It's the hottest day of the year in New York City's Bedford-Stuyvesant district, and on this block the temperature is only going to rise. The local DJ (Samuel L. Jackson) broadcasts from the station to tell the residents to wake up and face the morning, and among those tuned in is Mookie (Spike Lee) who goes to wake up his sister Jade (Joie Lee), then prepares to leave for work down the street. Work being a pizza delivery guy for Sal's pizzeria at the corner, which has been supplying pizza to the community for decades, Sal (Danny Aiello) operating the business with his sons (John Turturro and Richard Edson). But on a blazing day like today, you can guarantee there will be trouble brewing...
Do the Right Thing was not director and writer Spike Lee's first film to make an impression, as film buffs had been aware of him since his stylish low budgeter She's Gotta Have It, though his sophomore feature had been judged a letdown, School Daze. However, he was not about to allow that to set him back, he was just getting started, and he eschewed offers of others' projects to helm this, another production that spoke to him personally and went on to prove incendiary in pop culture thanks to its uncompromising nature, almost all of which was focused on that ending. Time and again those who saw it were asked to decide if anyone here had done as the title suggested.
Although Lee was nobody's idea of a great actor, casting himself in a central role in an impressive ensemble was important, because it was as good as his signature, better even than his name at the end of the stylised, musical opening credits where newcomer Rosie Perez danced to the running theme, Public Enemy's equally aggressive call to arms Fight the Power. Yet before we reached the conclusion that wasn't, there was much to drink in, the rich, evocative photography of Ernest Dickerson for one thing, which no matter where you were when you watched this landed you right on that street with its baking sidewalks and colourful locals at the height of a New York summer.
This was vital, as it helped us understand the populace and see they were more complex than simple caricatures, not that the film's critics could see past the racial element and accused Lee of being racist towards non-African Americans, a clueless instance of missing the point completely. The film could have turned the tables on White America by victimising them in a way their citizens felt they had been victimised, but Do the Right Thing was reluctant to take any kind of easy route, and that was what made it stick in the mind. After a serio-comic three quarters where we were invited to laugh with, sympathise with, and indeed be offended by this panoply of locals, from the sozzled but well-meaning Ossie Davis and the proud but aloof Ruby Dee to the ghetto blaster-blaring Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) and the angry at everything Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito).
In a neat item of irony, Esposito is half-Italian American, so when his character takes Sal to task about there being all photographs of Italians and Italian-Americans on his restaurant wall, we could perceive there was a lot more going on than a petty argument between someone with a chip on his shoulder and someone with an ingrained rejection of the community he works in. Had Lee ended this with tensions building only to reach the tipping point - but then have everyone say, "Ah, look at ourselves, we're overreacting. There are more important things in the world!" then there's no way people would still be talking about this decades later. As it was, events just get worse, culminating in an argument that turns violent and sees one character needlessly killed - and it's not Sal. There was a lot to take in here, and following scenes that were frequently amusing, they threw the racism that everyone, black, white, Asian, had intermittently expressed into sharp relief. Yes, it was disturbing in its lack of a pat denouement, but that was its strength, it was not going to congratulate you for doing the right thing, thinking the right thing, it was clear there was far more to society's problems than that. Music by Bill Lee.
[The Criterion Collection double disc Blu-ray has the following features:
New 4K digital restoration, approved by cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack
Introductions by Lee
Making "Do the Right Thing," a documentary from 1988 by St. Clair Bourne
New interviews with costume designer Ruth E. Carter, camera assistant Darnell Martin, New York City Council Member Robert Cornegy Jr., and writer Nelson George
Interview with editor Barry Alexander Brown from 2000
Programs from 2000 and 2009 featuring Lee and members of the cast and crew
Twenty Years Later, an interview programme from 2009 featuring Lee and members of the cast and crew
Music video for Public Enemy's "Fight the Power," directed by Lee, with remarks from rapper Chuck D
Cannes Film Festival press conference from 1989
Deleted and extended scenes
Original storyboards, trailer, and TV spots
PLUS: An essay by critic Vinson Cunningham, and extensive excerpts from the journal Lee kept during the preparation for and production of the film.]
Talented, prolific American director who has courted more controversy than most with his out-spoken views and influenced an entire generation of black film-makers. Lee made his impressive debut with the acerbic sex comedy She's Gotta Have It in 1986, while many consider his study of New York race relations Do the Right Thing to be one of the best films of the 80s.
Lee's films tend to mix edgy comedy and biting social drama, and range from the superb (Malcolm X, Clockers, Summer of Sam) to the less impressive (Mo Better Blues, Girl 6), but are always blessed with passion and intelligence. Lee has acted in many of his films and has also directed a wide range of music videos, commercials and documentaries. Inside Man saw a largely successful try at the thriller genre, Oldboy was a misguided remake, but he welcomed some of his best reactions of his career to true crime story BlacKkKlansman.