It has been 30 years since director Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing was released, and it remains as relevant as it was in 1989. Watching the third act unfold and eventually explode is still a powerful and disorienting experience.
In a nod to its 30th anniversary, the movie will be screened at 8 p.m. today at Central Arkansas Library System's Ron Robinson Theater in Little Rock. Admission is $5.
Do the Right Thing was Lee's third film, following She's Gotta Have It in 1986 and 1988's School Daze. He was just 32 when he made it and, as producer, writer and director, was working with a ridiculous level of confidence while exploring that most combustible of subjects -- race in America.
Just look at the opening credits, where Rosie Perez, in her film debut, dances furiously to Public Enemy's anthem "Fight the Power." And not to an edited version of the song, but the entire track.
The story takes place over one broiling summer day in the Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn. Lee plays Mookie, who delivers pizza for Sal's Famous Pizzeria, and we meet neighborhood residents like Da Mayor (Ossie Davis); Mother Sister (Ruby Dee, Davis' real-life wife); Mookie's girlfriend, Tina (Perez); Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn); Buggin' Out (Giancarlo Esposito); disc jockey Mister Senor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson); and Sal (Danny Aiello).
And we haven't even mentioned Martin Lawrence as wise-cracking Cee or John Turturro as Sal's openly racist son, Pino.
The film, all stylized, eye-popping bright colors and clever angles, progresses almost in vignettes, dropping in on characters as they deal with the heat and make their way through the day. Lee's choices, like when he has characters reel off racial ephithet while speaking directly into the camera, are audacious.
In the CNN series The Movies, actor Ed Norton, who starred in Lee's 2002 film 25th Hour, said Do the Right Thing was like "a cultural hand grenade. Someone set it off and you just couldn't believe the things that were being said in that film."
There's a lot of humor in Do the Right Thing, but frustration simmers beneath the surface and confrontation never seems far away. Kids playing with a fire hydrant soak an older white man passing through in a convertible; Pino rants angrily to Sal about Mookie and blacks; Da Mayor is ridiculed by a young man; an old-timer resents the newly opened Korean-owned grocery and the creeping specter of gentrification is symbolized by a rude white man in a Larry Bird jersey.
Buggin' Out, played with fast-talking intensity by Esposito (who was also in School Daze), is vexed by the paucity of blacks on the Wall of Fame in Sal's Famous and wants something done about it. When Sal refuses, Buggin' Out organizes a boycott, though his efforts are met mostly with bemusement until he is joined by the handicapped Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith) and boombox blasting Radio Raheem, who sports love and hate knuckle rings (Lee's nod to the 1955 Robert Mitchum film, Night of the Hunter).
Soon after nightfall, all hell breaks loose at Sal's and Raheem, who attacks Sal after Sal destroys his radio, is choked to death by a policeman. Mookie slings a trash can through Sal's window and others rush in to loot and ransack the pizzeria, which is eventually burned down.
These characters might drift into stereotype, but they're complicated. Raheem is rude and dismissive of the Korean grocers and plays his boombox at deafening levels in public. Mookie has problems of his own and Sal is both benevolent boss and hotheaded bigot.
This complexity is apt for a movie that quotes Martin Luther King, Jr. condemning violence and Malcolm X approving the use of violence. There are no easy answers, nothing is neatly wrapped up and for some people death is always close.
Back in 1989, advance screenings had some critics clutching their pearls and warning of race riots in theaters, which still bristles Lee.
" ... you had white film critics fear mongering about the violence it might incite," he told The Hollywood Reporter last month. "They weren't taking into account that art imitated life, that the film was representational of the sociopolitical and racial climate of the U.S. and, in particular NYC, which was the hotbed of racially motivated hate crimes."
Lee was inspired in part to make the film by the 1983 death of New York artist Michael Stewart, who died after being arrested for spray-painting graffiti on a subway, and the 1986 death of Michael Griffith, who was struck and killed by a car after being chased by a mob of whites who had beaten him and his friends in the Howard Beach neighborhood in New York.
When video surfaced of the 2014 death of Eric Garner, who was shown being choked by New York police, Lee spliced together an edit with Raheem's death from the film and posted it online, a disturbing case of real life and film overlapping.
Lee has made more than two dozen feature films and documentaries, some more successful than others, and won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for last year's BlacKkKlansman.
He has become part of the American cultural shorthand, almost as well-known for his Nike commercials and New York Knicks fandom as for films. His influence is evident in the work of Boots Riley, whose Sorry to Bother You has the same off-kilter tilt as Lee's most creative stuff, Black Panther director Ryan Coogler and Jordan Peele, the director of Get Out and Us, who was a producer on BlacKkKlansman.
Do the Right Thing remains a high water mark, not just in Lee's career but in American cinema. It's a brave film, one that is justly celebrated.
But hopefully its relevance will be limited to its craft rather than the society around it when it turns 60.
MovieStyle on 07/12/2019
Print Headline: 1989's Do the Right Thing still burns