It’s the hottest day of the year.
Spike Lee is known as an actor’s director, and nowhere is that more apparent than in his masterpiece, 1989’s Do the Right Thing, an acknowledged classic of American cinema. In hypersaturated colors, it traces a day in the life of a single block in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. As the temperature rises, so do the tensions within a racially diverse community bound together by location, but divided by culture and class.
If you read the original script –published as a part of a companion book to the movie –you can see that many of the characters and situations are thinner and more broadly stereotypical in Lee’s original vision. As inhabited by the film’s extraordinary cast, however, the characters, from Danny Aiello’s paternalistic pizzeria owner Sal, to Rosie Perez’ blazing hot puertorriqueña Tina, take on depth and reality. Other standouts include Giancarlo Esposito as activist-in-search-of-a-cause Buggin’ Out, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee as the love-hate duo of homeless alcoholic Da Mayor and sharp-tongued neighborhood matriarch Mother Sister, Samuel L Jackson as the peacemaking DJ Mister Señor Love Daddy, and John Turturro as Sal’s openly racist older son, Pino.
Twenty five years later, one might expect the film to have aged poorly, but instead its incendiary themes –racial tensions, gentrification, police brutality, and protests-cum-riots –seem even more relevant and ripped-from-the-headlines today than they did then. In particular, the choking death of character Radio Raheem at the hands of the NYPD is eerily reminiscent of the recent headline-dominating death of Eric Garner.
Although some elements –most notably the portrayal of the film’s Asian characters –were behind the times, not ahead of them, Do the Right Thing remains one of the bravest, most eloquent, most humane meditation on race in modern American life to ever be committed to celluloid. Ultimately each character in the film is revealed to simply be trying his or her best to live out the film’s eponymous existential humanist mission, to do the right thing, whatever that might prove to be.
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