In the wake of the murder of George Floyd by four Minneapolis police officers last month, some movie studios and streaming entities have been making various films about race and racism available to stream for free. These include Just Mercy, 13th, I Am Not Your Negro, and many others. Netflix has even launched a Black Lives Matter collection.
There’s one major film that has to be made available in such a fashion, though you can rent it from every major VOD provider, and most of the major scenes are on YouTube. It’s Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, from 1989. Do the Right Thing is not only a singularly vital work and the quintessential American movie about race and racism but simply the great American movie. No film in at least the last half-century has been so important, so vital, and so American.
Sure, Do the Right Thing is relevant today, in part because it involves simmering racial tensions, urban gentrification, and, ultimately, the killing of an unarmed black man by a white police officer, leading to the burning of a building. But sadly, this isn’t the first time since 1989 that Do The Right Thing has been echoed in real life- or the second, the third, or the 50th.
The Eric Garner killing, in 2014, even took place in New York City, also by choking. The secondary police officer in Do the Right Thing, played by Miguel Sandoval, actually attempted to intervene to stop his brother in blue from killing a man, which is more than I can say for his real-life counterparts in Minneapolis, Staten Island, and numerous other places.
The particular genius of Do the Right Thing is that it tells this small story about a single neighborhood in a single city, while simultaneously telling a much larger story about America, its history and its legacies. And beyond all of that, Do the Right Thing is a tremendous feat of world-building, establishing with tremendous clarity the specific feel of this Brooklyn neighborhood, and populating it with tremendous characters.
The move is set on one long summer day- the hottest day of the year. Lee stars as Mookie, a pizza delivery guy living in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. The father of a baby son with his Puerto Rican girlfriend (Rosie Perez), Mookie works at Sal’s Pizzeria, a neighborhood institution run by Sal (Danny Aiello) and his sons Pino and Vito (John Turturro and Richard Edson.)
Local activist Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) begins to confront Sal about the pizzeria’s Italian American Wall of Fame, which like most other Italian/pizza joints in New York and New Jersey, is decorated with pictures of Frank Sinatra, Joe DiMaggio, and various actors from mob movies. “How come there ain’t no brothers up on the wall?” he asks.
The confrontation escalates, along with another where boombox-toting neighborhood figure Radio Raheem plays Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” which leads to police being called, and one of them choking Radio Raheem to death. The pizzeria burns to the ground, and when implicitly asked to pick a side, Mookie tosses a trash can into the side of the restaurant.
The film, among other virtues, is specifically tuned to things like the specific vicissitudes of black/Italian relations in the Northeastern U.S., complicated gentrification fights, and what a hot summer day is like in New York City.
Do the Right Thing isn’t Green Book. It’s not a mealy-mouthed plea for racial reconciliation, nor does it come up with any easy answers, even famously ending with contradictory quotes, about the morality of violence, from Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Nor does the film put white people or their feelings at the center of the narrative, which was the way it went for most studio movies about civil rights or race back in the ’80s.
But at the same time, the film humanizes all of its characters. It doesn’t treat Sal or Pino like racist cartoon characters, but rather as fully-formed people. Do the Right Thing also has outstanding characters played by a long list of perennials from Lee’s films, including Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Bill Nunn, Roger Guenveur Smith and, as neighborhood DJ Mister Señor Love Daddy, Samuel L. Jackson. There’s even gangster movie perennial Frank Vincent, showing up in one scene as a type that’s become very familiar- a neighborhood guy who sees the police as his own personal goon squad. It’s all rendered in gorgeous cinematography, by Ernest Dickerson.
This film arrived like a cinematic earthquake in 1989. Many critics misunderstood it, believing it was advocating for urban violence, and even predicted that the film would incite riots (spoiler: It did not.) These mostly white critics seemed much more bothered by the burning pizzeria and the thrown trash can than by a man’s on-screen murder by police. (Roger Ebert, to his credit, got it from the very beginning.)
Do the Right Thing wasn’t nominated for Best Picture – something called out by Kim Basinger, of all people, as an Oscar presenter that year. The winner that year was Driving Miss Daisy, a film to which history has been much less kind. Lee would quip, 30 years later, that history repeated itself when his own film, BlacKKKlansman, lost Best Picture to Green Book.
Much as I love Do The Right Thing, and consider the greatest American film that’s been released in my lifetime – I turn 42 next month- I really wish real life didn’t remind us of it so often. I’m not naive enough to think it’s not going to continue to do so.