Thoughts on DO THE RIGHT THING, 25 years later.
This is still my favorite Spike Lee movie. And I’m a big Spike Lee fan. I mean, I can’t say as big as they get, ’cause I still haven’t seen SHE HATE ME and a couple of the documentaries. I’ve seen everything else though, and I like most of them. I mean – MALCOLM X, CROOKLYN, CLOCKERS, GET ON THE BUS… so many good ones. I know some of you guys are gonna say 25TH HOUR. White people like that one. Including me. I even kinda like GIRL 6. BAMBOOZLED is too much for me though. Or at least at the time it was. Haven’t revisited it. Maybe some day.
I say this because I feel that Spike Lee doesn’t get enough credit as a pioneering and original voice in American cinema. You only see him in the news when he says something stupid, getting mad at Clint for not having enough brothers in his WWII movie or something. I think The Ain’t It Cool News has a social responsibility to mention his name every once in a while just to create the talkback that can remind us how many mush brained racist idiots still exist in the modern world. But there’s not enough discussion of his body of work, his unique style, his influence, his ahead-of-his-timeness. So what if he has a big mouth, if he has a vision to match?
I always think about DO THE RIGHT THING and how different things were back then. Rodney King hadn’t even happened yet, but these racial police incidents and resulting riots were very familiar. Still, the mainstream media actually felt this movie was literally dangerous. Just the fact that Malcolm X was mentioned and quoted in the movie was hugely upsetting to people. Now you can only imagine that being something they pretended to be outraged by on Fox News and then the rest of the world made jokes about them for it.
I’ve seen this a bunch of times over the years, it’s an important movie to me. There’s a drug store in Seattle that has a marquee out front with the featured sales items on the front, and every time I see it I remember “that used to be the theater where I saw DO THE RIGHT THING.” Since I read that Monday was the anniversary I decided to watch it again tonight. I think the last time was when the Criterion special edition dvd came out. I don’t have the newer blu ray release, but this DVD looks great on a high def TV (and maybe too clear – I never noticed before that there’s a scene where you can see that it’s raining).
One thing that really struck me on this viewing: man, Spike Lee was young. He’s playing a likable but irresponsible kid, he looks like a baby, he’s directing this amazing movie. There’s definitely some youthful personality in the screenplay, like the scene where WELOVE 108 FM radio DJ Mister Senor Love Daddy (skinny Samuel L. Jackson lookin like Fab 5 Freddy) does “roll call,” listing off soul singers, rappers, jazz musicians and etc. from Rob Base to Wayne Shorter to Steel Pulse to Dionne Warwick. I had to look up who Sugar Bear was, but most of them are fairly timeless. Anyway, this was before Facebook so you had to do a movie to tell everybody your favorite bands.
And he crams in the timely cultural references. There aren’t that many movies where the characters talk about Louis Farrakhan. After Radio Raheem’s death the witnesses start listing off victims of similar hate crimes. When the police show up they chant “Howard Beach”! As a time capsule it reminds us of these events, or gives the young people some things to Google. At the time it was like bullet points of events we should be aware of, fresh outrages we shouldn’t be ignoring.
The prominently displayed “TAWANA TOLD THE TRUTH” graffiti is a rare example of something they apparently got wrong. On the other hand, that guy M.L. (the guy who sits to Sweet Dick Willie’s right) was going on about the polar ice caps melting.
One thing that becomes more obvious the older I get is that nobody’s really supposed to be doing the right thing in this movie. Everybody’s hung up on some stupid shit. Mookie is often the voice of reason. He stands up to Pino’s dumb racist shit, and in a much more calm and reasoned way than we should expect from someone in that situation. He tries to calm Buggin Out. And Pino is an asshole, but he’s right about one thing: Mookie really is a terrible employee! He fucks around and takes long breaks like three times. And then he throws the garbage can through the window. But then again, his boss who he’d been standing up for did use the n-word in front of him. I feel like that part wasn’t really broached enough.
But Mookie’s not 100% racially enlightened himself. The one thing he seems to share with Pino is a paranoid anger about Sal liking his sister alot. Like there has to be some sleazy motivation for their friendship. Mookie’s kind of a shitty brother, and worse father and boyfriend. The movie knows this though. He’s still a person.
I used to have more sympathy for Buggin Out. I thought he was obnoxious but had a point. These days I think Sal should be able to glory in his own heritage if he wants to. Who gives a shit how he themes his restaurant decorations? And Radio Raheem, I admire him as an urban ronin walking through the mountains following his own code, telling the story of Love and Hate and pitting his volume against another man’s when challenged. But he sure was an asshole to those Koreans he bought the batteries from. And common courtesy dictates that he should probly just turn that thing down before entering any private establishment. Good song, though.
[You know what never occurred to me once until watching it this time? “Fight the Power” shoulda got an Oscar! Of course we all know it was an incredible song used to great effect in the movie, still a classic and anthem today. But it never would’ve occurred to us back then to consider it for Best Original Song. I mean, I guess it never woulda had a shot against “Under the Sea” from THE LITTLE MERMAID. But it shoulda been in the running. They didn’t even recognize rap at the Grammies until that year (the first “Best Rap Performance” had gone to DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince for “Parents Just Don’t Understand”).]
I always loved the three guys sitting against the red wall talking shit. They all know each other are full of shit, but don’t recognize it in themselves. Sweet Dick Willie tells the other two off for their intolerance of the Korean storeowners, but then he goes over to their store and it becomes clear that he’s a pain in the ass to them, always trying to get free beer.
[Another side note here. I don’t remember ever picking up on the fact that this one guy is really into the comic book character Black Panther. He mentions him two times. I think I thought he meant the Black Panther Party, never noticed that he’s waving a comics book around. Whenever they finally decide to make that movie I hope the Youtube clip makes the rounds. “Black Panther eats pizza, we eat pizza!”]
You know who I really like is that girl with the hat who hangs out with Martin Lawrence and those guys. I never noticed that after she gets wet from the fire hydrant she shows up with a different outfit, including an identical hat in a different color. She seems to have more of a conscience than the dudes. When the boys ridicule Da Mayor about being a drunk and obviously hurt his feelings, she lingers in front of him with a pained look. Not happy with the way they treated him, but unable to do anything about it, or even say anything.
But she still likes to egg people on to get in fights (Buggin Out with his stepped on Jordans) and when everybody’s smashing up Sal’s Famous you can see her smiling and waving an arm in the air in celebration. But shortly before that there’s a really emotional moment. She didn’t give Buggin Out’s boycott the time of day. She said she was “born and raised on Sal’s Famous.” Sal recognizes her and her friends as neighborhood regulars that he watched grow up, and lets them in after closing time, because “they love my pizza.” But then she witnesses him flipping out, killing a radio, with a side of racial slur. The look on her face is heartbreaking.
The white characters are full of grey area too, they’re not just a bunch of racists. I’m not sure Pino has a sympathetic side to him, but Sal is more of the nice and caring guy than he is the hothead. There’s that great scene, all done in one shot, where he sits with Pino telling him that no, they can’t move the pizzeria to Bensonhurst, because they are a part of this neighborhood. They have this long discussion and you can see the Korean grocer sweeping his store and talking to customers across the street in the background the whole time. And then Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith, MERCENARY FOR JUSTICE) comes up to the window and Pino gets pissed off, tries to scare him away by banging on the window, goes outside to berate him, starts arguing with offscreen Coconut Sid and those guys from down the block…
This whole time Sal looks the other way, so sick of this shit, knowing his son is an asshole, not knowing what to do about it.
Eventually he goes out to make peace, give a couple bucks to Smiley, tell Sweet Dick that Pino didn’t mean anything by it. Clearly this is a nice guy. But then he goes Mel Gibson. And it’s not like Radio Raheem’s death is his fault exactly but if he hadn’t escalated this confrontation in such a crazy way then maybe it wouldn’t have turned into that asshole cop choking Raheem to death.
And speaking of that asshole cop, he’s the same guy who turned off the fire hydrant earlier in the day, and had no sympathy for the racist asshole Italian American guy who wanted them to arrest the kids who sprayed his car with water. The officer was gruff and very New York about it and maybe blowing the guy off was just easier than trying to find some kids that already ran off. But in that situation he was the good guy who told off the asshole. Then he turns around and does this.
My point is that this is a movie where people are just humans. There are very few saints. Possibly Mother Sister, possibly Mookie’s sister, but no one else. Da Mayor is the wise man who gave the movie its name, but he’s a fuckin drunk. And Ahmad has a point about him failing his five kids. Nobody’s really right about everything, everybody’s wrong about something, their stubbornness butts up against their refusal to understand each other and one stupid thing leads to another and next thing you know a man is dead and a building is on fire and what good does this do anyone?
The sad thing is they have it in them to get along. Most of them like Sal. Sal likes most of them. There’s no reason for it to come to this. But it always fuckin does, doesn’t it?
You know what they should’ve done for the anniversary, they shoulda made a DO THE RIGHT THING neighborhood simulation type video game. You gotta make Mookie deliver pizzas but also do little side missions, you gotta get Da Mayor to find a kid to buy him a Miller High Life, you gotta keep everybody cool, and sweep the stores, and help Smiley sell his Martin and Malcolm pictures, and Radio Raheem has to make sure to not run out of batteries and stuff. It could be good.
Because of all the detail of this neighborhood, the things going on in the background (I’m talking about the movie again, not the video game), those scenes of chaos at the climax are incredibly vivid and gutwrenching. I’ve never been in a riot like that but I’ve been to a few protests and several times in my life I’ve seen riot cops go into that animal mode where they just want to mandhandle and humiliate whoever is in front of them and it has nothing to do with their job anymore as far as you can tell. And watching it you just feel this outrage and betrayal and disgust, you’re putting on Roddy Piper’s sunglasses and seeing the system unmasked and you know there’s not shit you can ever do about it and it won’t even be on the news. I’ve never smashed a storefront and I hope I never will but I know that scene gets the feeling exactly right.
Lee’s filmatism (with help from cinematographer Ernest Dickerson) is incredible. He has a perfect balance of realism and stylization. When you’re watching it you feel like it really is the hottest day of the summer, and you’re just hanging around trying not to sweat too much. I love that you see the moment when the street lights turn on in the background of Da Mayor talking to Mother Sister. The day passing on into night feels so authentic. But Lee also gets into these heightened moments where he switches to exaggerated POV shots. Radio Raheem looking down on tiny little Sal, Sal looking up to giant Radio Raheem. It’s extreme but it’s not spastic; he knows the right spots to use that trick for emphasis, and keeps it in the case until it’s needed.
One of many great cinematic moments: the long, slow closeups of Sid, Willie and M.L. and the two police officers glaring at each other as the squad car rolls by.
Five lifetimes of bad experiences communicated in a handful of dramatic shots. And I can’t discount the importance of the score by Bill Lee in this scene, or throughout. As much as Lee inspired a whole movement of movies in the ’90s, you weren’t seeing many of them scored with melancholy piano jazz.
Trivia: Lee has only ever been nominated for two Oscars (best original screenplay for DO THE RIGHT THING, best documentary feature for 4 LITTLE GIRLS). Jennifer Lawrence has been nominated for three and won one. She was born the year after DO THE RIGHT THING came out.
Anyway, on December 15th we’ll see if any of us are digging out our copies of DRIVING MISS DAISY, that year’s best picture winner, for its 25th birthday. I’m gonna guess no, but it doesn’t really matter. Thank you Spike Lee for making this movie that was incredibly potent in the moment and only gets more interesting with age.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.