Do the Right Thing
A scene from Spike Lee's seminal film, "Do the Right Thing," which turns 25 on Monday, June 30.
Off-Ramp contributor RH Greene's appreciation of "Do the Right Thing," Spike Lee's seminal film, which was released 25 years ago, on June 30, 1989. The Academy is showing "Do the Right Thing" June 27 as part of a wider Spike retrospective called By Any Means Necessary:a Spike Lee Joints Retrospective.
About a week after the riots in 1992, I got together in Silver Lake with about 15 friends in an improvised dinner party that was also a group therapy session. After the riots you worried about everyone you knew and we had a fierce need to see people in the flesh afterward, to hug them harder than usual.
That night, there was also a friend's housewarming a block up the street, so I left the first party for an hour or so. Before I went, I commandeered the VHS player and popped in a movie I'd brought to share: Spike Lee's “Do the Right Thing.”
It's largely a comedy, in case you didn't know that — a loving and layered urban fairytale shot with the color palette of a Technicolor musical about a few multicultural blocks in the Bedford-Stuyvescent neighborhood of Brooklyn on the hottest night of the year.
In “Do the Right Thing,” there's no protagonist. No, the neighborhood is the protagonist. Lee's entire cast came to the set every day, to fill in the shots with background action as Lee's character — Mookie the pizza delivery man — moves through his world exchanging greetings like a cousin at a family reunion. Lee grew up in Brooklyn, and it occupies a space in his work similar to Rome in the work of Fellini. It's his Wonderland, a place of magic and reckonings.
Though mistakenly thought of as a flamethrower of a film, “Do the Right Thing” is one of Lee's most tenderly personal works. Still, as an African-American, Lee vividly understands an uncomfortable truth: in America, race informs nearly everything.
Part of the brilliance of “Do the Right Thing” is that it makes that subtext text, pushing it to the surface, often in rawly hilarious ways that diverge completely from the puerile discourse on bigotry that was Hollywood's stock-in-trade.
(Title card from "The Birth of a Nation")
The very syntax of American cinema —the way shots are staged and cut together, the way movies deal with the physics of space and time — descends to us from D. W. Griffith's obscene but seminal 1915 epic "The Birth of a Nation," the racist blockbuster that is also an origin myth for the Ku Klux Klan.
Before Martin Luther King, American cinema mostly just embodied racism rather than commenting on it. Black domestics were flightly and unreliable, as demonstrated by the entire careers of African-American actors Steppin Fetchit and Butterfly McQueen. Tapmaster Bill Bojangles Robinson could dance with Shirley Temple, but caused a scandal when he took her by the hand.
After Montgomery, Selma and Memphis, a more well-meaning Hollywood trafficked in simplicities by taking the "a few bad apples" approach. Racists were epithet-spouting monsters, whose recognizably Southern cadence and tendency to use "boy" or "wetback" to impugn non-white manhood made them easily identifiable and thereby easy to punish or shun.
“Do the Right Thing” knows what all great narrative art understands, which is that people are more than one thing. From Mookie the delivery man to Sal the pizza king, you love almost every character, and you understand them all. So when a brutal police action leaves a black youth dead on the sidewalk, it's not a faceless mob that riots, but a sea of intricate human beings, capable of tenderness and virtue, bigotry and righteous wrath.
On either side of the billy club and the torch, each figure is both racism's victim and its accomplice. The small apocalypse of a single New York neighborhood on the hottest night of the year isn't about heroes and villains. It implicates us all.
The riots so many contemporaneous critics anticipated “Do the Right Thing” would incite never materialized. It took the real world, a viral video, and the police beating of Rodney King to make Spike Lee's prophecy flesh.
One week later, I turned on a video player in a roomful of friends and left them for an hour or so. And when I came back, every conversation had stopped. And there wasn't a dry eye in the house.