Movie Review: Do the Right Thing (1989)

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Rating; B+/ Do the Right Thing is the second film I’ve seen by Spike Lee. The first was 25th Hour, which I really enjoyed (I love me some Edward Norton,) and although I have heard many great things about Lee’s other films, I really didn’t like the way he lashed out against Tarantino and Django Unchained without even bothering to watch it (it was the maligning it without seeing it first that I really couldn’t stand, it was like criticizing the musical quality of a song you’ve never heard.)

However, based on my enjoyment of 25th Hour and all the good things I’ve heard about his work, I was interested in seeing more of his films. Do the Right Thing is one of his first and most widely known films, and I really enjoyed the social commentary and the rich plethora of eccentric characters contained within the story. Do the Right Thing takes place over one steaming hot day in a somewhat rough neighborhood in Brooklyn.

For better or for worse, gentrification has settled upon this area, and Korean storekeepers, black locals, and some white inhabitants all struggle to live together in harmony. For some, the struggle is realer than for others, and there’s a lot of tension between the Italian-American owner of a small pizzeria, Sal (Danny Aillo,) and his black employee, Mookie (writer/director Spike Lee.)

Mookie is, to put it simply, a lazy no-good layabout, and Sal’s dickhead racist son Pino (a very, very young John Turturro) is not exactly pulling his weight around the business either. Mookie encourages Pino’s much- put upon, dim bulb younger brother Vito (Richard Edsen) to defend himself against Pino’s endless harassment, and local troublemaker Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) tries to boycott Sal’s business for the perceived injustice of not featuring any famous African-Americans on his restaurant’s wall.

The problem is, no one wants to skip out on Sal’s pizza. The inhabitants of the neighborhood have been going there ever since they were kids, and nobody’s paying Buggin’ Out much mind. Things reach a boiling point when Buggin’ Out recruits the temperamental hip-hop enthusiast Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) and the mentally deficient, stuttering Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith) to confront Sal and his sons and settle things for good. What they don’t expect is for everything to positively explode, and ensure that things in the neighborhood will never be quite the same way again.

One of the things Do the Right Thing does radically differently in terms of portraying racism is the way it doesn’t limit it primarily to the white characters. Every character in the film has their own sets of preconceptions and prejudices; in fact, in one scene several characters of all different races, including a Korean man, deliver a monologue directly to the screen about the people they consider responsible for ruining the country.

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Breaking the fourth wall might seem like an on-the-nose way to approach the subject of racism, but this scene nevertheless works surprisingly well. And it hits the nail on the head, too. You can be assured that there are many non-white people who are racist as hell, blacks who blame whites for their misfortunes, Asians who have a bone to pick with blacks, etc., etc. It goes on and on. It’s easier to blame a specific race of people for fucking up your life than to sack up and admit that more often than not, you’re responsible for your own problems.

There are bad people in every group, but there are good people, too, and dismissing an entire race as less than is robbing human beings of their complexity. It would have been easy and perfectly standard for Spike Lee to do a movie on the evil white people oppressing the black people and making their lives harder just for the hell of it. In that hypothetical movie, Sal and his sons would be the villains, but the end result of this movie is just like life. There are no heroes, no villains. Just a whole lot of bad choices.

However, Do the Right Thing is not as dark a movie as you might think considering the subject matter. There are some delightfully funny and colorful characters and conversations in this movie, and as a whole, that’s mostly what it is. Conversations and vignettes  of characters who you would probably enjoy reading a book about if such a book happened to exist. And let me just take the time to say, Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) is the man. He is the voice of reason in this movie, and I just felt his character so much.

If there’s anything I would say I didn’t particularly enjoy about this movie, it was that it felt a bit overlong and the ending didn’t provide a whole lot of resolution, instead leaving the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X to speak for the film’s themes. I think certain scenes could have been shortened and the ending could have provided a bit more closure.

I think it’s a very good movie, overall; Spike Lee wrote an excellent script and the film features some great performances by it’s actors. For people who think this is going to be a boring, preachy movie about racism, you’re in for a surprise. Who would have expected a film about race relations to be so funny, vibrant, and full of life. About twice as entertaining as you’d expect it to be, Do the Right Thing is one of those classics that actually lives up to it’s reputation and hasn’t become obsolete with time.

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2 thoughts on “Movie Review: Do the Right Thing (1989)”

  1. Glad you got to see it, and enjoyed it. It is quite funny. As you say, people who haven’t seen it might not know going in. For me, this movie is everything. Just rewatched it a couple weeks ago, myself and still loved every minute of it. Interesting observation on the ending. I thought it worked because there is no closure to the problems addressed in the film. These are on-going issues with no resolution in sight. Ultimately, what happens on this block is just the incident before the next one, so to speak. To tie it up in a bow and give us “the answer” would be artistically dishonest and pretentious.

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