“The American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest Movies was selected by AFI’s blue-ribbon panel of more than 1,500 leaders of the American movie community to commemorate 100 Years of Movies”. Every weekend(ish) during 2015, I’ll review two(ish), counting them down from 100 to 1.
Love his movies, hate his movies, think he can be a bit hit and miss, never actually seen one… No matter what your experience with the work of Spike Lee might be, there’s no denying that he’s one of the most important film makers of the last few decades. Of the twenty odd feature films he’s made, I’ve seen around ten, and liked maybe three or four. But that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the impact and influence he’s had on the industry, and other directors and writers who’ve come up since. But even if every single other movie he made was undeniably terrible, he would still deserve a revered place in cinema history, purely for Do the Right Thing.
It’s a sweltering day in Brooklyn, and Mookie (Spike Lee) makes his way back and forth across the neighbourhood, delivering pizzas for Sal (Danny Aiello). Set over a single day, this small community slowly unravels under the oppressive heat. A small community made up of characters like Carlos Esposito’s hot headed Buggin’ Out, Bill Nunn’s Radio Raheem, Sal’s sons Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson), Ossie Davis as the local drunk ‘Mayor’, and Rosie Perez as Mookie’s girlfriend Tina.
Ad to that the all seeing radio DJ, Senor Love Daddy played by Samuel L Jackson, and probably a dozen other characters with not unsubstantial speaking parts, and somehow, it never becomes bloated or like any of the characterisations are spread too thin.
This is a Spike Lee movie, so dealing with racial issues is a given. And also since this is a Spike Lee movie, there’s no subtext or metaphorical storytelling, it’s all blatant text and literal hammer over the head stuff. But Do the Right Thing is a rare example where that’s OK. The story is about a community coming apart at the seams, ignored and repressed issues becoming too big to ignore or repress, things coming to a head that should have been addressed long ago. This is a movie dealing with something too urgent and too important to sugar coat or tread lightly. It has to make its point quickly and loudly.
Lee claims to have written the screenplay in just two weeks, and there are times when that seems clearly evident for all the wrong reasons. Some dialogue exchanges are pure exposition, or story mechanics to get characters from one place to another, just because Lee needs them to move for his story to get where it’s headed. And one sequence in which several characters spout racial epithets directly into the camera is a little too film school pretentious, trying a little too hard to push buttons. But for the most part, Lee’s signature sledgehammer approach is perfect for this movie.
Do The Right Thing is a rare combination of issue movie, that’s also hugely entertaining, while also being deeply dramatic at times, and laugh out loud funny at others. Spike Lee hasn’t had a critically admired movie since The 25th Hour in 2002. And he hasn’t had a box office hit since Inside Man in 2006. His remake of Oldboy last year seems to have sunk and disappeared almost immediately on release. It wouldn’t surprise me if he has a resurgence or two and makes a few more good to great movies. But it will surprise me if he ever makes anything as resoundingly impactful as Do the Right Thing.
Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen – Spike Lee (nominated, lost to Tom Schulman for Dead poets Society)
Best Actor in a Supporting Role – Danny Aiello (nominated, lost to Denzel Washington for Glory)