Do the Right Thing

by mikeyzjames

Do the Right Thing is a beautiful example of the American independent film movement of the 80s and 90s. Its provocative story, unique aesthetic, diverse cast and production crew, and singular vision are unimaginable in a big studio film. There’s a momentum to the film where you can feel that Spike Lee is just going for it. He isn’t censoring anything and he’s taking experimental risks that, through their assurance and bravado, come off spectacularly.

Lee calls his shot in the film’s remarkable credit sequence in which Rosie Perez dances solo for the nearly 5 minute running time of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”. The dance is clearly a riff off of the title sequence to The Cosby Show, where the various cast members dance on a blank stage.

Watching Do the Right Thing, it isn’t hard to imagine the Lee might have a problem with the way The Cosby Show depicted modern black life. While The Cosby Show‘s intro is antiseptic and benign, Do the Right Thing’s is antagonistic, with Perez’s exaggerated, overtly sexual moves playing off Public Enemy’s anger. It’s clear we aren’t going to get a sugar-coated picture of Black American experience.

The artificial, meta nature of these titles gets replicated a few times throughout the film, most famously in two sequences: the first, in which five characters give racist monologues against another racial group, and second, when Radio Raheem preaches about love and hate. In this particular sequence, Lee begins by framing Radio Raheem and Mookie in a two-shot from the side, but as Radio begins, the camera slides into Mookie’s place so that the soliloquy can come straight to the audience. When Radio finishes, the camera slides back and Mookie retakes his place. He could have simply cut to the first person perspective, but there’s something beautifully performative about letting the camera do that work. Although the film is known for its Dutch angles, it is the way Lee selectively uses camera movement that I think is more interesting and playful.

The film is designed on a foundational level to provoke discussion and opinion. Although many feared it would cause riots and racial unrest, the strength of the screenplay is its ability to present a clear, nuanced portrait of each character and their actions. It invites judgment only to immediately complicate that judgment. Of course, most discussion centers around the film’s famous climax and whether Mookie’s decision to throw the garbage can through Sal’s and the resulting riot were justified. But throughout the film, we are given similar sequences. When a yuppie white resident scuffs Buggin’ Out’s Jordans, it seems like Buggin’ Out might be overreacting. Yet, the yuppie doesn’t seem to care about the brazen way he ran into Buggin’ Out, and his sense of entitlement quickly sides us with Buggin’ Out. Part of me wishes that Spike Lee would just take a stance, but that would defeat the provocative purpose of the film.

My favorite aspect of Do the Right Thing is the way it depicts a neighborhood. This feels like a real, lived-in world, with each character playing a unique role to Bed Stuy. I love the way characters float in and out of the backgrounds, even if they don’t have lines or any part of the narrative action. Lee establishes these characters so quickly: sometimes it’s through clothing, and other times through dialogue. But he doesn’t waste any time, even if it feels like the movie is mostly plotless. Each sequence serves a purpose in illustrating the psychology of the neighborhood. You just feel that these are all people the Spike Lee grew up with; they’ve been living in his head for decades and he was just waiting until this film to let them out. Luckily, he gets great performances across the board from people that also seem to intimately know the people they are playing.

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