80s Movie Challenge Week 23: Do The Right Thing (1989)

Here at WGN, we are a firm believer that #BlackLivesMatter – a message that needs telling and retelling, never more so than over the last few weeks. Therefore, in this week’s #80sMC Paul chose Spike Lee’s day-in-the-life comic-drama with a timeless message we can all learn a lot from – it’s 1989’s Do The Right Thing.

As always, major spoilers follow…

One of the reasons I started The Great Year Long 80s Movie Challenge (to give it its full title), aside from a thinly veiled excuse to rewatch awesome films from my childhood and teens, was that I wanted the writers to look at those beloved old films through a twenty-first-century lens, and reassess the film with modern eyes, not rose-tinted spectacles. Some of those films haven’t changed much or haven’t really been able to resist the strong pull of nostalgia (Robocop, Back To The Future, The Lost Boys). Others (including The Breakfast Club and Heathers both written about by the brilliant Jane Roberts) are an entirely different viewing experience thanks to the way society has changed, making certain behaviours and attitudes questionable or no longer acceptable.

And then we have a small number of films which took on the big issues of the 1980s, and which remain relevant now; 9 To 5 with its head-on tackling of workplace misogyny, First Blood which still has a surprising amount to say about bullying and mental health issues and this weeks film – one of the most recent on the list, Spike Lee’s second part of his Chronicles of Brooklyn series (following 1986’s She’s Gotta Have It) – Do The Right Thing.

I never saw this on release. It was always on my “To Watch” list, but somehow I never got round to it. So when I saw the 50 films we were to watch and write about, I was pleasantly surprised to see Do The Right Thing was on there. That list was compiled a few years ago, long before the protests we’ve been seeing in cities across the world over the last few weeks following the horrible, horrible killing of George Floyd by a white police officer. Maybe now is the right time to pay Do The Right Thing a visit, I thought.

I didn’t know much about the film. I knew it was a comic-drama about race issues, that it was set on a very hot day in a suburb of Brooklyn and I was vaguely aware that it culminated in a riot and the burning down of the film’s central location, Sal’s Famous Pizzeria. But that was it.

Maybe it’s because George Floyd is such a recent memory, but I was not in any way prepared for what happens at the end of the second act of the film, leading to the literally inflammatory events of the finale. The fate of the, up until then, comic character of Radio Raheem (who gets his nickname from constantly carrying a boombox and blasting out Public Enemy’s Fight The Power at full volume, much to the annoyance of his friends and neighbours) at the hands of a white police officer was a little too close to reality.

I was shocked as Raheem succumbed to a chokehold that resulted in his death. Would I have been as shocked had I watched this film a few weeks ago? I’m ashamed to say that I probably wouldn’t have. I would have watched the film, enjoyed it, for the most part, been saddened and maybe even a little outraged by the killing of Raheem and then gone about my business when the film finished. It’s safe to say that last month, this would have been a very different article. News of deaths from police brutality in the USA rarely make the headlines of mainstream news in the UK. Until this week names like Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner were vaguely familiar to me but I probably flicked past those pages in search of my favourite sections of the BBC website, like Technology or Entertainment news. Not something I’m proud to admit, but I can’t lie.

Maybe it’s because of the perfect storm of George Floyd’s death combined with the coronavirus lockdown, but this one seemed different, more serious, and it was extensively covered on UK media. I could NOT ignore it. And watching Do The Right Thing a couple of days ago it not only hammered home the horror of police brutality but also how indifferent I had been to the plight of ordinary folk whose skin colour happens to be different to mine. Folk who live in fear of being assaulted for nothing more than walking down the street or driving their car.

Since seeing Do The Right Thing a few days ago I’ve not stopped thinking about how powerless I feel to help, from my predominantly middle-class white neighbourhood, with predominantly middle-class white friends. I do, however, write for this website and while it doesn’t by any means have the largest audience, if I can reach one or two readers from this position of privilege, then that’s better than nothing.

If you are wondering the same, there are other things you can do – there are peaceful protests taking place all around the world. Go and join one if you can (I have avoided doing so myself due to the coronavirus and having vulnerable relatives) – but please take precautions to stay safe and observe social distancing. Sign a petition like the Justice For George Floyd one – and don’t think that with nearly 18 million signatures your name is just a drop in the ocean – EVERY supporter counts. Write to your local MP (or other political representative if you’re not in the UK) expressing how you feel. Donate some money – any amount you can afford even if it’s just a few pounds/dollars to Black Lives Matter or towards bail bonds for those arrested for nothing more than protesting for their human rights – The Bail Project is one such place where you can do this.

I’m not here to sermonise – this is an entertainment site after all – and I’ll get on with talking about the movie shortly, but every once in a while a piece of pop culture comes along which makes you stop, think and, most importantly of all, act. Do The Right Thing is one such example. If you haven’t seen it, then I’d strongly urge you to seek it out right away – and not just because of its cultural importance, and timeless message that sadly still needs reaffirming today, but because it is also a very entertaining movie.

After the extended opening credits featuring a dance sequence from 90s favourite Rosie Perez (making her film debut here after being spotted dancing in a club by writer/director Spike Lee), we get taken on a stroll around a typical neighbourhood in the Bedford-Stuyvesant region of Brooklyn, being introduced to the diverse cast of characters who live there, learning about their quirks, motivations, their hopes and fears.

It’s a real melting pot of cultures, ranging from African Americans to Puerto Ricans, Koreans to white people living an occasionally tense, but on the whole peaceful existence on each other’s doorstep. The focal point of the neighbourhood’s social life, however, is the aforementioned Sal’s Famous Pizzeria. No matter what the patrons’ ethnic background or social standing, Sal’s has always been there, providing excellent Italian food and a safe place where everyone is welcome. Spike Lee plays Mookie, a pizza delivery man working for Sal (the always superb Danny Aiello) and his two sons, the easy-going Vito and the racist Pino (John Turturro). Sal is proud to have provided an essential service to the neighbourhood and plans to remain there, despite all the other Italians having left long ago. Pino is not so happy about this and takes every opportunity he can to lecture poor Mookie about it.

Mookie, meanwhile, is dealing with problems of his own – he struggles to commit to his girlfriend Tina, with whom he has a baby son, and he worries that he will be stuck in a dead-end job and make nothing of his life. As Mookie tries to juggle his work life and family commitments, the hottest day of the year means tempers fray far more easily and quickly than they usually would.

And the hot weather is always visibly present in the film. Characters do what they can to cool off, including drinking more than they usually would, keeping in the shade and, in one particularly controversial scene, use ice cubes on the bare skin (which I won’t go into here, but it’s worth reading up about in this interview with Rosie Perez). Sal’s aircon unit has malfunctioned, the grocery store has sold out of the neighbourhood patriarch/drunk’s favourite beer, kids have opened up the fire hydrant. All these things, on their own, seem inconsequential, but what Lee does is weave all these minor things into an explosive concoction which eventually overflows at the end over the silliest of things (the volume of Raheem’s tapes).

Lee fully intended the weather to be a character in its own right. The shooting title for the movie was Heatwave. Of Lee’s dedication to the heated look of the film, cinematographer Ernest R Dickerson said:

“He wanted me to think about how to visually portray heat, how to get the audience to feel the hottest day of summer. The first thing I came up with was the use of colour. I did a lot of research on its psychology and worked on a controlled palette that pretty much stayed in the warm range – yellows, reds, earth tones, ambers – and tried to stay away from blues and greens, which have a cooling effect.”

Something Do The Right Thing does particularly well is that mundane, everyday occurrences are given as much time if not more screentime as the major events. Juxtaposition is definitely a well used instrument in Spike Lee’s filmmaker’s toolbox. Take Giancarlo Esposito’s character Buggin’ Out, for example. He is most definitely presented as a funny, annoying, nerdy character – think Louis Tully in Ghostbusters or Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day. The stand he makes regarding the Italian American Sal’s insistence on only putting pictures of Italian American celebrities on his Italian American Wall of Fame in his own Italian American restaurant and not including any “brothers” as Buggin’ Out puts it, begins as light hearted banter – but his decisions to make it the hill on which he dies leads to devastating consequences.

Equally, Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) with his loud boombox, drowning out the Hispanic community’s music whenever they put some on, is funny. Not just mildly amusing either. There are many full-on, laugh-out-loud moments in this film. And then there is Pino. I was conflicted by his portrayal because, while he does hold some completely objectionable beliefs, he is still a funny, funny character and very occasionally a likeable one, and that is a testament to John Turturro’s brilliant, nuanced performance. The conversation he has with Mookie regarding disliking black people in general but admiring Eddie Murphy, Prince, Magic Johnson as performers is uncomfortable to watch but at the same time ridiculous and funny:

They’re not really black. I mean, they’re black, but they’re not really black. They’re more than black. It’s different.

Esposito elucidated this feeling of his own character, and the others far better than I could:

“The whole look and rhythm of the movie is like a heightened reality: I think that’s what makes it so special. The characters are just slightly larger than life. What made that feeling happen? I think it was where we were all at. We were very nervous. I mean, we’re doing a movie about racial tension in New York when things aren’t really good.”

He goes on to talk about the film’s infamous riot scene at the end:

“[That] was scary. When you have to get physical, something takes over: there were some intense moments, with people getting in touch with how they really felt. With Danny Aiello, who played Sal, I was cursing him and he was cursing me and all of our lives flashed past us. We ended up crying in each other’s arms because we’d said some horrible things to each other. We looked back to Spike to say: ‘Was that what you wanted?’ He was behind the camera with his arms outstretched, punching the sky.”

In the end, you are left with more questions than answers, and that question usually goes like this: As the film title suggests, did [insert character name here] do the right thing? Nobody is presented as totally perfect, nor is anyone presented as an outright villain. Every single character has their own interests and needs, but whether or not what they do is indeed the right thing is another matter. What is certain is that no matter how annoying Radio Raheem’s music was, and how much he was deliberately winding Sal up, he certainly didn’t deserve to die as he did.

What Spike Lee has given us is a balanced, entertaining, devastating, thought-provoking look at human nature and I for one am glad I have seen it – I only wish I had done so years ago, but then, perhaps it wouldn’t have had the same impact on me. I suspect it will have done though as it looks and feels as fresh, and more importantly, relevant as I can imagine it did over thirty years ago.

Do The Right Thing and watch this film as soon as you can!

Come back next week for more #80sMC fun as we completely ignore this week’s important message and say that “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good” in a very special guest post from Film Stories, Cinema Slice and Guardian writer Chris Warrington as he takes us on a stroll down Wall Street.

Paul Childs

As well as writing for Den of Geek and Your Truth, Paul also runs Badgers Crossing, a site for ghost stories. He loves the 1980s and thanks to a keen interest in Public Information Films he has never been electrocuted or set himself on fire.

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