Heat Rises in Do the Right Thing

This week’s class review exemplifies the idea that you can learn more from a movie with multiple viewings. I first saw Do the Right Thing in high school and struggled with it. And while Lee’s breakthrough film still isn’t one of my all-time-faves, on second viewing I think I understood it better. Here’s a clip from the film…

From the first frame of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989), it is clear that this will be an aggressive movie. Tina (Rosie Perez) dances frantically to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”, gritting her teeth, grinding her hips, and throwing punches into the air. The sequence lasts for the length of the entire song—a rarity—and the editing is just as insistent as Tina’s dancing with precise, sharp cuts.

The song and the frenzied tone carry through the entire film as tension builds in Brooklyn. On the hottest day of the year, on a poor city block, pizza delivery boy, Mookie (Spike Lee), is at the center of the action as the neighborhood’s long-term bigotry ripens into violence. Do the Right Thing subtly focuses on a push-pull friction between non-violent rebellion and violent retribution. Mookie is often the voice of reason as racial conflicts continue to arise: he talks down his friend, Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito) from starting a fight in Sal’s Pizzeria and then forces Sal’s son, Pino (John Tuturro) to think about his own racism. Yet Mookie ultimately breaks under the pressure of the neighborhood’s pain by taking violent action in the film’s climax.

It’s a film where the word, “fucking” is traded like currency. Where everyone is yelling at everyone for reasons both profound and trivial. A film where music defines identity, particularly with Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) carrying around a giant boom box, constantly blasting “Fight the Power.” Where all the characters are at war and the major dividing lines are the eternal battles of young vs. old, black vs. white, or love vs. hate.

Spike Lee wears many hats in Do the Right Thing as producer, writer, director, and star. As such, every choice in the film conveys a heightened sense of Lee’s aesthetic. For example, much is made of the heat in the movie. Radio host Mister Senor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson) as the eyes of the block tells his audience how hot the weather is while reminding them to cool down—a warning that works on many levels. Visually, the film is noted for its use of vibrant, sizzling color. And Brooklyn itself becomes a major player in the film as its raw, red-brick walls reflect and amplify the heat.

Lee’s cleverness extends to his positioning of the camera, as the lens takes on the perspective of various characters. The skill of Do the Right Thing is in forcing the audience to identify, or at the very least witness, the viewpoints of characters from every level of the social strata on the block. The camera and narrative tend to stick with Mookie, but shifts around because of the high tensions latent in each individual. To examine one issue too closely would be to ignite a powder keg. And that is exactly what happens as the camera whirls between Sal (Danny Aiello) and Radio Raheem, whose mutual violent outbursts end in destruction.

Though the emotions are amplified to the point of being unreal, the ensemble cast makes each over-the-top line feel honest and natural. As the film’s ringleader, Spike Lee makes a statement that is harried and loud. The ending is the most effective moment, however, with the dual quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X regarding violence and non-violence giving the film a quiet clarity that finally calms the raging passion of Do the Right Thing.

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