Spike Lee (1989)
WHAT FILM HELPS YOU LIVE BETTER? It’s an impossible question. Something by Francis Ford Coppola? Terrence Malick? Richard Linklater? A documentary by Steve James, Ondi Timoner, Barbara Kopple, the Maysles Brothers, or D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus? Yes to all. But just as Chris Rock says about music, I think there is something special about great films you discover as you are coming of age. I was twenty-one years old when I first saw Shelton Jackson “Spike” Lee’s masterpiece Do the Right Thing, and I haven’t been the same since.
It’s hard to capture just how abrupt, startling, and revolutionary Lee’s explosion onto the film scene was. Before 1986, the only African-American-directed movie anyone I knew could name was Melvin Van Peebles’s 1971 Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. And let’s be honest, that was mostly because of the impeccably cool title. But when Lee came out of NYU film school, hooked up with the Independent Feature Project (already doing great work in the field), and made She’s Gotta Have It for 185 thousand dollars (much of it charged on his own credit cards), it was a veritable storming-the-barricades moment for black film.
Two films later, however, Do the Right Thing was a different matter entirely—bigger, bolder, iconic, not only career-defining but era-defining. And so, so ballsy. Lee has become so well known as a provocateur, both on screen and off, that people tend to forget that before Do the Right Thing he had never really addressed white-on-black racism in his films. But in the summer of 1989 he addressed not only that, but an entire world of intra-racial and interracial concerns. The film takes place in Brooklyn on the hottest day of the year, and it’s not just white and black people who are tired of each other and getting to the boiling point; Asian and Latino characters are part of the mix as well. There are even roiling tensions within racial groups. As characters make completely understandable but utterly devastating decisions, a window is opened on the human condition. There’s an immediacy, an urgency to Do the Right Thing that took open-minded, sensitive, concerned—and sheltered—white people like me by surprise. Making that film was a revolutionary act.
It all starts with those opening credits, a sequence so powerful that some critics have said you could skip the rest of the film and still get the point. It begins with a solo saxophone—I always forget that part, but it does. That sax is playing a song many do not recognize, the chorus of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” named the Negro National Anthem in 1919. But those strains soon fade away, and the booming rhythms of Spike Lee’s new negro national anthem, Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” explode into the room. Then Rosie Perez steps on screen and begins to dance—and to utterly destroy.
In the film’s heightened-reality production design, presentational delivery (with direct camera addresses, stylized camera movements, etc.), and perhaps most of all in the seriousness with which he treats the moral, ethical, and sociopolitical quandaries of both his groups and his individual characters, Lee strongly echoes a dramatist I had fallen in love with in college—Bertolt Brecht. As Douglas Kellner writes in his marvelous essay “Aesthetics, Ethics, and Politics in the Films of Spike Lee,” Do the Right Thing:
dramatizes the necessity of making moral and political choices. Both Brecht and Lee produce a sort of “epic drama” that paints a wide tableau of typical social characters, shows examples of social and asocial behavior, and delivers didactic messages to the audience. Both Brecht and Lee utilize music, comedy, drama, vignettes of typical behavior, and figures who present the messages the author wishes to convey.
Growing up during the civil rights movement, it would have been easy for Lee to make an angry film, a screed against white power, a film about the sinful nature of whites and the noble suffering of blacks. But at every step of the way he refuses to take that easy road. He elevates his story not only with his Brechtian approach, not only with his classical structure (the film follows the Aristotelian unities of action [one main plotline], time [one day], and place [one location]; and the local disc jockey Mister Señor Love Daddy and street-corner characters can be read as Greek choruses as easily as Brechtian ones), but especially with his evenhanded treatment of both sides of the central dispute. Lee’s character, Mookie, is hardworking and honest—and is also lazy and apt to disappear for a couple of hours to be with his girlfriend. Danny Aiello’s character, Sal, is providing a service to the community and has generally good relations with its inhabitants—but is also unnecessarily intransigent and ultimately betrays deeply covered racism. Bill Nunn’s character, Radio Raheem, is a symbol of black pride and manhood and doesn’t deserve his fate—but he is also wrong to enter the pizza shop and refuse to turn down the deafening music emanating from his now archetypal boom box.
And lest we dwell solely on the philosophical issues at hand, it must be pointed out that all of these characters are wildly entertaining and funny. Do the Right Thing is the precise opposite of an eat-your-vegetables movie.
There’s a telling moment when Sal and Buggin’ Out (a wonderful Giancarlo Esposito, a constant presence in Lee’s early pictures) have an argument about the “wall of fame” in Sal’s pizzeria, which proudly displays a series of Italian American heroes. Buggin’ Out argues forcefully that a pizzeria in a black neighborhood, supported by the hard-earned money of black residents, should have “some brothers on the wall.” Sal fires back that if Buggin’ Out wants brothers on the wall, he should open his own pizzeria. In the director’s commentary, at this moment Lee muses quietly, “Two good points….”
It’s that kind of sympathy for both sides, that determination to present them both as compelling and understandable, that makes for good drama. It also happens to be what makes good human beings. Throughout the film, as befits his style and techniques and fundamental storytelling approach, Lee presents us with characters who are archetypes (tellingly, he dons a gold tooth and an earring to play Mookie)—but they never become stereotypes; there are always living, breathing human beings inside those archetypes. They’re our neighbors. They are us.
And that’s what makes Do the Right Thing, to use a phrase Lee fittingly applied to his film Chi-Raq, “a righteous movie.” It’s a movie that presents characters across the spectrum who have various sorts of righteousness; it’s a film with a righteous core; and it’s a film that both enacts righteousness (many black crew members who got their breaks on Do the Right Thing went on to long film careers, including as directors) and preaches righteousness. It’s a movie that has fueled righteousness in my own life. Lee’s film, Lee’s characters, and their constant presence in my life never allowed me to see either side of racial disputes in shallow, stereotypical terms—but they also never let me forget the anger, resentment, and frustration of being black in America. Even growing up around African Americans my whole life, I’m not sure I ever truly began to understand the depth of those currents until I saw Do the Right Thing.
Perez told me last year that part of the desperation you can see in that opening credits dance came because Lee worked her to the bone that day. There was real anger behind that dance. But there was real anger in Lee’s direction of the film too—in his choice of angles, his cuts, his music, the performances he drew from his actors—alongside his moderation and sensitivity.
The characters of Do the Right Thing spoke to me deeply in 1989, and they speak to me still. I’ll hear their words often in my day-to-day life. Mookie and Radio Raheem and Buggin’ Out, of course. And Mister Señor Love Daddy, too. And from time to time I see Perez’s gyrating, violently pulsing form, becoming one with Chuck D and Flavor Flav’s lyrics and the Bomb Squad’s music, saying it all without a single word of dialogue. Those characters are not even a half step shy of real to me—they’ve been my companions for my entire adult life.
Michael Dunaway is a New York Times award-winning filmmaker, creative director of the Sarasota Film Festival, and editor at large for Paste magazine. He is currently in development on a film about the civil rights movement.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.