power! Kapow!

Spike Lee's masterful “Do the Right Thing” is constantly in your face, from its dancing pugilist opener to the one-two punch of Radio Raheem's "Love/Hate" brass knuckles to the torrent of abuse hurled by the film's hot-and-bothered races.

Released 20 years ago today, yet still as fresh as a Black man in the White House, the film survived its fiery birth to become a modern classic, as verified by the American Film Institute.

Back in June '89, excitable movie critics and reporters for such disparate magazines as Newsweek, New York and Rolling Stone predicted race riots from the film's unresolved tensions. It was journalist's code that only white people could handle the truth, as dramatically conjured over one scorching day and night in New York's incendiary Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbourhood.

No such eruptions occurred, unless you count the vocal outrage over the film's Oscar snubbing, but what exactly was the truth the film revealed, more subconsciously than consciously? What is the "right thing" that Ossie Davis's street sage Da Mayor counsels Lee's pizza-carrying protagonist Mookie to always do?

It's the brilliance of this movie, which Lee produced, directed, wrote and starred in, that each viewing prompts an altering of attitudes and deeper understanding of racial intolerance.

We might at first side with Italian pizzeria owner Sal (Danny Aiello), who is just trying to make a buck selling slices, along with sons Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson). Who wants trouble, especially on a 100 Fahrenheit day? Fuhgeddaboudit!

Or we might feel for Korean grocer Sonny (Steve Park), whose serious demeanour and fractured English are mocked by all.

Who among the other Brooklyn characters do we high-five? Da Mayor, who is also the neighbourhood drunk? Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), whose non-stop boom-box love for Public Enemy's "Fight The Power" tests the patience of even fans of the band?

Where do we stand on Buggin' Out (Giancarlo Esposito), a funky egghead who harbours rage about Bed-Stuy's changing faces, as exemplified by the white Italian stars hanging on Sal's wall? Or radio deejay Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson), who just wants everybody to chill out, and that's the truth, Ruth?

As Mookie, the central figure amongst the riot of characters in “Do the Right Thing,” Lee leads us through a wonderland of colourful persons and poses (also expressed by the film's bold rainbow art direction). But he refuses to point to the rabbit-hole exit.

Lee provocatively ends the movie not only with unpredictable acts of aggression and reconciliation, but also with quotations by Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, one denouncing violence and the other justifying it. You have to make up your own mind and do your own right thing.

The ambivalence may have cost Lee some well-deserved gold at that year's Academy Awards. The film received just two nominations — Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (Aiello) — but there were no wins and no nom at all for Best Picture, which went to the cloying “Driving Miss Daisy,” a race-relations story of entirely different provenance and impact.

Lee had the last laugh, though: everybody still talks about “Do The Right Thing,” still his greatest achievement, while nobody talks about “Driving Miss Daisy.”

“Do the Right Thing” speaks to the immediate frustration of an era — including police brutality allegations and unhappiness over then-New York City mayor Edward Koch — while also pointing to a future, a generation beyond, where the unimaginable would occur: a black man would be elected U.S. president.

"Keep hope alive!" a character says in the film, sarcastically quoting Rev. Jesse Jackson.

It's romantic to think that a young Chicago law intern named Barack Obama, who saw “Do the Right Thing” on a first date in June '89 with his future wife Michelle, heard that sarcasm and decided to do something audacious about it.

He had 20 years to think about and appreciate this momentous movie, as have we all.

(This review was originally published in The Toronto Star on June 30, 2009.)

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