Back in July when the Memphis Flyer was celebrating its 25th anniversary, former film editor Greg Akers asked me and Addison Engelking to make lists of our favorite movies of the past 25 years. Since I hate lists, I decided to write the story of the indie film movement. Engelking warned me that it was a fool's errand, but I did it anyway, and it turned out okay. But every day since the story ran, I have thought of another movie I should have included. My most egregious omission was Spike Lee's breakthrough, Do The Right Thing. So I resolved to use my first week as the Flyer's film editor to rectify my error. Little did I know how timely it would be.
Looking back on it after a decade and a half of digital verité, the film seems intentionally stagey and dramatic, like a hip hop West Side Story. The Hattiloo could probably do a killer live adaptation without changing the script very much. But confining it to the proscenium would rob it of Lee's visual sense, which gives the story a dreamlike quality. Lee's visual vocabulary is stylish but clear. He ranges freely from sensationalist blaxploitation camera moves to Martin Scorsese street grit to F.W. Murnau expressionism, but every move has a reason; nothing is just for show.
Do The Right Thing is about tribalism. Each of the 27 or so characters who passes through the Bedford Stuyvesant corner on the sweltering summer day is identified with his or her tribes and subtribes: black, white, Hispanic, Asian, businessman, bum, old, young. Lee juggles the ensemble with the ease of Robert Altman, coaxing good performances out of both veterans like Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, and then-newcomers Rosie Perez and Bill Nunn. Lee's Mookie is reserved and observant as the exaggerated types parade around him, but ironically it's Danny Aiello's Sal who is the best drawn character in the entire ensemble, and it earned him a Best Actor Oscar nomination.
Lee repeatedly highlights how our tribes enrich and protect us but also cause friction, distrust, and conflict. People talk past each other, such as the moment when Nunn's Radio Raheem tries to buy batteries from a Korean shop owner. Each tribe acts self destructively at some point in the story, and when the inevitable riot breaks out, it's everybody's fault and nobody's fault. Is Sal wrong to get mad when Bugging Out and Radio Raheem come into his business and blast Public Enemy? No, but he shouldn't have smashed the boom box. Is Buggin' Out's demand to get some black faces on the walls of Sal's Famous Pizza unreasonable? No, but it wasn't worth destroying the center of the neighborhood because of it.
In Lee's vision, society and race relations are the aggregated result of individual choices. We may be buffeted by the currents of tribe and class, but our moral choices are still our own. Does Mookie do the right thing by throwing the first trash can? Lee doesn't give you the luxury of an easy answer. As Lyndon Johnson said, "Doing what's right isn't the problem. It is knowing what's right."
Then there's "Fight The Power." Lee asked Public Enemy's Chuck D and Hank Shocklee to create an anthem for his film, and they turned in one of, if not the, greatest songs of the hip hop era. As the opening credits roll over Perez dancing fiercely like a boxer entering the ring, there is a sense of real danger. This was not just a perfect pairing of image and music, but pure cinema as a revolutionary act. And that's just the opening credits.
Do The Right Thing was released in June 1989, and by the time I took my first film class in the fall of 1991, it was already part of the curriculum. It was controversial at the time, with some commentators suggesting that it would cause African-American audiences to riot. Rewatching it the same week as the riots over the police killing of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, it's clear that it is not a provocation, but a comment on a stubbornly persistent reality.