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‘Do the Right Thing’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 30, 1989

 


Director:
Spike Lee
Cast:
Danny Aiello;
Ossie Davis;
Ruby Dee;
Richard Edson;
Giancarlo Esposito;
Spike Lee;
Bill Nunn;
John Savage;
John Turturro
R
Under 17 restricted


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"Do the Right Thing," Spike Lee's ambitious, funny, infuriating and mostly brilliant film about a hot hot day in a Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, begins with a sexy, militant funk and grind that immediately plugs you into the movie's headset. The message is right there, flat out, in Public Enemy's title song: "You got to fight the power, fight the power, fight the powers that be." And it reverberates through the movie -- at times quite literally -- rocking the Brooklyn streets.

It rocks the theater audience, too, but this is a complex, multilayered movie, and the in-your-face attitude supplies only the movie's powerful, thumping bass line. The story as a whole -- the melody -- is sweeter, mellower, and Lee orchestrates the mixture of elements masterfully, first letting one dominate, then the other.

Lee comes from a musical family -- his father, Bill Lee, wrote the film's score -- and he's built the film on a musical model. It's his "Rainbow Coalition" Symphony. Counterpoint is the dominating principle, and in laying out this complicated narrative, Lee is attempting to explore the polarities of the inner city. He does this by setting up a system of opposites -- black and white, love and hate, conciliation and violence, man and woman -- then sets them against each other.

The catalyst for the action is the heat, which rises off the asphalt in quivering waves. With temperatures nearing 100, the chill in even the street's coolest customer is under siege. On a normal day, tempers might be held in check, the harsh word left unsaid, but today, the hottest day of the year, it's meltdown time and all the emotional hydrants are opened wide.

Lee and his cinematographer, Ernest Dickerson, turn this anger into a palpable force. But the filmmaker also uses it as a source of comedy, especially early on, when the characters are being introduced. The real glory of the movie is the feel Lee has for the picked details of life on the streets. It's at its best when it's listening in on the three older men in their lawn chairs on the corner or the back-and-forth front-stoop jiving of the younger kids. These exchanges, which cover everything from bad breath to fatherless children, have a right-from-life vibrancy -- they hum with energy.

The film's home base is Sal's Pizzeria, a corner joint operated by Sal (Danny Aiello) and his two sons, Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson), since the time when the neighborhood was mostly Italian. Unlike most of the area's white businessmen, Sal remained in the neighborhood as its ethnic balance shifted, and not just out of stubbornness or a lack of alternatives. He stayed out of pride and a love for the neighborhood, and over the years he has built a tradition of good relations with his black customers.

Vito, on the other hand, despises what his father has created. Filled with hatred for the business, his brother, the blacks and the neighborhood, he sets out to make misery for everyone, especially Sal's delivery man, Mookie (Spike Lee).

Lee puts a lot of stories, and a lot of characters, in motion here, and they ricochet off one another like billiard balls. There's Mookie's sister Jade (Lee's real sister, Joie Lee), who's tired of having his butt in her apartment; Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), a comradely drunk; Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith), who stutters something not quite comprehensible about Martin Luther King and Malcolm X; and Mookie's girlfriend, Tina (Rosie Perez), who wants him to take responsibility for their baby boy. Linking them all together is Mister Senor Love Daddy (Sam Jackson), the deejay for WE-LOVE radio, who provides commentary and musical accompaniment to the events of the day from the window of his broadcast booth.

Lee is careful not to take the easy way out in presenting his characters -- mostly they're complicated, both black and white, sometimes easy to like, sometimes not -- and, with the exception of Ruby Dee in the pointless role of Mother Sister, he gets loose, jazzy work out of his ensemble. Extra special attention is given to the relationship between Mookie and his white employer, who cuts him slack when he takes his time on deliveries. With Vito -- and the white cops, whom the blacks in the neighborhood see as a kind of hostile, occupying army -- he is less successful.

But Lee doesn't single out Vito's racist anger. In a surrealistically close-to-the-bone sequence in which the characters spew their ugliest ethnic slurs, he shows how the same barely suppressed rage festers inside everyone. Lee's point in including this orgy of racist spleen-venting is to show how easy it would be to spark a full conflagration, and it's out of this observation that the rest of the movie springs.

The match is provided a raggedy-headed provocateur in hospital-white Air Jordans named Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito), who demands that Sal give some picture space on his all-Italian wall of fame to blacks. As might be expected, Sal prefers Sinatra to Aretha and invites Buggin Out to make his exit, baseball bat in hand. In return, Buggin attempts to organize a boycott of Sal's, mostly without sympathy, until he approaches Radio Raheem, a hulking intimidator with a super-jumbo boom box. Raheen had loped into Sal's earlier that day, "Fight the Power" jacked full up, only to have his power shut down. A movement of two, they announce their boycott at closing time, where, again, the boom box becomes the issue and the rage overflows into savage violence.

The movie runs on emotion, a highly questionable, highly flammable power source. Lee isn't a politician, and he doesn't censor himself or make sure that he has all his ideas worked out in his head first. He just tosses them out. As a result, the film is a moral workout. At once a plea for tolerance and a rationale for violent opposition, the film embraces both its patron saints, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, then invites us to hassle out the contradictions.

Despite the moral wobbliness, especially at the end, the film is not, as some of the advance press has suggested, an irresponsible, hysterical rant. Lee does, at times, paint with a very broad brush. Also, his eagerness to be balanced causes him to be overdeliberate in drawing his characters, and in places the actors can't rise above the script's "Playhouse 90"-style social consciousness. But "Do the Right Thing" is a movie made by filmmaker working in sync with his times -- an exciting, disturbing, provocative film.

"Do the Right Thing" is rated R and contains nudity, strong language, violence and adult situations.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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