(Played in Competition for the Palme D’or at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival)
Written, directed, and starring Spike Lee, Do the Right Thing is the story about one hot summer day in a Brooklyn neighborhood as racial tension starts to boil. The film explores an entire day where an Italian pizza owner has to deal with numerous characters including a highly-vocal young man, a big man carrying a boom box, and his new pizza delivery boy who just wants to get paid. Also starring Danny Aiello, John Turturro, Rosie Perez, Giancarlo Esposito, Bill Nunn, Steve Park, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Joie Lee, Roger Guenveur Smith, and Samuel L. Jackson. Do the Right Thing is a provocative yet harrowing drama from Spike Lee.
It’s a hot summer day in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn as Mookie (Spike Lee) has to go to work at a pizzeria owned by Sal (Danny Aiello). Working with Sal’s two adult sons in Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson), Mookie’s only concern is to get paid and see his girlfriend Tina (Rosie Perez) and son Hector whom he hasn’t seen in a week. Things get tense as the day goes on where Mookie’s friend Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) is eating pizza at Sal’s as he is upset over why Sal’s Wall of Fame features Italians and wants to know if Sal will put some African-Americans on the wall. Instead, Buggin’ Out gets kicked out as he tries to start a boycott on Sal’s Pizza as the day continues to heat up where an old drunk named Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) tries to win the affections of an old woman named Mother Sister (Ruby Dee) who keeps looking out at the neighborhood.
Things continue to intensify as a trio of men (Robin Harris, Frankie Faison, and Paul Benjamin) watch the neighborhood deal with the heat while making complaints about Korean grocery store owner named Sonny (Steve Park) who had taken over the corner across from Sal’s for more than a year. Though Mookie is doing his job, he still has to deal with the prejudiced Pino who is not happy about working at his father’s place and is sick of being in an environment that he feels is filled with animals. Though Sal wants to maintain that his place is here to stay, he has an uneasy encounter with Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) who likes to blast Public Enemy’s Fight the Power at a loud volume as he later joins Buggin’ Out in the boycott against Sal that would include a mentally-challenged man named Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith) who meanders around the neighborhood trying to sell a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
With the day turning into night and closing time starts to emerge, the tension between Buggin’ Out and Radio Raheem towards Sal about wanting some African-Americans on the wall leads to a huge fight that culminates in an incident the neighborhood would never forget.
What happens on one hot summer day in a small section of Brooklyn where things become uneasy between an Italian-America pizzeria owner, his two sons, a young pizza delivery man, his friends, some teenagers, a trio of middle-aged men, two elderly people, a Korean grocery store owner, two cops, and a radio DJ that watches everything in his booth? Well, there’s a lot that happens in this film where it all centers around a pizzeria that has been around for 25 years and one guy is upset over the fact that there’s no brothers on Sal’s Wall of Fame filled with famous Italian-Americans. A lot of is from the perspective of a young man named Mookie who is just trying to get through this hot day while he delivers pizza by foot and deal with Sal and Pino for being late or just delivering the pizzas not on time. For Mookie, he could care less except for just getting paid and do what is right for his girlfriend and their young son.
There’s also subplots that is prevalent in the film’s screenplay as it includes this old drunk who wanders around the neighborhood trying to impress this old lady as both of them watch what is going on. Notably as the old man is trying to bring wisdom to a young group of teenagers who dismiss his wisdom while he would end up doing something noble. There’s also brief glimpses of a group of Puerto Ricans trying to get through the hot day where they would have an encounter with Radio Raheem along with a scene where Buggin’ Out gets upset at a guy (John Savage) for accidentally messing up his Air Jordans. It’s all part of what is happening in the course of a very hot day as things are starting to boil where a couple of cops (Rick Aiello and Miguel Sandoval) are looking around.
One of Spike Lee’s gifts as a storyteller is the way he creates characters who are truly interesting but also flawed. Notably individuals like Pino and Buggin’ Out who are both quite extreme in their views of the world. Pino can be called a racist since he often spouts racial slurs and is not enthused about working in a predominantly African-American area. In a conversation with Mookie, it is revealed that is favorite basketball star is Magic Johnson, his favorite movie star is Eddie Murphy, and his favorite musician is Prince. That revelation is quite strange as Pino tries to explain to Mookie that these guys he loves aren’t black or whatever. They’re just men as he tries to explain but it adds to the complications of who he is though Mookie doesn’t think he’s a total jerk.
Buggin’ Out is another character that is quite extreme though his intentions about having brothers on the Wall of Fame is noble. It’s just that his approach rubs people the wrong way as he’s often dismissed or has to get some lesson from people about what he should do. Still, Buggin’ Out is on a mission to boycott Sal where he ends up gaining the very intimidating Radio Raheem in the boycott and things eventually goes out of control. Especially when it finally makes this very old-school yet kind man like Sal get even more angrier where his own hatred is unveiled in an intense scene that is followed by violence and chaos. All of this is in the eyes of a DJ named Mister Senor Daddy Love (Samuel L. Jackson) who, along with the three men in the corner, would comment everything that is going on in his neighborhood.
Lee’s direction is definitely stylish in terms of the compositions he creates as well as the mood he sets for these very simple yet tense dramatic scenes. Shot on location in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, Lee wanted to show a world that is vibrant and quite diverse but also a bit uneasy due to the heat wave that is happening. Scenes such as Mookie and Tina’s love scene with an ice cube along with some interior shots show the sweat and weariness of these characters. It would add to the boiling tension that occurs as Lee would always frame the actors a certain way to play up the drama.
Notably as there’s some montages such as a scene where characters spew out racial insults at someone to the camera only for Mister Senor Daddy Love to stop the montage so that everyone should just chill out. There’s a lot of intimate yet more simpler moments where Sal is flirting with Mookie’s sister Jade (Joie Lee) where there’s a camera panning to express the different feelings of both Mookie and Pino who feel uneasy about this relationship. There’s also some striking close-ups that add to the dramatic tension including shots where Lee takes advantage of using the crane to capture the neighborhood and the characters in this neighborhood.
For the film’s climatic moment where the tension boils in this pizzeria between Sal and Radio Raheem, Lee’s camera is always presented in a slanted composition where he’s waiting for the moment for things to finally just go out of control. There’s people in this crowd that is saying names of those who had died in these awful situations where its aftermath is one that will be frustrating because it ends up raising more questions than answers over what had happened. Did anyone in that film do the right thing? It’s not that easy to answer. Yet, Lee chooses to end the film with two very different quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X that each has different viewpoints about using violence as it is followed by the picture of the two that Smiley had been holding throughout the entirety of the film. Overall, Lee creates a truly mesmerizing yet very confrontational film that doesn’t take the easy road into exploring race relations nor does he want to imply something with an overbearing message.
Cinematographer Ernest Dickerson does an extraordinary job with the film‘s vibrant and colorful cinematography from the daytime exteriors to play up the heat to the interiors where the heat intensify where Dickerson creates some gorgeous lighting schemes to play up the tension. Editor Barry Alexander Brown does a brilliant job with the editing to play up the rhythm of the conversations to the racial-spewing montage that is wonderfully cut along with other stylish elements to help keep the film at a leisured pace. Production designer Wynn Thomas and set decorator Steve Rosse do excellent work with the set pieces such as Sal‘s pizzeria with its old-school Italian setting and its Wall of Fame along with the red wall that the old men in the corner sit at including other parts of the Bedford-Stuyvesant location.
Costume designer Ruth Carter does wonderful work with the costumes from the Brooklyn Dodgers shirt that Mookie wears in the film‘s first half to the more colorful clothing many of the characters wear. Sound designer Skip Lievsay does fantastic work with the film‘s sound from the way Radio Raheem‘s boom box blares Public Enemy‘s Fight the Power to varying degrees of volume to the chaos that occurs in the film‘s climatic moment. The film’s score by Bill Lee is superb for its mix of orchestral flourishes that features a soothing saxophone by Branford Marsalis and a trumpet from Terence Blanchard to play out the chaos and drama that occurs in the film. The film’s soundtrack a wonderful mix of music ranging from Ruben Blades’ salsa to the reggae of Steel Pulse. Yet, a lot of the film’s music is dominated by R&B and hip-hop from acts like Teddy Riley, Take 6, E.U., and Public Enemy.
The casting by Robi Reed-Humes is outstanding for the ensemble that is created as it includes notable appearances from John Savages as a man who accidentally runs over Buggin’ Out’s Air Jordans, Frank Vincent as a man with a vintage car, Richard Parnell Habersham as a kid named Eddie, Ginny Yang as the Korean store owner’s wife, Joie Lee as Mookie’s younger yet more responsible sister Jade, Steve Parks as the Korean grocery owner Sonny, and Luis Antonio Ramos as a Puerto Rican who battles Radio Raheem over who has the louder boom box. Other noteworthy small yet memorable performances include Frankie Faison, Robin Harris, and Paul Benjamin as the three men in the corner commenting about everything while Martin Lawrence, Steve White, Leonard L. Thomas, and Christa Rivers are very good as the four young people who play around at the neighborhood. Miguel Sandoval and Rick Aiello are also good as the two cops who try to maintain order despite the treatment they receive from the neighborhood.
In her film debut, Rosie Perez is superb as Mookie’s profanity-spouting girlfriend Tina who bitches about Mookie not being there while Perez has a great moment dancing to Public Enemy in the film’s opening title sequence. Roger Guenveur Smith is terrific as the mentally-challenged Smiley while Bill Nunn is excellent as the intimidating Radio Raheem who sports two different rings that says “love” on the right and “hate” on the left. Richard Edson is pretty good as Sal’s much friendlier son Vito who is good friends with Mookie while John Turturro is amazing as the very prejudiced Pino who often spouts racial slurs while feeling embarrassed about where he’s working at. Giancarlo Esposito is incredible as the very outspoken Buggin’ Out who is trying to boycott Sal’s pizzeria in order to just to have some brothers on the wall.
Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee are wonderful in their respective roles of Da Mayor and Mother Sister as the two elderly individuals each provide insight into the surroundings around them with Davis trying to be the man of good despite wanting a beer. Samuel L. Jackson is great in a small role as Mister Senor Daddy Love who comments about everything that is happening as he even breaks the fourth wall by letting everyone chill. Spike Lee is great as the immature but determined Mookie who is keen on wanting to get paid while having to deal with some of the things in his life as he becomes more concerned for his family whom he hadn’t seen lately. Finally, there’s Danny Aiello in a phenomenal performance as Sal who is just trying to run his pizzeria in a hot day while dealing with Mookie’s attitude, Pino’s prejudice, and the tension that is happening as he finally loses it.
Do the Right Thing is a remarkable yet powerful film from Spike Lee. Featuring an ensemble cast that includes Lee, Danny Aiello, John Turturro, Giancarlo Esposito, Ruby Dee, the late Ossie Davis, Samuel L. Jackson, Rosie Perez, and Bill Nunn. It’s a film that is truly engrossing to watch for the way it plays out a lot of racial tension on one hot summer day. For those new to Spike Lee, this film is pretty much the best thing he did as well as a true landmark film for the way African-American life is depicted without playing down to stereotypes or with a message. In the end, Do the Right Thing is a magnificent film from Spike Lee.
Spike Lee Films: (She’s Gotta Have It) - (School Daze) - Mo' Better Blues - Jungle Fever - (Malcolm X) - Crooklyn - (Clockers) - (Girl 6) - (Get on the Bus) - 4 Little Girls - (He Got Game) - Freak - Summer of Sam - (The Original Kings of Comedy) - (Bamboozled) - (A Huey P. Newton Story) - (Jim Brown: All-American) - 25th Hour - (She Hate Me) - (Inside Man) - (When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts) - (Miracle at St. Anna) - (Kobe Doin’ Work) - (Passing Strange) - (If God is Willing and the Creek Don’t Rise) - (Red Hook Summer) - Bad 25 - Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth - (Oldboy (2013 film)) - (Da Blood of Jesus) - (Chi Raq) - Michael Jackson's Journey from Motown to Off the Wall - BlacKkKlansman - Da 5 Bloods - (American Utopia)
© thevoid99 2012
One of my favorite movies of all-time because it shows just how different races can be and how they may never, ever get along. However, I found it even better that it's a title, where nobody in the film actually does what it says. Good review Steve. Wish I had more to say about this genius piece of work but I feel like I would just start ranting and raving for no good reason.
One of my ALL TIME favorites. Endlessly rewatchable and never fails to make my stomach turn.
Fight the Power!!
This is the best film ever about the Black people community,I just LOVE the way they talk!!I totally enjoyed it the first time I watched it,but I need to re-watch it to figure out what Lee tries to say with this film.
The cinematography is amazing. It could be 30 below outside but it makes me want to crank on my AC when I watch this.
Great post. You have so much detail in your articles Are you on any podcasts?
I know how loved this movie is among film bloggers, so I hesitate to confess this but I watched this when it came out and I have a distinct memory of absolutely hating it. I can't quite remember why but I think I thought it was boring, lacked a coherent storry and I couldn't sympathise with smashing pizza restaurants. It's very hazy. All I remember is that it was a 1/5 in my book, one of the worst movies I had watched. At that point in my life.
But again: it's half of my lifetime away. I have changed over the years, my taste for movies has changed, so I have no idea of what I'd think of it now. Perhaps I would just love it.
I first heard about this movie from Alex's post on Spike Lee's career and it stood out for me even from the synopsis. Great cast and I see everyone is raving about it, I must check it out!
@Dan-I would love a rant/rave from you. In fact, maybe there are a few people that did the right thing.
@John-This is one of the 2 re-watches I decided to do for this marathon. It is still powerful.
@David-It's a film always worth revisiting because there's so many things about that film that dares to asks questions rather than give answers.
@TheVern-Ernest Dickerson's photography is truly one of a kind. Unfortunately, I'm not on any podcasts. I'm not very confident about my speaking voice as I much prefer to write to articulate things.
@Velvet-I think it's time to re-watch as it is a very provocative film.
@Diana-When it comes to Spike Lee, this film is the best place to start with.
I'm one of the few people who doesn't love this film. I thought it was a decent film, with some important things to say, but it had a huge flaw, one that sank the film for me.
Lee cast himself in the pivotal role of the person who kicks off the riot. Lee's talents lie in writing and directing, not acting. He's fine as a supporting player in his own early films (especially She's Gotta Have It), but he doesn't have the chops for the character he plays in this one.
Perhaps Lee wanted to spare one of his other actors the anticipated hatred and negativity that would be aimed at whoever played this character. Perhaps Lee felt he could step up his game and play this role. Whichever it was, it didn't work for me.
@Chip-I think Lee is a good actor though I will agree with you that he is better in a supporting role.
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