It wouldn’t be hyperbole to say that Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing changed my life. It would sound like hyperbole to be sure, but it wouldn’t be. I saw it in an incredibly specific context for which I will be grateful for, for the rest of my life. At the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign in 2008 or perhaps 2009 (I can’t remember anymore, to be truthful), I saw it as a part of a unit in Professor Sandy Camargo’s film class—a unit she called simply “Race in 1989.” In it, Do the Right Thing filled out a roster of some of the year’s most successful films, all of which dealt directly with race in one way or another: Driving Miss Daisy, the overly sentimental Oscar favorite; Glory, the Matthew Broderick and Denzel Washington Civil War epic; and, perhaps most curiously, buddy-cop staple Lethal Weapon 2.
That all of these films would not only come out the same year, but that they would each handle the issue of race so bluntly and in such strikingly different manners was something that has stayed with me in the nearly 10 years that have followed. It was without a doubt, the most important film class of my life. It was the one that opened my eyes to the subtle and nefarious ways that racism could operate in the Hollywood system, and it is the one that has most informed how I’ve viewed every movie I’ve watched since.
That I managed to make to the age of 21 or 22 without ever needing to contemplate the complicated ways Hollywood ignores and disparages based on race speaks to my immense privilege. The class was the first one to illustrate why the system didn’t need Mammies and Uncle Toms or even blackface to be every bit as racist. All it needed was the appearance of diversity, which meant creating newer, “friendlier” stereotypes to replace their outdated predecessors (think “sassy best friend” and “latin lover”).
With Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee packed color and fury into a solid two-hour punch that knocked me off my feet and left my eyes open wide. Set in New York’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood and constrained to a single block within it, Lee exposes a slice of American life in a way that is rife with humor, though that softens none of the ugly realities it exposes. We follow Mookie (played by Lee himself) as he goes about his life on the hottest day of the summer, meeting his girlfriend Tina (Rosie Perez), friends Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) and Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), and pizzeria owner Sal (Danny Aiello) among a host of other characters that pepper the neighborhood.
When Buggin’ Out gets into a feud with Sal over the lack of black people represented on Sal’s “Wall of Fame” (which is comprised entirely of famous Italian Americans including Frank Sinatra and Robert Deniro), tensions reach a boiling point. It’s then that Do the Right Thing shifts fully from a playful romp through New York to an unsettling recognition of America’s deep-seated racism.
But Lee isn’t interested in making it easy for viewers to confront this version of America. This is not Driving Miss Daisy, which was more concerned with showing how the titular Miss Daisy comes to the stunning truth that perhaps racism both exists and is bad after all amid gorgeous soft lighting. There’s no speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. to be heard in the background acting as the moral compass of the film.
Instead, Lee leaves audiences to wrestle with the fact that characters they have come to laugh with and love are going to make mistakes and add to grievances that have existed for years. No one will be wholly good or wholly bad. He presents us with nothing but uncomfortable reality and asks us—no, demands that we deal with it head on.
When the film came out, Jack Kroll of Newsweek wrote that “People are going to argue about this film for a long time. . . . But this movie is dynamite under every seat.” What he was insinuating was the same fear that many white critics shared in 1989—that Do the Right Thing would incite black audiences to riot, that there would literally be chaos in the streets. And while Kroll was wrong on that account, he might be right in another way. Do the Right Thing is dynamite, but of the sort that pushes people out of their seats and out of their comfort zones and confronts them with a mirror, forcing them to see where their own prejudices and misconceptions lie.
Here is what we'll have on Do the Right Thing this week:
- The Cinessential Podcast, Episode 15
- More on the film's view of race and how it relates today
- Spike Lee's depictions of women
- Related Review of pseudo-sequel Red Hook Summer
- And more!