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 
Director: Spike Lee
Screenplay: Spike Lee
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.
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.
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.
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.