Throwback Thursday examines films from the past—typically “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist, but can still be important in some aspect.
In Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989), we’re brought into an isolated Brooklyn neighborhood on the hottest day of the year.
The film revolves around Mookie (Spike Lee), an African American pizza-delivery man in his mid-20s who interacts with the people of his neighborhood over the course of a day. His Italian American employer, Sal (Danny Aiello), along with Sal’s two sons (Richard Edson and John Turturro), his sister (Joie Lee), his girlfriend (Rosie Perez), his infant son, and several neighborhood personalities like Radio Raheem cross his path through the progression of the film. As the sun heats up, so do the tempers and prejudices of this microcosm of America, feeding and exacerbating long-standing frictions of class, ethnicity, and race.
There is a loose plot that moves the drama along, but the movie’s heart is in watching these people interact and relate with one another. The characters feel well rounded: they’re amusing when they’re posturing and believable when they’re honest. They have conversations that are mundane one moment and meaningful the next.
Visually, the film is saturated with red and brown to show how the temperature is affecting the block, and you can almost feel the oppressive heat the characters are dealing with. Fashion-wise, it’s a great snapshot of late-’80s/early-’90s clothing, which might be jarring for people not used to the very bright, popular colors of the era. (Speaking as a child of the ’80s, it’s very representative.) The sets are also full of colors. Everything from the cars driving by to the store signs are eye-catching. Even the neighborhood’s brownstones are striking in how much color they contribute, though they still seem real and lived-in.
The camerawork contributes significantly to the movie’s tensions and messages. Lee uses Dutch angles to heighten tension between certain characters and to display the growing unrest in the community. Additionally, the camera stands in for Mookie more than once, so as Mookie’s conversation partner speaks at the camera, s/he speaks directly to you-in-the-audience, making it easy to relate to the character and his experiences. This film goes to such lengths to include its audience as participants, not just uninvolved bystanders. It’s not about “them”; it’s about us.
When I was in high school, one of my English teachers had our class watch the last half hour of the film, beginning with the escalation of the conflict between Radio Raheem and Sal, and then asked us for our thoughts. My English teacher noted that during the discussion, all of the white students focused on the destruction of Sal’s pizzeria, while no one brought up Radio Raheem’s death. Does that kind of thing sound familiar to the cultural narrative of today? Fashion may have changed, but 25 years later, the social situation in the United States has not progressed so much.
I’m sure if you haven’t seen the film, or if you have but it’s been years, you’re asking yourself, “Does the film hold up 25 years later?”
Yes, it very much does. Do the Right Thing has an engaging plot and characters that will effortlessly invest you in their lives; you’re just waiting for something to happen, and when it does, the ending is quick and forces you to reflect. You’re left questioning things, including whether you think Mookie did indeed do the right thing. I’m not going to try to answer that question. Part of the joy of this film is having those conversations, both internally and with others in your life. Certain films require a kind of back-and-forth processing; Do the Right Thing is certainly one of them. Films like this beg more than just, “That fight scene was awesome!” or “That CGI looked terrible.” Do the Right Thing is meant to be discussed.
I will leave you with this final thought: a pivotal scene happens almost halfway through the film in which a number of the characters, one by one, are pulled out of the action and sling racial slurs. Black, white, Jewish, Korean, Hispanic—no one is spared from the hate vomit. Finally, Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson) screams out, “Time out! Time out! You need to cool that shit out!” For a moment, peace is maintained. But it’s a tenuous peace. It’s not going to last. He got them to shut up, but he didn’t get them to listen. With this film, Spike Lee is trying to get us to listen. It’s up to us to determine whether we’re ready.