(This is the 18th of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)
In Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee is always working on more than one level. His recreation of a Brooklyn neighborhood is accurate and loving, offering the audience a chance to get to know a variety of characters, enough so that we care what happens to each of them. There is a feeling that life in the neighborhood has been going on pretty much the same for a long time; we learn the backstory as the film progresses. There has always been a Sal’s Famous Pizzeria serving the neighborhood, there have always been kids and young adults enjoying the pizza, there has always been a Mother Sister and Da Mayor, and fellows like Sweet Dick Willie hanging out on the corner.
But it’s 1989, and the realities of race relationships in America can’t be ignored. There’s the corner store that opened up a year ago, run by a Korean couple. There is hip-hop music and culture. And while there is a surface attempt at congeniality, recent events are bubbling under the surface, ready to erupt on a hot summer day (the film makes explicit connections to Eleanor Bumpurs, Michael Stewart, and Howard Beach). The heat is practically a character in its own right; one is reminded of Camus’ The Stranger, where Meursault’s explanation for committing murder seems to be “it was hot.” But the most crucial violence in Do the Right Thing does not come from one man suffering from the weather, but rather comes from police attacking a member of the community.
While Lee engages unblinkingly with the issue of race, he allows us to see the reasons why all people do what they do. The most “likable” characters end up committing destructive acts, acts we can disapprove of while still understanding why they happened they way they did.
The film making is a marvel of confidence and skill. Lee has great respect for trailblazing actors like Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, and he makes sure to give them great roles to play. He gives us Robin Harris in one of his few movie appearances before his untimely death at 36, letting Harris improvise some of the funniest dialogue you’ll ever hear in a movie that is in many ways a tragedy.
Perhaps more remarkable, Lee’s script includes a lot of soap-box speechifying, yet the language in which it is spoken, and the playful naturalness of the acting, creates an unusual situation where the oration often sounds like it belongs in the conversation.
There was some very insightful commentary for this one, including Damon Mathews writing, “Which is what confused me about the movie at first since we all think of racism as bad people doing bad things. Lee presents it as a chemical reaction.”