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Decades later, ‘Do the Right Thing’ still relevant


Spike Lee is in the news today because his new film, "Da 5 Bloods," is available to stream on Netflix. But given what has been going on both in America and around the world since the death of George Floyd, I decided to look back at his 1989 film "Do the Right Thing" in a review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Spike Lee first drew widespread critical attention with his 1986 film “She’s Gotta Have It,” which focuses on a woman who annoys her male lovers because she treats them the way they themselves are used to treating other women – namely, as sexual objects.

As critic Gene Siskel wrote at the time, “Featuring an all-black cast, this little film is a revelation, primarily because it provides black faces with the most natural dialogue they've had in years.”

“ ‘She`s Gotta Have It,’ ” Siskel continued, “is neither a crime story nor a heavy message movie, and the conversations in it are therefore free of the shackles of most minority-oriented stories.”

You’ll have to forgive Siskel’s unfortunate use of the word “shackles,” considering that shackles are exactly what were used to bind generations of slaves. But especially in light of what’s happening in today’s America following the death of George Floyd, it’s harder to ignore the rest of what Siskel seems to be saying: That the “revelation” Lee provides us comes simply from the fact that “She’s Gotta Have It” doesn’t involve crime or heavy messaging.

Whatever the merits of Siskel’s point of view, and they are arguable, Lee certainly provided more than a bit of “heavy messaging” two feature films later with 1989’s “Do the Right Thing,” which on June 30th will mark the 31st anniversary of its U.S. opening.

Lee is back in the news because of his new film “Da 5 Bloods.” Set to premiere on Netflix today, “Da 5 Bloods” is a study of five black soldiers, all Vietnam veterans, who – according to the press materials – “return to Vietnam decades after the war to find their squad leader's remains – and a stash of buried gold.”

Intriguing as that sounds, and as likely as it is to being something I’ll review next week, it’s “Do the Right Thing” that feels most relevant today.

The film’s setting is the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. Mookie (played by Lee himself) works as a deliveryman for the local pizzeria, owned by the Italian-American Sal (Danny Aiello). Sal’s son Pino (John Turturro) doesn’t get along with Mookie or, to be honest, with any of the neighborhood’s mostly black residents.

And those residents constitute a full range of characters, which is one of the film’s main charms. Chief among them are Mookie himself, his girlfriend Tina (Rosie Perez), Da Mayor (played by the late, great Ossie Davis), Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) – who tortures everyone with the blare of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” coming from his boombox – and Mookie’s buddy Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito).

It’s Buggin’ Out who, after insisting that Sal put up some photos of black celebrities on his self-proclaimed Wall of Honor – which features the likes of Frank Sinatra and Joe DiMaggio – begins the movement that ultimately leads to violence: not just to the burning of buildings but to the death of a central character that is eerily prescient of events that have occurred in real life more recently.

Those events are what make “Do the Right Thing,” especially the violence that marks the film’s climactic sequences, even more easy to understand now than when it was released – though, to be frank, that comment could be seen by some as naïve, or worse. As Lee said more than once when asked whether Mookie’s single act of destruction in the film amounts to his doing “the right thing,” he offered a succinct response.

“Not one person of color has ever asked me that question,” he said.

If Lee’s response seems cryptic, critic Roger Ebert – from the beginning a Lee supporter – had his own interpretation. “Those who found this film an incitement to violence,” he wrote, “are saying much about themselves, and nothing useful about the movie.”

It was Ebert who may have best summed up not just the film overall but, specifically, Lee and the characters that he created.

“None of these people is perfect,” Ebert wrote. “But Lee makes it possible for us to understand their feelings; his empathy is crucial to the film, because if you can't try to understand how the other person feels, you're a captive inside the box of yourself.”

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