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Happy 25th, to Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing”!

It’s difficult to fathom that it’s been a quarter of a century since the premiere of what is still the best example from Spike Lee’s vast resume. It’s a polarizing firebrand, that opens with an awesome hip-hop dance to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”, and closes with contrasting quotes emblazoned over a photo of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. shaking hands. It’s one of the most important films of the 1980’s, and its amongst my personal favorites of all time. Danny Aiello received a Best Supporting Actor nomination for playing pizzeria owner, Sal—but Ossie Davis deserved it more as Da Mayor. It should’ve been up for a Best Picture nomination, and Kim Basinger was brave enough to tell the massive Academy Awards audience just that, during the 1990 Oscar telecast. Doesn’t the fact that “Driving Miss Daisy” was the eventual winner that year, sting quite a bit now? Try watching them back-to-back, to see what I’m talking about. It did garner Mr. Lee a Best Original Screenplay nomination, which he lost to the resoundingly white-bread “Dead Poets Society”. “DPS” is one of the few works of Peter Weir that I’ve ever panned. Freaking “Green Card” is better. Just weeks ago, we lost the amazing Ruby Dee, who turns in fine support in “Do the Right Thing” as Mother Sister. In fact, Ms. Dee’s best scenes in the movie are the verbal jousts she partakes in, with real-life husband, Ossie Davis. It is such an important piece of 20th century cinema, but it always distresses me how relatively few have actually seen it. Even less seem to understand it. Mostly white folks, I find, with quite a few labeling it “dangerous”. Ignorant, much?

Does Mookie(Mr. Lee)”do the right thing” when he launches that garbage can through Sal’s Pizzeria window near the film’s finale. I’m consistently astonished by the remarks I read regarding this pivotal scene. There was no riot in the theater when I finished experiencing this legendary movie, soon after it arrived in theaters in the summer of 1989, which is something that was expected by many in the media at the time. It was the final year of the Koch administration in New York City, and race relations were in a poor state based on some of the mayor’s actions and quotes during the period. By the autumn of that year, Koch would be usurped by David Dinkins in the Democratic primary, who ultimately moved on to become the city’s only African-American leader ever, just weeks later. It was a volatile and necessary time of change. “Do the Right Thing” screamed for us to “WAKE UP!” at the time. That alarm clock is still ringing.

So many superlatives, and such a multitude of highlights. The film debut of Rosie Perez, who immediately wows us with that opening dance. The rebellious fervor of Giancarlo Esposito’s Buggin’ Out. The boombox toting strut of Bill Nunn’s Radio Raheem. The racist rants of John Turturro’s Pino, and the tortured confusion of brother Vito, as portrayed by Richard Edson. Comedian Martin Lawrence appeared on the screen for the 1st time here, too. And Samuel L. Jackson roused us all as DJ Mister Senor Love Daddy. The hilarious Robin Harris as Sweet Dick Willie, the “leader” of a slacker trio. And Spike’s own sister, Joie Lee, as Jade, who receives a sweet, yet increasingly uncomfortable, amount of attention from Sal. The screenplay for “Do the Right Thing” contains the actual names of the famous, the infamous and the doomed. Mike Tyson. Tawana Brawley. Eleanor Bumpers. Michael Stewart. Look those last two up to understand the racial climate of 1989. More importantly, see “Do the Right Thing”. It was apparently the cinematic choice for the first official “date” between Barack Obama and future wife, Michelle. They picked a great one, and they contacted Spike Lee this past weekend to congratulate him on “Do the Right Thing”‘s 25th birthday. It opened on June 30th, 1989. Haven’t watched it? Catch up now. It’s freaking brilliant.

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4 comments on “Happy 25th, to Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing”!

  1. I totally agree with you. Great review! This film has never had the recognition it should have had. I watch it often and get something different and inspiring from every viewing.

    • So pleased that you appreciate it! Spike has so far never topped it, although he did turn in fantastic work with 1992’s “Malcolm X”, 1997’s “4 Little Girls” and 2002’s “25th Hour”. That’s my quartet of Spike Lee favorites, but there’s also value to be found in 1986’s “She’s Gotta Have It”, 1991’s “Jungle Fever”, 1999’s “Summer of Sam” and 2006’s “Inside Man”, among others. His entire career deserves more recognition! ML

  2. What a classic. Still compels each and every time I watch it. Good post, Mark!

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