Do The Right Thing (1989)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #203


Number of Views: Three
Release Date: June 30, 1989
Genre: Cult Film
Country of Origin: United States
Budget: $6,000,000
Box Office: $37,295,445
Running Time: 120 minutes
Director: Spike Lee
Producer: Spike Lee
Screenplay: Spike Lee
Cinematography: Ernest Dickerson
Score: Bill Lee
Editing: Barry Alexander Brown
Studio: 40 Acres and a Mule, Filmworks
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Stars: Spike Lee, Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Bill Nunn, Richard Edson, Giancarlo Esposito, John Turturro, Rosie Perez, Martin Lawrence, Steve Park, Paul Benjamin, Frankie Faison, Robin Harris, Miguel Sandoval, Rick Aiello, Joie Lee, Samuel L. Jackson, Roger Guenveur Smith, Steve White, Leonard L. Thomas, Christa Rivers, Luis Antonio Ramos, John Savage, Frank Vincent, Richard Parnell Habersham, Ginny Yang

05_Flatbed_1 - JUNE

Suggested Audio Candy

Public Enemy “Fight the Power”

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“Let me tell you the story of Right Hand, Left Hand. It’s a tale of good and evil. Hate: it was with this hand that Cane iced his brother. Love: these five fingers, they go straight to the soul of man. The right hand: the hand of love. The story of life is this: static. One hand is always fighting the other hand, and the left hand is kicking much ass. I mean, it looks like the right hand, Love, is finished. But hold on, stop the presses, the right hand is coming back. Yeah, he got the left hand on the ropes, now, that’s right. Ooh, it’s a devastating right and Hate is hurt, he’s down. Left-Hand Hate KOed by Love.”

Racial prejudice sickens me to my marrow. Always has. I was raised to accept everybody regardless of creed and color and, as cliché as it will invariably sound, don’t see color when I’m talking to somebody of different ethnic representation. I’m not suggesting color blindness, rather a distinct disinterest in judging another for the color of their pelt. I also recognize that it is easier to be saintly about your views than it is actually upholding them, especially given a particularly extreme set of circumstances. Certain situations can diminish your ability for rationale and Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing exhibits my point with pin-point perfection.

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I have long been an admirer of this extraordinary film-maker. The mere sight of the words ‘A Spike Lee Joint’ emblazoned on a VHS sleeve would act as a seal of recommendation and I followed his works from the very start. She’s Got To Have It was bathed in insight but the first of his ‘joints’ which struck a chord with me was his next film School Daze. A rambunctious musical comedy, this was vilified in many quarters upon release but I found it intelligent, provoking and downright poignant. From thereon in I was well and truly ‘spiked’ and I anticipated his work with fervor. More recently, color hasn’t played a part and his astonishing The 25th Hour shows how much he has matured, not only as an auteur, but also as a man. Mookie is all grown up now.

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Do The Right Thing was, without question, one of the most important films of its entire epoch. All about fractured loyalties and pressure-cooker racial tension, it tackled a topic close to Lee’s heart and one he felt it his duty to shed some light on. Thankfully, bigotry has lessened over the years and folk now generally think better than to engage in such ignorance, at least publicly. Despite this, the film is every bit as relevant now as it was back then and this is due to it working on so many different levels. Riots in London during the summer of 2011 served as a stark reminder as to how a community can be pushed to breaking point by the government’s less than honorable actions and the system is every bit as defaced twenty-five years on.

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It came out its corner swinging. From the captivating title sequence where star Rosie Perez performed her daily boxercise to Public Enemy’s titular Fight The Power we knew we’d be in for a scrap. However, what Lee achieved with such deftness, was in creating a garish set in Bedford-Stuyevesant, Brooklyn which initially appeared appealing and progressively soured as the blazing midday sun began to set. It sucked you in, gave you a Dr. Pepper, steadily constricted you with its Python-like grip before consuming you and shitting you straight back out. Set wholly within a 24 hour cycle, it afforded you all manner of vantages and sucker punched you just when you were least expecting it.

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Lee had his hands all over this and it showed. His heart, soul and beliefs were there for all to see and this honest approach to film-making played an integral part in raising the profile of black cinema. Actors such as Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington, who worked with Lee on numerous occasions, were beginning to command leading roles whereby they weren’t required to fit stereotype and Lee played a massive part in this evolution with works such as this and Jungle Fever. This was his most provocative and courageous work and also one of his most accessible.

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It was critically applauded on release but some knockers felt that it wavered uncomfortably between middle-class and street values. Duh! What these negative nincompoops conveniently overlooked is that this was always his intention. He brought to the screen a melange of protagonists, some affable, others militant, but all applicable. The reason for this is simple; society is a tapestry of differing temperaments and standpoints and we all have to adapt to a certain degree to keep order. In America there were a series of administrations in place which segregated poverty-stricken communities, placed a gun outlet and liquor store on adjacent block corners and left them to self destruct.

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The violent outbursts of the final act had simmered away beneath the surface the whole time. Mookie (Lee himself), Sal (Danny Aiello), Pino (John Turturro), Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito), Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), Mother Sister (Ruby Dee); these were just some of the effervescent characters co-existing in the neighborhood and they ranged from community-minded to militant. Yet they were all well enough written to relate to in one way or another and all players were on the top of their game, particularly Aiello, who was sensational throughout and whose Pizza parlor acted as nexus point for everybody who fancied a slice.

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Do The Right Thing was undoubtedly an angry film. Any claims that it would incite violence were utterly ludicrous and, while it may not have offered masses of hope, it did teach us of tolerance. It also gave a refreshingly vital warts et all portrait of society in decline and, bathed in Ernest Dickerson’s vibrant naturally lit photography, supplied us a long, hot summer day which stayed in our thoughts long after the film had unspooled. Radical, thought-provoking and utterly indispensable. That’s the double truth Ruth!

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Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 10/10

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Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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