(Check out the list so far)
The Movie: Do the Right Thing (1989)
One Sentence Plot Summary: It’s a hot summer day in a Brooklyn neighborhood, and the rising temperatures serve as a metaphor for the rising racial tensions gripping the area.
Why It’s on the List: This is a movie that mostly takes place in one day. What makes this unique on this list is that fact and there really isn’t much plot, especially in the first 90 minutes. Spike Lee wants us to understand these people, not as protagonists or antagonists but as people. Even though Sal and Pino are incredibly racist and make a lot of incredibly offensive comments, they’re still treated as human beings. We see the police’s antipathy toward the area, and the payoff comes in one of the darkest and most prescient moments in film history, with the choking out of Radio Raheem. This is treated as a tragedy, and your reaction to what happens next is the ultimate litmus test. Do you sympathize with the people of this neighborhood who have lost one of their own, or do you question whether Mookie really had to throw a garbage can through a window and start a riot to make a point?
Although over three decades old at this point, we must understand that is still a reality in cities across this country. Black men are still choked out, and the police are not held accountable for those actions. Instead of values, we as a society bemoan the fact that “they” are destroying their own neighborhood. Maybe it is unfortunate for Sal and his family to lose their business, but it’s way more unfortunate that Radio Raheem lost his life because of aggressive policing. Spike Lee tries to present dichotomies throughout. MLK and Malcolm X quotes end the movie. Raheem wears jewelry on his hands that says “love” and “hate.” To simplify this movie by saying one side is wrong is an oversimplication.
Spike Lee made a couple of movies before and has been able to forge success in a systemically racist Hollywood system, but this is the closest to a perfect film he’s ever made. It’s sad that the movie still feels so relevant, but there are also moments of levity and genuine affection between people. The moment when Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee hug as the riot comes to an end is powerful, not only because of their own histories but because of what that movie represented. I originally gave this movie a six on iMDB, and I invite you all to punch that version of Jerome in the face because this movie is exquisite and a must watch.
*The scene with Mookie and Tina about halfway through is weird. Rosie Perez apparently wasn’t totally comfortable with it and had her face hidden, but she’s since said it was fine. Spike Lee being the director definitely makes the scene odder. His treatment of women within his films does not give him leeway in this treatment.
MVP: This isn’t Spike Lee’s first film, but it feels like the one where he really arrived and found his voice. He presents the dichotomy of this world incredibly. While he’s not an award winning actor, I can understand why he cast himself in some of his early movies, especially a character like Mookie given he is the one who walks around and shows us this world. In addition, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Mookie (played by the director) is the one who throws the garbage can through the window. Lee has never been a subtle filmmaker, but I appreciated the sensitivity with which he handled this situation and showed us many of kinds of neighborhood characters.
Best Performance: This is the only movie where I am going to give it to the whole ensemble. Everyone plays their roles so specifically that to single one person out would almost be an insult. Everyone from Danny Aiello to Ossie Davis to Rosie Perez to Steve Park play such specific and different cast. A lot of credit should go to the screenplay, but in a movie with almost no plot, they needed every cast member to play their roles well. They did in this case.
Best Quote: “Let me tell you the story of Right Hand, Left Hand. It’s a tale of good and evil. Hate: it was with this hand that Cain iced his brother. Love: these five fingers, they go straight to the soul of man. The right hand: the hand of love. The story of life is this: static. One hand is always fighting the other hand, and the left hand is kicking much ass. I mean, it looks like the right hand, Love, is finished. But hold on, stop the presses, the right hand is coming back. Yeah, he got the left hand on the ropes, now, that’s right. Ooh, it’s a devastating right and Hate is hurt, he’s down. Left-Hand Hate KOed by Love.” – Radio Raheem
Is there a sequel? No, but it would be really interesting to see a follow-up of some sort to see what happened to some of the characters, especially in light of recent events.