Blu-ray Review: Do The Right Thing [Criterion] | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Thursday, November 14th, 2019  

Do The Right Thing

Studio: The Criterion Collection

Aug 05, 2019 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

The Criterion Collection’s expansive new Blu-ray release of Spike Lee’s 1989 classic Do The Right Thing includes a ten minute interview with Lee entitled “The Last Word”, recorded for Criterion’s original DVD release of the film in 2000. More than a decade after its release, the writer/director mocks original reviews of the film for their pearl-clutching concerns about inciting racial violence, and laments that the real-life killings of African-American referenced in the film - Eleanor Bumpers, Michael Griffith, Edmund Perry - are being echoed in the then contemporary murders of Amadu Diallo and Gidone Busch. This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of Do The Right Thing, the film that made Lee a household name and established him as one of the most important voices in American film. In the thirty years since its incendiary release and the twenty years since his retrospective lament, shockingly little has changed. White centrist concern-trolling has moved out of newspapers and on to Twitter, and Diallo and Busch’s names have been replaced in the headlines by Eric Garner and Philando Castillo. Viewed in 2019, Do The Right Thing feels simultaneously like a time capsule of a lost era and prescient condemnation of the current state of affairs.

Modern audiences only familiar with Do The Right Thing as a political statement will likely be surprised by how much humor and warmth Lee injects into his tale of a single block in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn on the hottest day of the year. The opening credits featuring Rosie Perez furiously dancing to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” - a song written for the film at Lee’s request - are a perfect synthesis of the film’s socially-conscious intentions and` Lee’s desire to create a vibrant, uplifting portrait of urban style and pop culture in the late 1980s. It remains one of the greatest cinematic introductions of all time - the film is Perez’s acting debut - as well as proof that something can be extremely dated while still remaining cool as hell.

The film’s opening twenty minutes are a marvel of scene setting and narrative economy. Brief vignettes introduce us to the residents of Stuyvesant Avenue between Lexington and Quincy. We meet Spike Lee’s Mookie, a rabble-rouser in a Dodgers jersey living one paycheck at a time. Danny Aiello’s Sal, the short-tempered goombah who owns the pizzeria where Mookie works as a delivery boy. Da Mayor, an amiable old drunk in a tattered seer sucker suit and Mother Sister, the block’s wise old matriarch, played by real life couple Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. Buggin’ Out, Giancarlo Esposito’s stylish young militant and Radio Raheem, a walking boombox played by the late Bill Nunn. Presiding over them and a dozen other characters is Mister Señor Love Daddy, a loudly dressed Greek chorus in the form of a local DJ played by Samuel L. Jackson. The strength of Lee’s cast can’t be understated. A combination of established stars, NYC locals and Lee’s friends, they lend the film a personality and verisimilitude that no amount of money could buy. And Lee’s direction, for all it’s stylistic flourishes - Dutch angles! Bright sun-baked colors! Overt framing devices! - creates an unvarnished and hyper-specific snapshot of NYC that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever lived there but remains wholly of it’s own time and place. Rosie Perez’s accent alone will teach you more about New York than any vacation you could take there.

For all of that Spike Lee has been mocked as an angry black man by his white critics and a crotchety old man by younger generations, it’s remarkable how evenhanded and cautious Do The Right Thing is when it comes to race and politics - until, of course, the moment when it’s not. With the character of Mookie, Lee casts himself as a guy who’s happy to sit on the fence as long as it keeps him paid. His tolerance of his casually racist boss - and his boss’s overtly racist son Pino, played to perfection by Jon Turturro - is balanced out by his tolerance of his friend Buggin’ Out, a petty, blustering Malcolm X wannabe in Air Jordans. Mookie absorbs the opinions and prejudices of everyone around him, from the sage kindliness of Da Mayor to the confrontational anger of Radio Raheem, but reflects back none of it. Lee initially presents Mookie as above the petty racial grievances of the whites, blacks, Puerto Ricans and Koreans that make up his world, although the cracks in his too-cool facade begin to show as the film goes on. Lee’s earnest defense of Louis Farrakhan doesn’t hold up in 2019 but his perspective-switching, straight-to-the-camera racist screed - a sequence he would revisit with even greater power and vitriol in 2002’s The 25th Hour - perfectly captures the sweaty, roiling contradiction that is New York City, a place where hundreds of different cultures who hate and despise each other come together to create one of the greatest and most vital cities on earth.

Of course, Mookie is only on the fence until he isn’t. As the combination of a 100 degree day and an act of brutality culminates in violence, both Lee and Mookie pick the only side they can. Beyond righteousness or fairness, Do The Right Thing can ultimately only be honest. Honest about the realities of racism and violence that built America and the racism and violence that pervade it to this very day. Thirty years later, Do The Right Thing doesn’t seem to have effected much change. But it’s a reminder to stay angry. And to stay honest.



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