Do the Right Thing (1989)
Written and directed by Spike Lee

Has it really been more than 30 years since Spike Lee's most militant movie hit theaters? I'm less inclined to comment on the state of race relations now-versus-then, and more inclined to lament the fact that I now can concretely recall seeing movies in the theater 30 years ago!

Back then, I had the perverse pleasure of watching Do the Right Thing in a theater full of rich white folks on Chicago's North Shore, where the reaction was a pulsating mix of bleeding-heart sympathy and utter indignation … both of which were misguided. As a self-proclaimed white nigger, I felt I "got" the film in ways these well-meaning people just could not. For Do the Right Thing isn't about anger or racism, but about personal reaction to disenfranchisement, and I've had me plenty of that. I may not be technically "black," but I'm blacker than Yaphet Kotto, in my heart, where it counts.

Lee's most focused film is as beautiful as it is tragic, as honest as it is contrived. It has all the elements of great theater—op-notch ensemble acting; hard-hitting yet poetic dialogue; beautiful yet purposeful set design—with none of the pretentiousness or logical holes. Lee presents archetypal characters who are nonetheless each full-flesh, endearing as humans, "important" as symbols. People who disagree with Lee's opinioneering tend to focus on certain in-your-face details ("Tawana told the truth" graffiti on the wall behind an otherwise emotionally sweet scene, for example) to diminish the overall artistry of the film. But the message of Do the Right Thing is ultimately humanist, and while provocative, it's no call-to-arms for a race war. Never was.

There is so much to love and admire about the film, no matter what you think of its ideas or provocative stance. Though it does look a little "In Living Color" (especially the "Fly Girl"-esque dance introduction), DTRT is a visually stunning film, utilizing such sumptuous colors it sometimes looks as good as the African-American section of your local Hallmark® store. The light, the heat, the pulse, and the sound of the Bed-Stuy streets are brilliantly captured, along with the love, the agitation, the humor, the hatred, and the underlying prejudices of its residents. The famous scene in which each racial stereotype unloads a slew of epithets about another race, directly toward the camera, is to me the film's weakest (that is, least mature) moment; yet even this is punctured with grace by Sam Jackson's resounding yell for everyone to be cool. It's a good illustration of how deft Spike Lee can be, at his best, at negotiating tough terrain with much elegance.

The cast couldn't be better, to the point that it's hard to pick standouts. Danny Aiello (Sal) and Ossie Davis (Da Mayor) are unbeatable in surprisingly nuanced roles (arguably, it's the actors—and not the writing—that give these characters such dimension). John Turturro and Rosie Perez stand out in lesser but important roles … incidentally, what happened to Rosie Perez? Wasn't she going to be a huge star? Did people just get sick of her voice?

Then there are tertiary performances from Robin Harris (as Sweet Dick Willie) and John Savage (as a white resident) that offer color and texture as well as tension and release.

It's a brilliant work all around, no layer any more essential or "better" than any other. Though Lee's subsequent career has been a good deal dodgier (as has any great director's, if they make more than like five movies), Do the Right Thing can still remind you why something like Girl 6 might be worth checking out. Though the vision of DTRT is so strong, it's also still the sole Lee film that won't disappoint you at least on some level.

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Review by La Fée