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‘Do the Right Thing’ Revisited

Spike Lee’s classic 20 years later

Oct. 21, 2009
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During my days with the New York Daily News (1987-91), I wrote a number of Op-Ed pieces about the infamous Tawana Brawley rape case. Along with Al Sharpton, I believed her then, and I believe her now.

In 1989, when director Spike Lee’s explosive Do the Right Thing came out, my wife and I hurried to see it, unaware that a key scene involved Brawley. It took place when pizza parlor deliveryman Mookie (Spike Lee) and Jade (the director’s real-life sister Joie) talked in front of a brick wall containing some graffiti. As the camera retreated, the scrawl became clear. It read: “Tawana Told the Truth.”

Among Lee’s 20-plus feature films, Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X (1992) are alone in being nominated for Academy Awards. The former was nominated for Best Screenplay (Lee) and Best Supporting Actor (Danny Aiello), and the latter for Best Actor (Denzel Washington).

There’s little doubt this is because most critics feel Lee’s stuff is too honest and too controversial. His films bring genuine black culture front-and-center and effectively pull the covers off many layers of white racism, which is the main reason I admire his work.

In honor of this year’s 20th anniversary of Do the RightThing, Universal Studios has released a two-disc, special-edition DVD with extras and new commentary by Lee. Meanwhile, the American Film Institute ranked the film No. 96 among the 100 greatest American movies of all time—and it should have been even higher.

So just what makes this movie so special? Perhaps the best thing is how black people around New York in the late 1980s identified with its racial tensions, exemplified by the infamous death of Michael Griffith, who was hit by a car after being chased onto the Belt Parkway by a young white mob in the Howard Beach section of Queens in 1986.

The searing Do the Right Thing—whose opening theme song is Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”—takes place on a scorching hot Saturday in a single block of a mainly black neighborhood in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant. An eclectic array of black people interact with a few whites, including police, and Korean owners of a mini-market. But the focal point is white-owned Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, where most patrons are black.

Friction between Sal (Aiello), his sons Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson) and black customers explodes into violence as night falls after Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) organizes a boycott when Sal again refuses to include black stars in the photo “Wall of Fame” depicting famous Italian-American entertainers such as Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Al Pacino, Sophia Loren and Sylvester Stallone.

In its wake, Sal tells Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) to turn off his gigantic boombox in the store. When Raheem refuses, Sal calls him a racial slur and smashes his radio with a baseball bat. Raheem drags Sal over the counter and beats him as they surge out the door.

A crowd gathers as three white cops arrive; Raheem resists when the police try to subdue him. One cop gets him in a chokehold with a nightstick and Raheem is killed, sparking a riot. An enraged Mookie throws a garbage can through the pizza parlor’s window and people rush inside and trash the place, igniting a fire. Firemen arrive and the cops turn hoses on the black rioters as the pizza parlor burns down.

As the cops handcuff Buggin’ Out and poke him with nightsticks in a police car, the crowd turns on the Korean market across the street. But after a loud exchange—during which the owner desperately pleas that he, too, is black—they leave his store alone.

Vital to Do the Right Thing is its brilliant cast, including the late Ossie Davis as “Da Mayor”; Ruby Dee, Davis’ real-life wife, as Mother Sister; Rosie Perez, in her debut, as Tina; Samuel L. Jackson as DJ Love Daddy; Roger Guenveur Smith as Smiley; Martin Lawrence as Cee; John Savage as the white owner of a brownstone; and Paul Benjamin, Robin Harris and Frankie Faison as older men discussing the passing parade.

On the DVD’s commentary track, the always outspoken Lee notes that “the white audience, they are more concerned about the destruction of property, the destruction of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, than they were about the death of Radio Raheem.”

At the end, Lee displays powerful quotes by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Minister Malcolm X, followed by the names of a half-dozen black New Yorkers killed by white cops in highly publicized incidents in the ’80s. As the credits roll, my Milwaukee boyhood pal, Al Jarreau, soulfully sings “Never Explain Love.”

Despite some criticism for depicting a neighborhood as drug-free that actually was ravaged by crack cocaine, Do the Right Thing is remarkable. Black New Yorkers seeing it now will remember the time, as will some whites—but for different reasons.

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