It’s tempting to watch Do the Right Thing, 25 years after so much ink was spilled over fears that the film would incite black audiences to riots as massive as the one that climaxes the film itself, and, with the benefit of hindsight, ask what all the controversy was all about. Even now, Spike Lee’s 1989 masterpiece still pulses with incendiary passion, exuding the invigorating feel of a filmmaker trying to put all of his feelings on racism in American society into one film. But seeing Do the Right Thing now, one can’t help but notice all the contradictory ideas and characterizations floating around and wonder how people could miss the film’s clear-eyed thematic complexity.
Though Lee reserves his most potent explication of the film’s multifaceted perspective toward the end (with consecutive on-screen quotations from Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X—more on that later), one can already grasp its contradictions in the music that adorns its opening credits: a solemn instrumental solo-saxophone rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing”—the song popularly known as the “Negro national anthem”—underscoring the appearance of the film’s title on screen before “Fight the Power” crashes onto the soundtrack, set to the sight of Rosie Perez dancing energetically to the Public Enemy song behind neon-colored backdrops of the Brooklyn block that will be the film’s main setting. From quiet restraint to pent-up anger—that’s the fundamental animating dichotomy of Do the Right Thing, thematically and stylistically, and while many of us may remember the film’s furies the most, that’s not to shortchange the moments of eloquence sprinkled throughout.
Chief among the film’s beauties is the simplicity of the setting itself: one block in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood on an extremely hot summer day. With its large cast of vividly colorful characters, Do the Right Thing conjures up an environment with all the near-mythical weight of, say, Grover’s Corners, the small-town American neighborhood of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. In fact, theatricality is a hallmark of Lee’s dramatic approach in this film—not just by virtue of the outsize behavior of some of its characters, but also because of the staging and framing. It’s as if, even within these location settings, each scene was taking place on a stage of the characters’ own imaginings.
Which isn’t to imply that Do the Right Thing feels unduly stagy. Within scenes, Lee chooses unexpected Dutch angles and looming close-ups to draw out the tension in certain exchanges. Note, for instance, Radio Raheem’s (Bill Nunn) initial on-screen confrontation with pizzeria owner Sal Fragione (Danny Aiello): Sal is captured in straight-ahead close-ups as he infuriatedly insists that Raheem turn down his boombox, while Raheem’s menacing expression is caught with the camera tilted slightly below his face. With mere slight adjustments like that, cinematographer Ernest Dickerson is able to visually suggest power relationships between characters—and in a milieu as emotionally volatile as this, power shifts are everything. Lee also isn’t afraid, however, to stray from the central character dramas for the occasional seemingly spontaneous montage: the abrupt series of shots in which characters yell streams of racial epithets in front of a camera that whooshes into their face, Martin Scorsese-style; or a sudden injection of eroticism as Mookie (Lee himself) rubs ice cubes all over his long-suffering wife, Tina (Perez), each nude body part segmented into a shot of its own. Moments like those give Do the Right Thing a freewheeling quality that makes some sense in the context of the film’s setting.
“Freewheeling” is one way to describe the films of another filmmaker that, on the surface, would seem to bear no kinship with Lee: Jean-Luc Godard. But, aside from a somewhat similar formal playfulness (those aforementioned montages might not seem so out of place in, say, an early-1960s work such as Breathless), Godard, despite his reputation in some quarters as a deliberately obfuscatory crank and blowhard, has often proven capable of approaching subjects in a genuinely dialectical manner. Witness, for instance, his unsparing examination of the budding Maoist revolutionaries in 1967’s La Chinoise: Perhaps Godard, deep down, endorses the ideology they spout during their self-imposed training (he would later join the student ranks in the May ’68 protests, after all), but the film itself is hardly celebratory, instead finding these particular youths rather frightening in the violent lengths they’re willing to go to further their cause.
Lee is similarly willing to put his own attitudes under a microscope. Do the Right Thing is built on oppositions of all kinds, but the oppositions aren’t simplistic, by any means. Granted, the film has Radio Raheem and Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) exemplifying a certain hardcore-militant mindset in their vehement objections to Sal’s lack of African-American figures on his pizzeria’s Wall of Fame; and on the other side there’s Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), the resident drunk who turns out to have the clearest perspective of all (he’s the one who voices the film’s title). But the rest of the film’s large cast of characters illustrate varying shades of gray: the elderly trio (Paul Benjamin, Frankie Faison, and Robin Harris), for instance, who project their fears of gentrification out on the Korean couple (the patriarch played by Steve Park) who owns a new corner store; and Sal’s sons, the resentful racist Pino (John Turturro) and the more circumspect Vito (Richard Edson).
Lee’s most pointed move in that regard, though, is his decision to cast himself as Mookie, the conflicted soul of Do the Right Thing. It’s a measure of the film’s fair-minded intelligence that even though he is indeed the man who commits the garbage can-throwing act that starts the riot at its climax, he’s painted as neither the hero nor merely a fool pushed into violence by an angry mob. In fact, Mookie himself is, quite simply, a mess: smart, for sure (he sharply dismantles Pino’s weak distinctions between “niggers” and the African-American basketball stars he idolizes), but also a slacker who’s careless about providing for his girlfriend and son. In Lee’s grand dramatic scheme, it makes sense that an aimless man like him would be pulled apart in different directions, torn between his practical desire to keep his pizza-delivery job at Sal’s and his loyalties to the members of his community.
And finally, we come to those aforementioned quotes at the end: Martin Luther King Jr.’s impassioned call for nonviolence followed by Malcolm X’s defense of self-defensive violence as a sign of “intelligence.” Any questions as to whether Lee prefers one perspective over another are surely put to rest with the photograph that ends the film, of King and Malcolm X smiling and shaking hands. Even in ideological opposition, these two civil rights leaders managed, at least for one moment captured in photographic amber, to put aside their differences. At heart, Do the Right Thing seeks the same ideal when it comes to American race relations in America. It’s the right thing, but the difficulty of achieving such a high goal remains, subject to all-too-human whims and passions. Lee’s keen insight into such matters of the human heart remains as relevant as ever now, claims of a “post-racial society” in the presidency of Barack Obama be damned.
Kenji Fujishima is a New York-based writer. Follow him on Twitter at @kenjfuj.