Movie Project #8: Do the Right Thing [1989]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

Do the Right Thing [1989]

Do the Right Thing [1989]
Director: Spike Lee
Screenplay: Spike Lee
Country: USA
Genre: Drama
Starring: Spike Lee, Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Giancarlo Esposito, Bill Nunn, John Turturro
Running Time: 120 minutes

Reason for inclusion: I had only seen one Spike Lee film (25th Hour), and had heard nothing but praise for Do the Right Thing.

Accolades: Two Oscar nominations, four Golden Globe nominations, #96 on AFI’s 100 Greatest Films, National Film Registry

“Always do the right thing.”

So says Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) to Mookie (Spike Lee), offering some simple advice that we could all certainly follow. Yet it’s not easy to always do what’s right. By the end of Do the Right Thing, this is especially apparent, as we are introduced to over a dozen characters who have all struggled with this concept.

Set during a sweltering summer day in the predominantly African American Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn, the film shows little semblance of a plot for the first 90 minutes or so. Numerous individuals are introduced, occasionally running into each other, and there is no central figure. It could be argued that Mookie is the main character of the film, but he is just part of a large ensemble. In the wrong hands, this many characters could present major issues in terms of development, but Spike Lee has managed to introduce and provide depth for every single person on screen.

There’s Mookie, a delivery boy for Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, the corner pizza shop that’s been there for 25 years. Sal (Danny Aiello) is the owner, and he is waiting to pass the reigns to his two sons, Vito (Richard Edson) and Pino (John Turturro). The fact that their neighborhood has become a mostly black community has been bothering the two sons, but not so much Sal, who has taken pride in the kids in the neighborhood growing up on his food.

Do the Right Thing [1989]

Tensions arise when Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) inquires about Sal’s “Wall of Fame” in which there are photos of a number of famous Italian Americans (i.e. Al Pacino, Joe DiMaggio, etc.). Buggin’ Out wants to know why there aren’t any black people on the wall, to which Sal replies that he is proud of his Italian American heritage and will only show Italians in his shop. This escalates into a heated argument, and Buggin’ Out threatens to start a boycott of the pizzeria.

Most neighbors just laugh at the boycott threats — after all, Sal’s has been there forever. Who’s business is it to tell him what to put up in his own restaurant? Yet there is one other supporter, Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), a strong young man who always carries around a large boombox blasting Public Enemy. Raheem had his own altercation with Sal, who refused to serve him food unless he turned off his stereo.

Do the Right Thing [1989]

These types of confrontations and verbal spats are everywhere in the neighborhood. Much of this is due to racial tension, and it simmers for most of the film before finally reaching a boil in the tragically violent conclusion.

Without giving anything away, the film’s ending is one that raises a million questions. Who was right? Who was wrong? Why did it have to come to this? Did anyone “do the right thing”? Every character in the film has their own negative traits, just as we as humans are inherently flawed. Most try not to let their prejudices get the best of them, but in the scorching heat, it may be just a little easier to lose control.

Do the Right Thing [1989]

In order to really emphasize the record-breaking Brooklyn heat (which undoubtedly helped escalate these conflicts), Lee opted to use copious amounts of red and orange colors in his backdrops. This gives the film an especially unique feel. Lee also nailed the neighborhood setting, as it truly seems we are watching a day in the life of this particular area.

Do the Right Thing is an astonishing piece of filmmaking that still manages to feel fresh today. It elects not to choose a side, instead allowing you to make the decision for yourself. I am writing this post a day after viewing the film, and I still can’t stop thinking about it. This is a film that will linger and linger, and I can’t imagine it will ever go away.


31 thoughts on “Movie Project #8: Do the Right Thing [1989]

  1. The Vern says:

    I really like this review. This is an important movie that really should be seen by everybody. I like that the movie never really chose sides and I liked that you wrote not one person chose the right thing

    • Eric @ The Warning Sign says:

      Hi Vern, thanks for the kind words! I completely agree that this should be seen by everyone — can’t believe it took me this long to do so. It’s kind of ironic that the most reasonable character in the entire film is Da Mayor, the neighborhood drunk.

  2. John says:

    I wish this Spike Lee (and the one from Malcolm X) would come back and the Miracle at St. Anna one would go away. Those early Spike Lee films were downright masterful in their use of steadicam, color (check out all of that red in Do the Right Thing), external elements (the heat)…

    You’d be hard-pressed to find a movie that better illustrates just how much hot weather sucks than Do the Right Thing.

  3. CMrok93 says:

    This is one of my favorites, and not even just because of the discussions but how it still remains to be seen as Lee’s most humane film to date where he isn’t preaching to one side or in favor of the other; it’s just there to allow us to make up our own minds. Hopefully, just hopefully, the guy can make a come back and have us forget Red Hook Summer and Miracle at St. Anna. Hopefully. Good review man.

  4. Dan Heaton says:

    Eric, I’m so glad that you were able to check out this incredible movie. It challenges you and refuses to give an easy solution to the problems. I have the Criterion DVD at home, and there is a lot of interesting material on the reactions that Lee got to the movie. Malcolm X is my favorite Lee film, but this is right there with it.

    • Eric @ The Warning Sign says:

      Yeah, I can’t believe it took me so long to finally see this. Amazing film. I’m going to have to see if I can get my hands on the Criterion material. Netflix only shipped me the first disc, so I missed out on all the extras.

  5. jackdeth72 says:

    Hi, Eric:

    “She’s Gotta Have It”, “Malcolm X” and “Do The Right Thing” are
    Spike Lee’s best work. With “Malcolm X” inching out the lead. After these. Not so much.

    Great use of budget, location and sets. Providing an unique playground for talent up and coming and grounded alike. The opening five minutes sets the stage for no heroes and no real villains. While the rest of the film focuses on the pressure building, hottest day of the summer.

    Excellent choice!

  6. Alex Withrow says:

    Great review. This is DEFINITELY a film that will never go away. I really do respect the hell out of its impartiality, Lee did a fantastic job letting us decide. A truly classic film right here.

  7. Fogs' Movie Reviews says:

    Great movie. Classic. “This is a film that will linger and linger, and I can’t imagine it will ever go away.” Youre totally right. Take it from someone who first saw it 25 years ago or so! LOL 😉

    Curious as to what it takes to make you give a 10. Coersion? Bribery? LOL 😀 Have you ever?

    • Eric @ The Warning Sign says:

      Hahah, that’s a good question. I rarely give out tens — I usually have a hard time going the full monty on my first viewing. In last year’s project, I gave Lawrence of Arabia a 10, and would probably give tens to a few others upon reflection. My first project was ripe with perfect scores though — I think I ended up dishing out a half dozen or so.

      But yeah, maybe I should be a little more liberal with my tens. 🙂

  8. ilovethatfilm says:

    I found it hard to like when I first watched it as I was so annoyed at so many characters for their actions. Now that’s what I love about it. It truly is a great tragedy, not just about Raheem but also that Sal lowers himself by the end due to his anger. Great review!

    • Eric @ The Warning Sign says:

      Thanks Pete! “A great tragedy” is an excellent way to describe this. Every single character in this film is unlikable in some fashion, but then again no one’s perfect in real life either. I loved that we got to know all of them so well, warts and all.

  9. sanclementejedi says:

    I actually saw this at the theater way back in the day and as I recall we were the only white folks in attendance. That was a real shame cause this is a great movie. Say Eric I posted this on reddit for you let me know if you get a bounce from it.

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