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DO THE RIGHT THING

     

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Aug. 2, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: Spike Lee received an Honorary Academy Award in 2016 after two nominations in the 1990s, and he won his first competitive Oscar this year. He was nominated as best director for the first time, for ‘BlacKkKlansman,’ but didn’t win in that category, rather taking home the statuette as co-writer of the best-adapted screenplay. His two previous nominations were for producing a 1997 documentary, ‘4 Little Girls,’ and writing ‘Do the Right Thing.’ Many thought he should have at least been nominated for the directing Oscar for ‘Do the Right Thing,’ and today many still feel the film is Lee’s best work. Now the boutique label Criterion Collection has released a new 30th anniversary Blu-ray upgrade of the film with loads of bonus features. My review was published in the Deseret News on July 14, 1989.

Spike Lee has come a long way. It's hard to believe "Do the Right Thing" is only his third film. As a director he shows a steady, yet innovative technical hand and a natural, realistic style with his actors' performances. And as a writer he allows the development of characters through minor actions and small events to propel the story until it reaches a logical, if not necessarily satisfactory climax.

But he has also taken a position with this film that may make moviegoers uncomfortable. Simply put, he doesn't express a specific point of view. In the end he seems to want audiences to make up their own minds about the issues he presents on the screen — racism, and violence as a solution. We, as a moviegoing public, are used to filmmakers telling us what to think, not suggesting we figure it out ourselves.

"Do the Right Thing" is set in a small neighborhood in Brooklyn over a roughly 24-hour period. It's one of the hottest days of the summer, and as sweltering temperatures begin to rise we are introduced to the central characters.

There's Sal (Danny Aiello), the owner of the local pizzeria in a black neighborhood he commutes to each day, and his two sons who work for him, Pino, an avowed bigot (John Torturro), and easygoing Vito (Richard Edson), who knows no such distinctions.

     

Spike Lee, left, Richard Edson and Sam Jackson (aka Samuel L. Jackson), 'Do the Right Thing' (1989)

There's also Mookie (Spike Lee), who works as a delivery boy for Sal, and who lives with his attractive younger sister (Lee's real-life sister Joie Lee) and largely avoids his girlfriend (Rosie Perez), though she is raising their son.

Then there's Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) and Mother Sister (Ruby Dee), who have a rather tenuous relationship as oldsters in the neighborhood, and among the younger contingent are Buggin' Out (Giancarlo Esposito), a local hothead; Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), an unhappy character whose prize in life is his humongous ghetto blaster; and Mister Señor Love Daddy (Sam Jackson), the local deejay who observes local goings-on.

There are many other characters that come and go in this ensemble piece, which is mostly humorous in its first two-thirds, but which begins early planting the seeds for the eventual confrontational climax that is the set piece upon which the film is built.

The main story centers around Buggin' Out's demands that Sal place photos of black artists on his pizza parlor's "Wall of Fame," which is exclusively made up of Italian descendents at the moment — Sinatra, Pacino, Stallone, etc. Buggin' Out tries to organize a boycott, which no one takes seriously until he goes to Radio Raheem, whose boom box constantly blares Public Enemy's "Fight the Power," ultimately igniting the already hot local tempers. Add some overzealous police and you have the impetus for a riot.

     

As a whole the film might have achieved more depth had Lee allowed us to learn more about the background of his characters, many of whom remain mysteries to the end. On the other hand, Lee has wisely chosen excellent performers, and they bring much to their roles that the script does not.

What "Do the Right Thing" does best, however, is to show how seemingly minor incidents can pile up in a day so that an eventual confrontation, no matter how repulsive, seems not only natural but inevitable.

But if Lee seems to vacillate between the non-violent teachings of Martin Luther King and the pro-violent teachings of Malcom X throughout the film, he may really confuse the audience by using polarized quotes from each of them to close his film.

Still, it's been a good while since a movie has provoked the kind of discussion this film has — and that in itself makes it recommendable.

"Do the Right Thing" is an angry film but it's also a thought-provoking one.

It is rated R for violence, considerable profanity, sex, nudity and vulgarity.