There isn’t a huge amount to write about Do The Right Thing that hasn’t been written, but it’s a bona fide classic at this point. It’s the film that gained Spike Lee widespread acceptance as a new voice in American cinema: his debut, She’s Gotta Have It, was an indie hit; his follow-up, School Daze, was moderately successful; but Do The Right Thing was a blockbuster for a film of its kind, was nominated for Oscars, and was hailed by many critics as the film of the year.
It was equally controversial (something Spike Lee films are never known to be!)… and many believed Driving Miss Daisy was wrongfully nominated for and won Best Film at the Oscars over Do The Right Thing, which didn’t even get a nomination for Best Film or Best Director. This last Oscar season there was something of a repeat, with Green Book and Lee’s BlackKklansman going head to head, nding with Green Book winning Best Film and Lee getting a consolation prize of best-adapted screenplay.
The film is a snapshot of life on one block in the Bedford-Stuyvesant district of Brooklyn, where racial tensions between Italians, Hispanics and African-Americans are at a tipping point. On one of the hottest days of the summer, it’s bound to explode, and eventually it does. It’s all kicked off by Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito), who askes the local pizzeria owner Sal (Danny Aiello) why there aren’t any “brothers” up on his restaurant’s Hall of Fame, just Italians. Buggin Out’s friend Mookie (Spike Lee) is a pizza delivery guy for Sal, and while Sal’s oldest son Pino (John Turturro) is a racist, his younger son Vito (Richard Edson) gets on fine with Mookie.
It’s very much an ensemble piece that is full of great characters from this Brooklyn neighbour, including Ossie Davis as the local drunk, “Da Mayor”, Ruby Dee’s Mother Sister, Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson) and even Martin Lawrence, who appears in his screen debut as Cee—and of course Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), who blasts Public Enemy at any opportunity. The film begins with one of the greatest opening sequences in cinematic history, soundtracked by Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power,” which was actually written for Do The Right Thing.
Sure, at times Do the Right Thing is a little heavy-handed with its rhetoric (it’s a Spike Lee Joint, after all!) but its message is just as relevant as it was 30 years ago, especially with the Black areas in Brooklyn being more and more gentrified by white rich hipsters. Hopefully we’ve learned enough to all agree that Mookie “did the right thing” at the end, something Spike Lee has claimed only white audiences have ever asked him. It may not be Spike Lee’s greatest achievement as a director—I would rate Malcolm X higher as a feature and his seething-with-justified-anger documentary When the Levees Broke is also a masterpiece—but Do The Right Thing is certainly right behind those. It’s been great that after a slump for a few years, with Chi-Rag and BlackKklansman he has his mojo back.
Criterion released Do The Right Thing in a still very impressive two-DVD package many years ago. Now it gets a much deserved Blu-Ray upgrade: after some decent if problematic Blu-Ray transfers from Universal Studios, the distinctive colour scheme envisioned by Lee and his cinematographer Ernest R. Dickerson has been corrected. The earlier commentary, deleted scenes and various documentaries and Cannes press conference are carried over, along with newly added documentaries and interviews. It’s the definitive package for a true modern classic.