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Why Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing Still Matters – TheFantasyTimes

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By Jitin Gambhir

Why Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing Still Matters



The summer release of Spike Lee’s 1989 drama “Do the Right Thing” caused a seismic impact in the film industry. The movie revolves around Mookie Blackmon, an employee of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, as he navigates the scorching streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant Brooklyn to deliver pizzas. Along the way, Mookie interacts with the neighborhood’s vibrant characters, delving into the complex issues of race and class.

Despite being hailed as one of the greatest films of the 1980s, with renowned critic Roger Ebert considering it the best film of 1989, “Do the Right Thing” was overshadowed at the 1990 Academy Awards by the less controversial film “Driving Miss Daisy,” directed by Bruce Beresford, which took home the Best Picture honor. This decision sparked debates and controversy, as many believed that “Do the Right Thing” deserved the recognition.

The film boasts outstanding performances, including Spike Lee as Mookie, the late Danny Aiello as Sal, Giancarlo Esposito as Buggin’ Out, John Turturro as Pino, Rosie Perez in her feature-film debut as Tina, and the late Bill Nunn as the unforgettable Radio Raheem. However, due to its exploration of sensitive subjects like race and violence, “Do the Right Thing” received both high praise and severe criticism from critics.

As the 34th anniversary of “Do the Right Thing” approaches, it is worth examining why this film remains significant and its themes still resonate today. One of the prominent themes explored in the movie is the strained relationship between law enforcement and people of color, particularly African American males. The film portrays the contentious dynamic between the police and the civilians of Bed-Stuy, which escalates into a riot between Sal’s Pizzeria and the predominantly Black neighborhood. Tragically, the climax of this tension culminates in the murder of Radio Raheem at the hands of the NYPD.

The relevance of “Do the Right Thing” is further highlighted by real-life events that mirror the film’s narrative. The murder of Eric Garner by members of the NYPD in 2014, captured on video, drew chilling parallels to Radio Raheem’s death in the film. Spike Lee incorporated footage of both incidents, along with scathing commentary, emphasizing the continued existence of police brutality against African Americans. Recent events, such as the murder of George Floyd in 2020, have reignited the Black Lives Matter movement and shed light on the ongoing fight against systemic racism.

Despite the tragic circumstances that have drawn attention to “Do the Right Thing,” these incidents have also introduced newer generations to the film’s anti-racist themes. As a result, the movie continues to be screened and studied in academic settings, solidifying its status as a significant work of art. Filmmakers like M. Night Shyamalan and Barry Jenkins have been inspired by Spike Lee’s career, with “Do the Right Thing” serving as a touchstone for their own creative endeavors.

The lasting impact of “Do the Right Thing” is evident in its inclusion on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies list and its recognition by esteemed film critic Wesley Morris as his favorite film. The Criterion Collection, a renowned film preservation company, has restored and re-released the film twice, showcasing its enduring relevance. Additionally, a street in the film’s setting was renamed Do The Right Thing Way, honoring the film’s legacy and impact.

“Do the Right Thing” stands as one of the most influential films ever made, thanks to Spike Lee’s thought-provoking script, masterful direction, and the powerful use of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” By presenting controversial topics from a unique perspective and leaving the audience to ponder its ambiguous ending, the film challenges viewers to confront their biases, politics, and surroundings. While Spike Lee has continued to create exceptional works throughout his career, “Do the Right Thing” will always be regarded as his magnum opus, thanks to its profound themes, stunning cinematography, and social relevance that transcends generations.

Legendary filmmaker Spike Lee shook the world with the summer release of his 1989 drama Do the Right Thing. For those unfamiliar with the picture, Do the Right Thing follows Mookie Blackmon, an employee of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, as he spends one hot summer day delivering pizzas throughout New York City’s Bedford-Stuyvesant Brooklyn neighborhood. While making his deliveries, Mookie encounters and interacts with the neighborhood’s colorful characters in a thoughtful examination of race and class. However, despite Do the Right Thing being considered one of the greatest films of the 1980s (specifically the best film of 1989 by acclaimed film critic Roger Ebert), the Academy Awards opted to award the Bruce Beresford-directed period dramedy Driving Miss Daisya less controversial film, with the Best Picture honor at the 1990 Academy Awards.

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Among the film’s brilliant acting performances is Lee as Mookie, the late Danny Aiello as Sal, frequent collaborator Giancarlo Esposito as Buggin’ Out, John Turturro (another of Lee’s frequent collaborators) as Pino, Rosie Perez in her feature-film debut as Tina, and the late Bill Nunn as the unforgettable Radio Raheem. As is often the case when artists tackle sensitive subjects like race and violence, Do the Right Thing received high praise and severe criticism from critics for its portrayals of people of color, race relations, and a memorable ending that forces audiences to consider whether Mookie did, in fact, do the right thing.

With Do the Right Thing’s thirty-fourth anniversary occurring on the thirtieth of this month, we’ll examine why Lee’s Do the Right Thing is a significant film and why its themes and messages are still relevant thirty-four years later.



The More Things Change…

Do the Right Thing
Universal Pictures

A prominent theme in Do the Right Thing is the relationship between law enforcement and people of color — specifically African American males, and even with both sides feeling threatened by the other’s mere presence, their relationship is contentious at best. However, as the day marches on and the already hottest day in New York heats up even more, the police and civilians of Bed-Stuy become increasingly more agitated with each other. This agitation and stress eventually and unfortunately culminate in a riot between Sal’s Pizzeria and the primarily Black inhabitants of the neighborhood — and before anyone has the time to process what’s happening, Radio Raheem’s murder by members of the NYPD.

Related: The Best Spike Lee Movie of Every Decade

On July 17, 2014, life would imitate art when footage of members of the NYPD murdering Eric Garner, an unarmed Black man, via chokehold in broad daylight surfaced. The situation and its eerily similar circumstances were not lost on Lee as the filmmaker would splice footage of Raheem’s death with footage of Garner’s, along with scathing remarks against the officers involved. Despite the many claims of police brutality against African Americans being a thing of the past, we’ve all bore witness to many instances of such still occurring throughout the nation.

Most recently, the murder of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin in 2020 reignited the Black Lives Matter movement and the “I can’t breathe” rallying cry started by Garner’s murder. Despite the tragic and racist circumstances that have led to these notable references to Do the Right Thingthey have exposed newer generations to the film and its anti-racist themes and, thus, will hopefully contribute to our society doing better.

The Lasting Impact of Lee’s Do the Right Thing

Spike Lee - Do The Right Thing
Universal Pictures

Do the Right Thing is regularly screened and studied in college and university courses thirty-four years after its initial release, thus solidifying its status as a significant piece of art. Moreover, this film and the rest of Lee’s career have inspired many generations of filmmakers — notably acclaimed writer-directors M. Night Shyamalan and Barry Jenkins. AFI included Do the Right Thing in its 10th Anniversary AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Movies list at number ninety-six, and New York Times film critic Wesley Morris has cited Do the Right Thing as his favorite film.

Related: John Turturro’s Best Performances, Ranked

The respected film preservation company, The Criterion Collection, has restored and re-released the film twice — once on DVD in 2001 and again on Blu-Ray in 2019 to coincide with the film’s thirtieth anniversary. Additionally, Quincy Street and Lexington Avenue, the neighborhood where the film is set, was renamed Do The Right Thing Way in 2015 after Robert Cornegy Jr. pushed for the New York City city council to honor the film and its legacy with the initiative.

Do the Right Thing is objectively one of the most influential films ever made, and its status as such is primarily due to Lee’s thought-provoking script, masterful directing, and notable usage of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” The film offered insights on controversial topics from a rarely heard or seen perspective and concluded on a somewhat ambiguous note, leaving fans and critics still pondering its ending. Whereas a film like Miss Daisy played things safe, Do the Right Thing was provocative and insightful, challenging its audience to consider their biases, politics, and environments.

While Lee has gone on to have an exceptional career with follow-up classics like Malcolm X, Clockers, Bamboozled, 25th Hour, Inside Manand BlacKkKlansman, Do the Right Thing will likely go down in history as the auteur’s finest work chiefly because of its themes, cinematography, and social relevance across multiple generations.

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