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Lee, Danny Aiello, John Turturro, Ruby Dee, Ossie DavisStudio
Universal, 120 mins. Spike Lee's searing masterpiece turns 20In
Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, a camera glides over a street with a
sprawling population of blacks, Italians and Koreans, who together
endure a mercilessly hot summer afternoon.
Fragile harmony is in the
air, but racial unease is never too far off—within the first several
minutes, one character has evoked Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X,
figures whose influence looms over the entire movie.
But it’s still a shock when, just under halfway through the film, several characters break from the narrative, stare into the camera and launch into racial tirades stunning in their reach and anger. We zoom in as a black delivery man in an Italian pizzeria decries his “pizza-slinging, spaghetti-bending, Vic Damone, Perry Como, Luciano Pavarotti” employers. “Gold-teeth, gold-chain-wearing, fried-chicken-and-biscuit-eatin’, monkey, ape, baboon,” an Italian hurls back. Before long the camera cuts to a Puerto Rican who attacks Koreans, then to a Korean who attacks Jews. The cycle could clearly go on.
Viewed today in this commemorative 20th-anniversary edition, the sequence has lost none of its raw power, even six months after the United States inaugurated its first black president. (“That’s not to say all racism is gone just because Barack is in the White House,” Lee intones in retrospective comments on the disc.) It would be a mistake to canonize Do the Right Thing, Lee’s third feature film, solely as a jolt of racial provocation; it’s easy to forget how funny and sexy the movie really is. The early scenes are loose and playful, more interested in individual characters than any political end. But in the two decades since the film opened in June 1989, the discourse on race in American life has been fundamentally reshaped, and that now adds a stark new dimension to the movie.
The film’s many faces are introduced leisurely: There’s Mookie (played by Lee), a pizza-delivery man who’s the most complex and debated character in the movie. There’s a pizzeria owner (Danny Aiello) and his second-generation sons (John Turturro, Richard Edson). Other neighborhood regulars pop in and out, among them Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito), who notices that the pizzeria has pictures of Italian heroes but no black ones—the beginning of an overblown argument that eventually escalates into the film’s famous violent climax.
For better or worse, that climax remains the most-discussed section of the movie. An outcry followed when the film made its way back from the Cannes Film Festival in May 1989 and onto American screens, with the belief that such an awesome act of violence would inspire city-dwelling audiences to take similar action. It didn’t, and the fear of many of those early critics has been called racist in the years since.
What remains certain is that Do the Right Thing’s epic conclusion is one of the great finales in modern film, an indelible sequence in which the sweltering images brilliantly sculpted by Lee and cinematographer Ernest Dickerson (who also shot Malcolm X, Jungle Fever and others) finally take on an awful life of their own. It’s impossible to tell who’s to blame, and the title’s vague moral imperative becomes a muddled anthem for racial conflict in general.
Although the 2001 Criterion Collection release of the film will likely remain the definitive DVD edition, this new version has its unique pleasures. Among them is a new documentary in which Lee interviews several of the movie’s original players. Their memories conflict, often hilariously. In particular, Turturro, who plays the movie’s most fearsome racist, recalls that he told Lee he wanted to get on the cover of Ebony to help with the fallout. He never managed that, but he did go on to become one of Lee’s most prized collaborators.
Even beyond the new material, the 20th-anniversary edition makes it easy to remember why Do the Right Thing shattered Hollywood protocol for movies about race and American life. As far we have come since 1989, the movie remains immune to age because of how fearlessly it confronts its subject.
Watch the Do the Right Thing trailer: