Both the initial reason why Spike Lee is a household name and one of the most controversial films of all time, Do the Right Thing is a masterwork of undying tension and resistance, and one of the greatest films of the past 30 years about the very feeling abyss of inner city life. It’s a truly startling and affecting portrait of the simmering everyday hell of lives not lived, an apocalypse that just happens to resemble a Bed-Stuy neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York during the late 1980s and early 1990s. And more than anything, it’s a film which genuinely reveals and honestly understands the state of race relations in the United States at its time like no other. Like most great films, Do the Right Thing exists in shades of grey, in the blind spots, and it pries them right open until we’re suffocated by them. It isn’t preachy, and it doesn’t give any answers, nor does it act like it could if it wanted to. It simply sets you down in the trenches of this neighborhood and lets the characters interact with each other, telling a story brutally honest and completely free of melodrama or manipulation, all the while being clinically aware of its own distance from the subject matter it wished to depict. Watching Do the Right Thing is frustrating and aggravating, a breathless gasp of an experience that really causes one to sit back, as much a plaintive sigh as a shriek into the blistering day. It understands a certain world, our world, and it makes that world something to “feel”. The day depicted in the film isn’t one that the residents of this neighborhood will ever forget, and Lee, with his biting insight and seemingly preternatural understanding of the formal mechanics of film, makes sure we won’t either.
Spike Lee’s film centers around one very hot day in summer (I assume 1989 especially with the righteously anthemic yet disconcerting sounds of Public Enemy blasting over the radio) in a predominantly black Bed-Stuy neighborhood in Brooklyn. The characters that populate the neighborhood include Mookie (Spike Lee) a pizza delivery boy for Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, his sister Jade (Joie Lee, Spike’s real-life sister), and Tina (Rosie Perez), Mookie’s girlfriend. The lone white business on the block is Sal’s, owned by Sal (Danny Aiello) and his two sons, blatant racist Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson), who is unperturbed by skin color. There’s also Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), who wanders around the street all day with a large boom box blasting rap music, Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito), an activist who wants Sal to put some famous black men and women up on his wall of famous Americans, Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith), a mentally disabled man who walks around talking about Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), an elderly alcoholic with a heart of gold, and Mother-Sister (Ruby Dee), the woman being courted by Da Mayor who boasts an indomitable strength and dignity her own. Presiding over the street like a sooth-saying gospel is Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel Jackson), who never leaves his radio booth but still finds time to make keen observations of anything that comes by.
For the first three-fourths of the film, Do the Right Thing is an uncomfortably compelling slice-of-life drama that succeeds based on the strength of the honesty of the characters’ personalities and the cleverness of Lee’s directing. This is genuinely involving material with characters locked in the leftover spaces of the world, but Lee approaches it with a level-headed coolness that captures, more than the oppressive heat, a chill down the spine. Every character exists in three-dimensions; Pino, for example, is both wisely underplayed by John Turturro and given a complexity usually not afforded to such blatant racists on film. He’s not sympathetic by any means, but the film plays his character as more flawed and reckless than evil, and this gives the movie an added level of depth by reminding us that prejudices aren’t inhumanly evil problems but depressingly human phenomenons.
Likewise, the character of Sal represents the even more subtle side of racism, the modern American status quo. Sal is friendly to African-Americans on the surface and is entirely willing, and even happy, to serve them if it helps his bank account. But deep-down there are shades of conflict and an upset stomach. He doesn’t hate blacks, but there are hints that he isn’t immune to thinking in stereotypes. He’s repressed the side of him which highlights race and replaced it with the thin blanket of tolerance, just beckoning to be torn asunder. Lee moves beyond Sal and sees how racism is a broader, more abstract phenomenon only addressed in the most personal, physical of ways. Above all, individuals aren’t the only sources of racism to be found in society, and Sal’s racism is more systemic than individual; institutions such as the police force which utilize racial profiling and perpetually blame blacks for complicated problems play into the finale of the film as well. It is because of this that Do the Right Thing sees beyond the individuals and gets into the raw feeling of the air rising up from the manholes and skulking about behind our backs. He makes it inescapable, not the product of individuals, but part of the city itself. It’s not visible from the skyline, of course, but when you get down within it’s as much part of the dreary reality of day-to-day living in New York City as the sickly yellow hue of a cab. But then taxis don’t much go to Bed-Stuy, do they?
Even Lee’s African-American characters aren’t noble saints, and their validity as people isn’t defined based on only their positive qualities but their aching humanity (Lee avoids a dangerous problem found in many other films about race – Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner presiding over them– namely their implication that only “good” African-Americans are worth a damn). Buggin’ Out storms into Sal’s pizzeria and criticizes Sal while asking for pictures of famous African-Americans to be placed on the wall of his Pizzeria. Radio Raheem refuses to turn off his radio early on in the film upon entering Sal’s. Even Mookie takes time off from a hard day’s work during the middle of his day to take a shower and spend time with his girlfriend. All are understandably human actions, the (non)choices of tired people subsuming their daily anger throughout the doldrums of life, and possibly the necessary disrespect required to solve the tricky problems of racism. They’re confrontational, and Lee doesn’t diminish the validity of black life for being confrontational. Throughout the course of the film, every character at times fails to act as we conventionally define notions of “proper” and “right”, muddying the waters and ultimately making the word “right” confused and multi-directional, contorted in its own moralism. Too often, films which try to preach anti-racism do so by holding their minority characters up on a pedestal, dangerous in its assumption that racism against minorities is somehow justified if they exhibit character flaws. Lee sees all humans as flawed, but he knows that what white skin masks a darker shade leaves open in plain sight.
The last half hour of the film is uncompromising, shocking, and heart-breaking in its depiction of what happens when human flaws, slowly simmering racial tension, and the scorching heat of the day combine to bring conflict to a visceral, physical climax. By the end of the film, everything, and nothing, has changed. The matter-of-fact yet disorienting and quasi-surreal manner in which Lee depicts the film’s climax is heart-stopping and queasily unreal. It brings to full froth a slowly simmering racial tension, but it doesn’t break from what had been built up throughout the film. This above all is the greatest tragedy of the film, and the greatest tragedy of modern America. Race violence and racism aren’t individual blips on a color-blind radar, but slowly boiling over and never-ending. The entire film, the heat, the confrontational camera angles Lee uses when he highlights characters dancing and speaking to the camera, threatens tension. What transpires at the end of Do the Right Thing is the culmination of everything that happens before it, and the tragedy isn’t the climax but the entirety of the film. Even if it hadn’t climaxed so dramatically, the racial tension would speak for itself. What happens here may not directly mirror every street corner in the US, but it could, and that’s the scary insight of Lee’s clear-handed, existentially-fraught vision.
Lee’s masterstroke in the film, however, is its treatment of Pino, not as a complicated character, but as a non-agent. As the explicit bigot of the film, we expect that it will be he who leads to the film’s tragic climax. Yet, as the film hurtles toward its conclusion, he takes part in that only superficial ways. It is not he, the open bigot, who perpetuates the racial tension – it’s the heat of it all, the society, the system, the very ethos of the land, if you all. Whatever you’d like to call it, Lee knows that modern racial discrimination isn’t perpetuated by bigots but a deeper, more sinister force. Today, explicit, individualist racism is at an all-time low in the US – men like Pino, who belong in the KKK, do not call the shots. In its place however, we face a more insidious form of hard-to-spot but no-less-persistent racism that exists in the shadows of open-space, all the worse in some ways for its feigned progressivism. Lee sees above all the everyday racism of people who genuinely believe they are progressive and egalitarian but who still harbor implicit indifference to more subtle inequality and who support racially discriminatory policies which operate under feigned color-blindness. Race and racism are more intangible and have fewer direct forces to target for blame. Lee knows this, and he knows that, within, African-Americans still lose, even in their own neighborhoods. Only now there’s no easy, obviously racist figure to blame – the racial discrimination has been infused into the very ground we walk on.
What matters more to Do the Right Thing as a film though, is not its content but its marriage of content to technique; it is not only Lee’s most politically astute work, but it finds the director at the peak of his understanding of film mechanics and how to use visuals to delineate emotions and define theme. His primary visual technique, a raw, gritty camera that quavers and glides as characters rush to and from their lives and remain unsure of where they’re going, fits his content like a glove. When tragedy strikes late in the film, his angular, distorted shots and hard-cuts take on new life. Early on, the moving camera which follows the neighborhood’s inhabitants around and switches between them without cutting eternally connects them, giving the neighborhood a sense of penetratingly earthy geographic place and exploring the characters as they exist in relation to each other, rather than as individuals. The central tension comes from how no character is ever alone – we often see someone else in the background when we’re focusing on the foreground and we are painfully aware of the tension of their interconnections. Soon enough, however, what began as a dreamlike unchained camera beckons a nightmare, taking on new life in death and revealing the sheer fact of the film’s climax to its participants.
Ultimately though, Lee’s decision to explode with filmmaking prowess in only a few scenes serves his narrative well – most of the film is about quietly pent-up energy, ready to explode, and Lee mirrors this with a more naturalistic, restrained filmmaking palette to make his moments of explosive force that much more powerful. The early parts of the film are more restrained and naturalistic, and he slowly changes his directing style throughout the film to follow the trajectories of the tension, building it to a boiling point with increasingly showy framing and exasperated filming before it flows over. The film doesn’t hit you over the head with style. It does something even more powerful – it threatens to do so in every scene, building up anger and frustration precisely because there are only a few moments of actual catharsis. This is a film constantly threatening to overflow and boil over, to stoke, and because Lee takes his time building up to the eventual moments of passion with quiet propulsion, they become that much more impactful.
Elsewhere, there are two specific scenes highlighted by Lee’s penchant for interspersing fantastical performative style in a film rooted in realism so real it becomes surreal. The first is the movie’s Public Enemy-infused opening credits defined by its urgent, hard-edged music, passionate, loose-limbed dancing, and attention-grabbing colorful fonts to bring life to the tensions on the inner-city streets. Later, we have a mid-shot of Radio Raheem looking directly at the camera as he explains the duality of love and hate in the world with a quiet potency to rival Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter, another film about its own kind of poverty which Lee pays homage to here. These two scenes are astoundingly confrontational in their directness – Lee has Raheem stare right at the camera, and at us, and he often moves his camera with a hurried, inhuman uneasiness to face his characters head-on and oppressively confront their eternal pain. He shoves it right up in their faces to the point where it hurts. They threaten to bend and burn the very celluloid they were filmed on and reveal the bounds of the film in threatening to poke through and into the audience, Lee’s point no doubt. These people cannot safely be contained in the film, just as racism cannot be contained in any one depiction or screen – no matter what we’ve viewed, more always creeps around and threatens to overtake us. Lee’s stylistic work here, as it always is, knows the ways in which film is not simply naturalism, but instead a performance, a work of art that breathes artistic flourishes, and he knows that art is at its best when it is used for confrontation rather than stagnancy and compliance.
Most telling is the place of The Night of the Hunter in the film. In Charles Laughton’s Southern Gothic parable of poverty, Robert Mitchum’s “love” and “hate” sermon is simultaneously lie and truth. Mitchum’s character is a huckster warping moralism to do his bidding, and in turn revealing the internal limits of simple dichotomies like “love” and “hate” in the process. No doubt Lee seeks to pose that no such dichotomy ever could contain the discrimination captured in his film. Yet there is more. Laughton’s film self-reflexively observes its own fakery, dealing as it does in the openly spiritual and expressionist at the expense of reality. But it uses this filmic manipulation and storybook atmosphere to get to an emotional reality lost in more logically realist stories, and here too Lee seems to find a home. His fantastical imagery obviously conflicts with the dreary realism of the film, but within he seems to be admitting how his film cannot truly ever understand racism, for no film can. “Love” and “hate” become lies, but they’re also real in the feelings behind them, the central dialectic of Laughton’s film. If Lee can’t really convey racism in truth, he can capture the essence of it through a film, a stylistic performance and thus a “lie” of sorts, but one which seeks the truth.
Thus, Lee will not even for a second let us take solace in watching the film and “understanding” racism from a distant perspective as a viewer. He lets us know we can’t ever know racism, and he damn near breaks the film shoving his characters right up to us, implicating us, and reminding us that for these people this isn’t something which can be “distant”. It’s part of their damaged lives, and Lee uncomfortably makes it part of ours. For all the film’s serious-mindedness and day-in-the-life earthy realism, Lee often speaks plain, harsh truths like fire-and-brimstone sermons filtered through slam poetry. Even when his grandstanding provocateur’s edge is restrained here, especially early on, it’s still present, and these scenes are still potent blasts of pure rage-fueled stylized anger. They may clash with the film’s “logical reality”, but they preach a much greater truth as scenes which we remember long after the film ends, scenes which stick with us like sweat on a hot summer’s day, living on in our dreams and haunting us and energizing us with filmmaking cooked up on the sun-drenched Brooklyn pavement. Seldom has Werner Herzog’s ecstatic truth been more true than here, and when Lee has Radio Raheem break the fourth wall to tell “us”, the audience, the nature of “love” and “hate”, he’s laying out the dialectic: this is a film that, even in telling the story of racism, can never know everything. But, if it can’t know everything, it can make us “feel” what it feels.
Lee is also clearly skilled with actors, with Danny Aiello giving us a complex, layered, and very human character that strays far away from becoming a one dimensional antagonist – likely enhanced by his likely confusion about whether Lee truly believes this character to be racist manifesting in his own confusion about how to perform the role, which fits, like nothing else, the way the actual character is in fact confused about his own racism. Sam Jackson turns in a forcefully angry, theatrical performance as the radio DJ whose observations function as a modern-day street soothsayer, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee turn in respectably weary but still fiery work as the eldest characters on screen, and John Turturro and Bill Nunn provide the requisite intensity to make both the characters real presences (Nunn is more a quietly intense figure while Turturro is given more chances to turn some of that intensity into outright anger when he speaks his mind). Lee shows exactly the sure-hand he shows with actors that he finds in his visuals: he understands how to find tension and poetry in the formal mechanics of film, how to use the specifics of film as art – acting, directing, cinematography, sound, editing – to provoke and radicalize to tell his radical story in the body of a radical film.
Could the events of Do the Right Thing have unfolded differently? We’d like to think so, and Lee’s approach begs a sort of existential conundrum: if only any of the characters had acted differently, this tragedy might have been prevented. If they had acted differently, however, would anything truly be different? Sure, the climax wouldn’t have occurred, but the tension, stuck to the characters by the impenetrable humidity of their souls, would be as strong as ever. Roger Ebert wrote in his 1989 review of Do the Right Thing that it “comes closer to reflecting the current state of race relations in America than any movie of our time”. Its truth is only more telling today. Thankfully, twenty-five years later, Lee is still around, still provocative, still angry, and still fashioning his peculiar brand of naturalist-fantasies, works that thrive on the tension between realism and fable-like performance. They are works that are, even if imperfect, deeply uncomfortable to the core, works that are as radical filmically and visually as politically and socially. He continues to be one of the few directors to understand that a film that wishes to be provocative politically ought to be provocative stylistically too, and he never achieved this fusion of style and subject better than in Do the Right Thing.