Unfortunately for Mookie, doing the right thing isn’t always easy, and that, in a nutshell, is the lesson of Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do The Right Thing. Looking over the AFI list, I’m wondering if AFI did the right thing by including only one African-American directed film on its list of the top 100 American films of all time. Frankly, I’d have included a few other Spike Lee films, but that’s me.
Do The Right Thing is one of my favorite films and seeing it again this weekend did nothing to change my opinion. The movie takes place on an extremely hot day in Brooklyn’s Bed Stuy neighborhood. The heat is really just a metaphor for the racial tension that the film portrays as tempers flare at the neighborhood pizza joint, where Italian-Americans Sal and his sons serve up slices in the predominantly black community. The ruckus begins when patron Buggin Out notices that there are no famous African-American people on Sal’s wall of fame, which is decorated with Italian-American heroes like Frank Sinatra and Al Pacino. Buggin Out calls for a boycott because “black people spend much money” in Sal’s, but Sal says it’s his place and his wall and he has the right to put whomever he wants on his wall. The tension culminates that night when things get out of hand as Radio Raheem joins the wall of fame cause leading to a fight in which the police accidentally kill him. It is at this crucial moment in the film when pizza delivery boy Mookie is faced with doing the right thing — and his choice has dire consequences for Sal. Does Mookie do the right thing when he throws a trash can through Sal’s window? We have no idea, which is the point I think.
The film is about good and bad, dark and light, black and white, and of course right and wrong. The mood of the film plays into this dichotomy, and as the day gets hotter so too do the racial tensions. Do The Right Thing asks so many complicated questions around race. For Lee, nothing is off limits. Mookie is in a multi-cultural relationship with Rita (Rosie Perez in her first film role) and they have a child together. Older black men sit on the corner with nothing to do all day, waxing poetically about how come the Korean family has a successful business in their neighborhood and none of them do. Sal’s son Pino, played with intensity by John Turturro, laments about how he wants to leave the black neighborhood because he doesn’t like the people yet at the same time he tells Mookie his favorite actor is Eddie Murphy, his favorite musician is Prince and his favorite ball player is Magic Johnson. Lee deals with these issues head on as is his nature. In one scene, members of the community face the camera and spout off horrible racial stereotypes (here it is, NSFW):
Spike Lee is my favorite director, in part because he is fearless. But more than that, his films do what I think art is supposed to do: make us think, make us ask questions, teach us, and of course entertain us. Lee does this better than any American director in my opinion. When I think of great American directors I think of five: Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg and Spike Lee. Lee’s films are mostly about the African-American experience, but of course that’s just as American as the Italian-American or any other hyphen American experience. It just took decades of film making before someone like Lee was able to come around and make films about the black experience with such power and honesty. You might not like Lee’s off camera persona, but I dare you to watch Malcolm X, Jungle Fever, Bamboozled or Do The Right Thing and not be educated and entertained.
In 1986 I was a sophomore at San Jose State when I wandered into the Camera Cinema in downtown San Jose and saw She’s Gotta Have It. It was Lee’s first major release and it was eye opening for me. I had never seen a film with an all black cast (I grew up in white bread America). It was funny, sexy, intelligent and beautifully filmed. Lee used his film school experience to explore African- American relationship issues, and of course the film introduced America to his character Mars Blackmon, who soon after this film came out was a fixture on American television pitching Air Jordan’s to American kids — it’s gotta be the shoes money!
His second major release was School Daze, a film that dealt with racial stereotypes within the black community. Anyone who has seen the musical dance number “Good and Bad Hair” will never forget it! Do The Right Thing came out next, and I spent an entire summer thinking about what it meant and blasting Public Enemy from my stereo, much to the chagrin of my very white fraternity brothers at Sigma Chi headquarters in Illinois. Lee has made so many great films, yet many white audiences have missed them — and that’s a shame. Obviously you should see Do The Right Thing if you haven’t, but here are some other ones you shouldn’t miss:
- Jungle Fever. It’s about inter-racial relationships of course, and also introduced America to Halle Berry as an actress. We all know where she ended up, as the first African-American women to win an Oscar for Best Actress
- He Got Game. The story of a young basketball star and what happens when his father is released from prison and tries to re-enter his life just as he’s about to become rich and famous. This film opens with one of my favorite film moments ever as Lee juxtaposes African-American playground basketball to the music of Western-American composer Aaron Copeland. Hey, this is America too Lee seems to be saying.
- Miracle at St. Anna. A World War II film told from the point of view of an African-American platoon. Yes, blacks fought in World War II!
- Summer of Sam. A “New York Story” told during the summer New Yorkers were terrorized by the Son of Sam serial killer.
- 25th Hour. Edward Norton looks back at what got him there as he spends the last 25 hours he has before going to jail for seven years.
- If God Is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise. A documentary about the aftermath of hurricane Katrina.
There are so many more. Take a look at his IMDB page and enjoy. Another great thing about Lee is that he creates such compelling characters for actors. Just looking through the list of actors he’s either introduced to film or worked with over the years is truly amazing. Denzel Washington. Wesley Snipes. John Turturro. Jada Smith. Halle Berry. Sam Jackson. Damon Wayons. Laurence Fishburne. Ossie Davis. Ruby Dee. Danny Aiello. Martin Lawrence. Branford Marsalis. Ed Norton. Angela Basset. Delroy Lindo. Alfre Woodard. Harvey Keitel. Andre Braugher. John Leguizamo. Adrien Brody. Mira Sorvino. Ellen Barkin. Kerry Washington. Clive Owen. Jodie Foster…Whew. Seriously. It goes on and on.
Do the right thing and catch up on some Spike Lee films! You won’t be sorry.
Next Up: AFI #95 The Last Picture Show