- Rated R
- Buy the DVD
Reviewed by Jim Washington
“C’mon, what? What?”
“Always do the right thing.”
“I got it, I’m gone.”
That seemingly casual exchange between Mookie and Da Mayor in Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing” is one of several crucial moments in a movie that now, 20 years later, we’re still talking about.
Radio Raheem telling the story of love and hate, Smiley selling photos of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, the amazing, rapid-fire racial insult montage, and Mookie’s eventual decision about what is the right thing helped make this one of the more important movies of the past 20 years. Now it’s getting the anniversary treatment with a deluxe DVD release, including four hours of bonus features.
I clearly remember watching “Do the Right Thing” for the first time in 1989. It says something about my tastes in college that I equally enjoyed watching “In Living Color” and “Twin Peaks,” and my top three musical acts were Elvis Costello, Midnight Oil and Public Enemy. When “Do The Right Thing” came out on home video, I watched it with a group of fraternity brothers, all white. After the movie’s explosive ending, we spent about an hour in heated debate, myself being the movie’s only defender. That’s what the movie did -- at the time and still today. It pisses people off.
Anger is at the center of the story, which takes place on one block in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, on one of the hottest days of the summer. The people who live and work there include elder statesman/alcoholic Da Mayor (Ossie Davis); pizza place owner Sal (Aiello) and his two sons (Turturro and Edson); their delivery guy Mookie (Lee); and Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), who provides a bomb-like soundtrack to the sizzling day with his ridiculously large and loud boom box.
Raheem seems to sum up Lee’s obsession with right and wrong with his monologue about love conquering hate (itself an homage to Robert Mitchum’s iconic speech in “Night of the Hunter“).
Lee’s characters represent a spectrum of viewpoints within the African-American community, from the conciliatory, literally hat-in-hand Mayor, to Buggin’ Out, played by Esposito, a reactionary young rebel who tries to organize a boycott of Sal’s until the owner includes some people of color on his “wall of fame.” The symbolism is made plain in Smiley, a mentally challenged man who sells photos of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, whose opposing quotes concerning violence are the last thing we see on the screen.
Smiley’s dopey grin eventually morphs into a Satanic smirk during the movie’s tragic, hellish finale. That’s where everything comes to a head -- all the anger and simmering hatred and resentment. Who is at fault? The cops, sure. Sal, certainly. Mookie, definitely. But what does it mean, and who did the right thing? Lee doesn’t tell us. That’s for us to talk out, all these years later.
One of the joys of the movie is the jaw-dropping cast, a who’s who of African-American actors from a young Martin Lawrence to the hilarious Robin Harris as the scene-stealing Sweet Dick Willie, who sadly died not long after the movie was released.
20th Anniversary DVD Review:
This re-release includes a wealth of features, maybe more than anyone will ever watch, but do check out the “20 Years Later” documentary, if only for Lee’s joshing interactions with Rosie Perez, and to discover how cinematographer Ernest Dickerson made that block look so damn skin-sticking, sweat-dripping hot (believe it or not, it was actually raining during some shoots). Hell, they even interview the third prop guy, and he has some good stories to tell.