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Do the Right Thing (1989)
- Top Ten New York Stories (#10)
Do the Right Thing is a 1989 American drama film produced, written, and directed by Spike Lee, who is also a featured actor in the film. Other members of the cast include Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Richard Edson, Giancarlo Esposito, Bill Nunn, and John Turturro. It is also notably the feature film debut of Martin Lawrence and Rosie Perez. The movie tells the story of a neighborhood's simmering racial tension, which comes to a head and culminates in tragedy on the hottest day of the summer. The film was a commercial success and received numerous accolades and awards, including an Academy Award nomination for Lee for Best Original Screenplay and one for Best Supporting Actor for Aiello's portrayal of Sal the pizzeria owner. It is often listed among the greatest films of all time. In 1999, it was deemed to be "culturally significant" by the U.S. Library of Congress, and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry, one of just five films to have this honor in their first year of eligibility.
It's the hottest summer that Brooklyn has ever seen. In the Bedford-Stuyvesant section, delivery boy Mookie (Lee) sweats the streets, working for pizzeria owner Sal (Danny Aielo) and his sons Vito (Richard Edson) and Pino (John Tuturro). Splitting time between pal Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito) and his baby momma Tina (Rosie Perez), he's all about making money and getting paid. When local legend Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) has a run-in with the law, Mookie quickly recognizes a potential riot in the offing. The decision he makes, and the reaction by Sal, will change the face of this neighborhood forever. Just like Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) says to the philosophically savvy hustler, Mookie is the catalyst, and as a result, must always 'do the right thing.'
With its combination of observational truth and explosive tension, Do the Right Thing remains one of the sole celluloid statements to truly understand bigotry. From the classic montage where several characters speak in horrific ethnic slurs to the last act call to arms/calm by radio DJ Mister Señor Love Daddy (a fantastic Samuel L. Jackson), Lee divides the world into black and white and then explains why this is important -- and poisonous. He allows Aielo, Edson, and Turturro to accurately reflect the anger and resentment among the growing Caucasian 'minority' and then adds in the far more militant flavor of Raheem to really seal the deal. Removed from all its '80s identification, this could be anytime in America's recent history. It's a powerful, confrontational work of art.
But oddly enough, this is also an incredibly funny film, Lee milking laughs out of the tough and terse language of the streets. Acting like a foul-mouthed Greek Chorus, the late, great Robin Harris (Sweet Dick Willie), Frankie Faison (Coconut Sid), and Paul Benjamin (ML) sit back and crack comically at all the love/hate nonsense going on. While they definitely have a side in this debate, they tend to even things out with their no-holds-barred critiques. This is also a very sexy movie, Lee making wonderful use of Perez's voluptuousness to underscore the passions involved. Sure there are aspects that seem incredibly formulaic now, like the Simon Legree policemen or the misguided 'guido' whose car becomes the object of some watery youthful hijinks. But Lee countermands such dramatics with a solid, undeniable genuineness. That's why Do the Right Thing is occasionally very uncomfortable.
As a document of where we've been and how far we have to go, Spike Lee's third feature film proves that the promise he showed with both She's Gotta Have It and School Daze was capable of something truly spectacular. While it may not always speak to its audience in fashionable, or even plausible, protests, it does deliver a message that's as timely as it is timeless. Sometimes, it's hard to figure out just what the 'right thing' really is. Lee shows us both sides of the situation, and lets us decide for ourselves. The results are devastating.