Movie Club Selection for April: Do the Right Thing

1989 joint

Rating: 19/20

Plot: A day in the lives of a handful of Brooklynites on Stuyvesant Street. It's so hot. How hot is it? It's so hot that it can melt the melting pot! Racial tensions burble.

A recipe for disaster--an Italian-run pizzeria with no pictures of black people on the walls, some old-school blacks who have been there and done that several times over, some new-school disillusioned punks, a guy with a boom box and only one song, Korean grocers, a sprinkling of Hispanics. Mix all ingredients in a large pepper pot with two quarts of water over intense heat. Season with Chuck D. and Flavor Flav screaming things about Elvis at you.

Speaking of Public Enemy, I wonder if "Fight the Power" won or was at least nominated for Best Song. And speaking of the songs, here's some interesting trivia: I noticed that left-handed pitcher Bill "Spaceman" Lee did the musical score for Do the Right Thing. Unless (and this is doubtful) there's another Bill Lee out there.

This movie has an infectious energy that is impossible not to love, from the Rosie Perez dance off against herself during the opening credits to the powerful and devastating denouement. It's alive, alive in a refreshing way. The amount of color rivals Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and I'm not just referring to Samuel L. Jackson's array of hatwear. The neighborhood's drenched in color, like some little kids got a hold of a box of Crayolas (the bulbous 900 crayon box) and just went nuts. The characters are colorful, too. Stuttering Smiley, weirdly contrasting with the backdrops in almost every shot he's in. Ossie Davis's Da Mayor brings his street wisdom and contradictions. Sal and his sons, Sister Mama, Mookie, Radio Raheem. The latter, by the way, reminds me of a young me actually. When I was in middle school, I carried around a boom box and blasted my Spike Jones and the City Slickers "Best Of" cassette. Also, my peers used to call me Sweet Dick, so this movie brings back all kinds of memories for me. But I digress. Such colorful characters, and the actors who bring them to life are terrific. For three-fourths of the film, we're treated (and it is a treat!) to comic vignettes, the story bouncing rapidly from character to character. I loved seeing the characters roaming about in the background when it wasn't their turn to be the center of attention, too. But there's this building, underlying intensity, this anger bubbling beneath all those colors, so the climax, even though it successfully shocks and disturbs, isn't totally surprising. Finally, I was impressed with the deft camerawork in this one. There were some really creative camera angles, and I liked how smoothly the camera maneuvered through the characters on Stuyvesant Street. It slides with grace, especially impressive when showing conflict. The scene with Smiley hanging up that picture borders on "Too Much," but I think it's powerful, leaving things wonderfully foggy. This movie is stupid fresh!

I'll save discussions about the movie's message for the comments.


l@rstonovich said...


Man those opening credits. As a lover of the PE it is just perfect but I can imagine how confrontational that sounded to mainstream ears. If they even saw this. I didn't think I was gonna watch this again for the movie blog as I've seen it at least 5 times but there it was on netflix streaming and once I started I couldn't stop. Some observations...

-This movie really makes me feel the sweltering heat.

-Spike Lee's acting is underrated. Hard to believe "Mookie" directed this.

-Richard Edson is one of my favorite actors. Between his role in this and Stranger Than Paradise he should be in the hall of fame, but wait, he also was one of the first drummers for Sonic Youth!

-This movie made me start drinking Miller High life.

-Does anyone like Mother sister?

-Man I want a slice of Sal's pizza

--Me and you are gonna have a talk.
-Ah says who?
-Says who?
-Says who?
-Says me.
-Who are you?

That is some brilliant dialogue. As is...

-Mike Tyson dream about whooping my ass he better wake up and apologize.

-Martin Lawrence siting at the fire hydrant.

-I didn't always like the use of the old-timey 30's sounding soundtrack snippets but now I do.

-Love the scene where the cops drive by glaring straight into the camera in slow mo.

-Da Butt t-shirt.

-Can Rosie Perez speak without yelling?

- I wanna Sal's chicken parm hero with extra sauce.

-I sold Radio Raheem his fight the power cassingle. Well I could have I was working at Record World around then and we sold 'em by the buttloads.

-McCoy Tyner, Biz Markie where is the method to his roll call madness?

-Turturro and Aiello turn in unbeatable performances.

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama reportedly saw this movie on their first date in 1989.
Damn, probably not much making out after this. Who knows though. Kinky.

It's the little details like the shot from inside the freezer, his directing is so understated as to go unnoticed but the shots are always brilliantly composed.

Poor Sal came so close to having a good day.

Man it always kills me that Mookie throws the can thru Sal's window. It had to happen though. What an ending. Zero sense of triumph. Then life rolls on.

l@rstonovich said...

The final song over the credits keeps this from being a 20. It is putrid.

Barry said...

I liked this movie in 1989 when I first saw It, and I like it now after just watching it. As Shane pointed out its an incredibly vibrant, loud and colorful movie. I did have the same problem with it that I did the first time, in that I did not know how to feel about Radio Raheem and Buggin Out, the two characters that are the most in your face about things, and end up creating the situation at the end of the movie. Back in 1989 I spent a lot of time trying to see their side of things, to understand where they were coming from. Buggin Out is worried about the lack of pictures of black people on the wall of the pizza joint….Radio Raheem just likes to blast “Fight the Power” on his boombox wherever he goes. I finally gave up, way back then, and just decided my white, cracker self just didn’t get it. Well here it is, over 2 decades later, and this white cracker still doesn’t get it. However a friend of mine pointed out the obvious…..they don’t like white people. They have reasons for feeling this way, but that’s their core motivation in all their interactions with Sal and sons. This is actually why this is a great movie…its never simple. You have the old guys sitting on the corner, complaining about the Korean grocer, and you realize that they are not just angry that a Korean is making a profitable business in the middle of this black neighborhood, but more importantly they are angry that the African-Americans in that area did not do it first. I also like that even though Lee is himself the “star” of the movie, he does not make Mookie into a perfect person. Hes a bit lazy, he takes advantage of pretty much everyone, and he is not doing a great job being a dad or sort of husband. I did pick up a bit more of his motivations at the end of the movie, where he starts the riot by throwing a trash can into the pizza joints window. He was angry but he is also saving Sal and Ginos lives. The crowd never again directs their anger at them, and instead trashes the pizza place. I think that Sal knows this, which is why he is not completely pissed at Mookie the next day. It’s a sad movie in so many ways, especially when you consider that the neighborhood is a much poorer place without Sal’s little pizza place in it. It’s a movie that makes you think and teaches you something new with each viewing. (That’s two viewings for me now.) I give it a 19…I would give it a 20, except, honestly the entire subplot with Rosie Perez is a waste, and does nothing to advance any plot. Oh and that end credit song really does blow. You may thank me now for picking this.

l@rstonovich said...


I agree whole-heartedly with your assessment.


Shane said...

I like the listin'!

I like Lee's acting, too. And like Barry said, he's a complex character. He does nothing to make you think he's a hero. He's as flawed as the rest of the African American characters in this neighborhood seem to be. Like Barry, I thought the trashcan tossing was heroic. It's one of those interesting ambiguous film moments, but you're right...things would have been worse for Sal and his sons if that trashcan didn't go through the window.

I really liked the scene where the camera follows Mookie and Buggin' out of Sal's. The door closes, but the camera moves through it. When the conversation is over, it retreats back into the pizza joint again and you see the door open. I like camera trickery like that. And as I said, I like the camera angles. Just a little tilt here and a little tilt there, visual aids to show those conflicts between the various characters.

3 for 3 on thinking the final song is complete crap...ick.

People say all kinds of things about Spike Lee and his feelings about race and his people, a lot of them without even seeing his movies. It's pretty clear to me in this that he's pointing the finger at his own race in 'Do the Right Thing'...the characters who are the closest to heroic are the Koreans and Sal. They've worked hard to build something in a community and are successful. There's not a single black character in this who is doing anything productive. I don't know if Buggin or Raheem really hate white people or not. They're angry, and I'm not sure either one knows who he's angry with. Sal is different. He's not lazy, he's successful, and he's white. Different people make good targets. Instead of building themselves up (since that takes work), they decide to knock others down. That's always easier, right?

There are a lot of pieces in this movie. For me, they connect to show that "Doing the Right Thing" is really about reaching potential, building, working hard. If other minorities can do it in a predominantly black community, surely the blacks can do it. This neighborhood is filled with blacks who hate rather than create. And the saddest thing about it all is that it's hard to imagine anybody learning from the experiences in the story. They've burned Sal's place to the ground. He'll likely split. Things will be forgotten. And the trends will continue. Old guys will gripe in front of a red wall, younger people will find excuses and not really do much of anything, younger people will play in the water and watch what their elders do. It's a circle of ennui.

My question: What is Lee trying to say about the public image of black entertainers and athletes in this? You've got the lengthy "roll call" that Samuel L. Jackson gives us, two or three sports jerseys (a Jordan, Jackie Robinson, any others), a reference to Mike Tyson. None of those black celebrities, of course, are on Sal's wall. They're all blacks who made it though, if you consider "making it" as making lots of money and being accepted by the white community. What do you think? Anything there?

And of course you've got MLK Jr. and Malcolm X's conflicting ideas, simplified with Radio Raheem's 'Night of the Hunter'-esque bling. The picture (which ultimately does make it to the wall), the rings, the quotes at the end. Their ideas are thrown out there, but I can't get my head around what Lee's wanting to do with them. Does his story support one side or the other? Is there a middle ground?

It was a good pick, Barry...

l@rstonovich said...

Well Turturro was definitely worse than Buggin' Out and Radio Raheem. If Buggin' Out wanted to boycott Sal's let him. Raheem was just rude. Turturro was a stone cold asshole.

What do you think about Sal and Mookie's sister? I thought it was so cool how kind he was to her, like a daughter, then Mookie makes me second guess. But you don't know if he's still married or anything so if he ain't, well hell go for it right?

The roll call on Samuel L. Jackson's show I'm pretty sure was just a list of artists that Lee wanted to give props to. I was on board for most though never cared to much for Keith Sweat or Al Jareau.

The Prince, Eddie Murphy, Magic thing was what it was, showing the double standard that successful black dudes receive.

The duel Malcom, MLK quotes were always a great dichotomy. Passive resistance or self defense. No answers there.

cory said...

I really enjoyed all of your comments (some of the best on this blog), and this terrific movie. This film is stylistically unique, with great realism, but almost feeling unreal. The jazzy score, the creative camerawork, and the cinematography all add to the mood, but what I like best is the incremental increase in tension as the hot day goes on. The metaphor I kept thinking about was a fire. You have the heat, the pressure, and little sparks waiting to set it all off. All the little looks of anger and hatred are even more powerful than the in-your-face racism. The first time I saw this, I never caught the fact Lee was saving their lives when he throws the can(an iconic moment in film history). It slightly mitigates the basic idea that even diverse groups and people that are finding a way to get along can revert to racism, hatred, and violence if the circumstances are right. "Do the Right Thing" is an electric and thought-provoking movie, which even despite a few flaws gets a 19 from me.

Shane said...

I don't know if I'd say that Turturro is worse than Raheem or Buggin' he? Pino's just angry, and we don't really have enough backstory to really know why. He's hateful and likely a racist, but I don't really think he cares too much for himself either. I just don't think he likes his situation very much at all and frustration has festered in him for so long that it now seeps through as anger and hate. But other than say a few things, what's he actually do? I never got the impression that Pino was a man of action. Turturro's performance really is terrific though, a lot of it because of what he doesn't say or do in the movie.

Buggin' is definitely more aggressive. He's the instigator, and he was attempting to get something started that, in his mind at least, would hurt Sal and his sons. When it didn't work (probably because nobody takes him seriously), he teams up with Raheem and Smiley to try something a little more in Sal's face. Some posse there...We know Smiley's mentally-challenged, but Raheem might not be all there either.

I keep looking for a character who represents this happy middle ground between the extremes (not the word I want there) of MLK and Malcolm X. Think it's Smiley?

Sal and Mookie's sister...odd scene. I guess it could help one sympathize with Sal unless you see it the way Mookie does. I'm not sure what to think about that whole scene.

Good point about the fire, Cory, especially since the final outcome does involve literal conflagration...and I think you're right about those "little looks of anger and hatred" that act as sparks...I think it's the powder keg that Spike is spotlighting. The death of Radio Raheem and the ensuing riot were not because of pictures on a wall or somebody playing music too loudly. It's the underlying issues...the jealousies, historical bad feelings, the bad habits of inner-city black men, missed opportunities...all kinds of issues that are not quite in the never-discussed category but are definitely not really addressed...and after a long, hot day? Kablooey! It only takes a spark, or in this case, somebody hearing "Fight the Power" one too many times...

I don't want to be that guy, so I'm changing my rating to a 19. I've always been a conformist, and four 19/20's feels more right.

rio blanco racing said...

sorry guys just watched this. great pic, great pic. despite mookie's acting i will say 20. yeah i was surprised when i looked it up after the fact, "that was spike lee?" couple things: i had never seen a spike lee joint before. seems like he really influenced fashion in 89. how much is he being influenced by fashion and how much did he influence it?
i loved the sex scene, despite seeing boobies it is never the least bit sexy but choppy and stylized. playful and fun and we get a sense of how mookie really feels for tina.
all the colors up to the riot are all reds/yellows and oranges building up the heat.
i also loved the use of angle shots its really obvious in the early conversation between mother sister and the mayor.
i loved the weird asides like the love hate speech then mookie just says "there you have it love and hate" and goes off to delivery the pizza. brilliant.
the subtlities of some of the shots is insane. you know spike lee agonized over something that lasted 2 seconds and no one probably even noticed.
and that shot at the end that pans out of mother sisters apartment. awesome!
as far as theme and such. its not that easy. at the end sal understands and accepts mookies part in the riot. there were the doers: mookie, the stuttering guy, bug eyes(was that his name) and radio raheem. sort of the malcolm x theory of struggle. the martin luther king jr school includes the radio dj(sort of) the mayor, mother sister( sort of). and the black people who are worthless are martin lawrence and his friends they are just instagators. i think it was just a racial release and things feel like they are back to normal the next day. 2 closing ideas. radio is a very basic stock character and he of course had to be the one to die as he is the bigger thomas character and sal has the right to put whoever he wants on his wall it is his business. elvis presley? he didnt mean shit to me.

Shane said...

Better late than never...Oprah doesn't mind a bit.

I guess with Spike Lee, I always figured he was all controversy and vitriol and never thought about him as a virtuoso but 'DtRT' is virtuosic.

Not sure I disagree with anything you said there...I liked Spike's acting though.

Who's seen 'Malcolm X'? I watched it and remember thinking it was pretty great...but man, that's longer than 'Gone with the Wind'!

RE: idea. I think I was dressing like that back in '84, so maybe I actually influenced Spike Lee.

Bug Eyes = Buggin' Out...much more sensible name.

l@rstonovich said...

I thought Spike Lee's acting was great.

I haven't seen Malcolm X in ages but it was pretty awesome, despite my aversion to Denzel. Could someone suggest a movie were Denzel doesn't play a "Strong Black Man" be he a good guy or a bad guy. I'd read X's autobiography and the movie pretty much followed that to a T.
I really liked Crooklyn, but its been a while. 25 hours and Summer of Sam were entertaining.

Kairow said...

First off, Denzel as not a good guy..."Training Day". I liked it, and he worked circles around Ethan Hawke in it.

I remember watching this for the first time in high school. There was still the voodoo of people getting shot in the theater about it. I rented it at the Four Star video in Whiteland, IN. (no irony lost there, and surprise, it was in as a new release) I watched it alone, in my parent's farmhouse, and remember standing up when Mookie threw the can through the window. By myself, standing up, in my living room. I can't score it, since I would be depending on my 1989 view of it.

I still think I prefer "Mo Better Blues" and "Summer of Sam".

Are those on here? If not, well, do I have a top five as well, or is that too much homework?

l@rstonovich said...

Yeah, he's still a "Strong Black Man" in training day, just a bad one. An obvious attempt to shake up his typecasting as the good guy but I want to see him play someone sniveling or something sometime. He's always just Denzel in my opinion.

Shane said...

I can get 'Mo' Better' and 'Summer of Sam' on here eventually...if you want to be a part of the "five" thing, that'd be cool. Larst lost interest, but the idea was that we'd each have that list of movies that we like that we think others haven't seen...I've run out of movies. Cory's still feeding me some. If you want in on that bidness, I can give you a spreadsheet with all our old picks and you can start throwing us some of your own.

By the way, I lost last night...I lost count how many times I had you know, I like to play too many hands because I get bored, and I think I folded more pre-flop last night than I have in years. I don't think I want to play poker with Denzel, by the way...