Do the Right Thing review – Spike Lee's towering, timeless tour de force

Racial tensions hit boiling point on the Brooklyn streets in a masterwork whose relevance remains starker than ever

Five years ago, for the film’s 25th anniversary, Spike Lee threw a big party with a special video message from Barack and Michelle Obama, who had gone to see Do the Right Thing on their first date. Now it is getting a UK re-release in honour of its 30th – and the context is very different. The implied happy ending of the Obama era has been unceremoniously amputated and we are back with the moods of anger and uncertainty that drove the film in the first place. When careworn pizzeria proprietor Sal (Danny Aiello) says he is thinking of quitting and turning his place into a condominium called Trump’s Pizza or Trump’s Plaza, the dialogue lands with a slap. (Although it is easy for Brit critics to get overexcited about eerily prophetic references to Donald Trump in movies from the 80s and 90s, not quite appreciating how ubiquitous he has been in American popular culture for the last 30 years.)

Do the Right Thing has plenty more material that is absolutely relevant right now. “If this hot weather continues, it’s going to melt the polar ice caps and the whole wide world,” says one of the three idle guys hanging out opposite Sal’s. In 1989, the line was a metaphor for disaster in the social climate. And of course the ending, with a black man killed in a police chokehold, could have been filmed at any time since 1989.

It’s an unbearably hot day in New York, the background music being provided by DJ Mister Señor Love Daddy, played by the young Samuel L Jackson. Lee himself plays Mookie, a pizza delivery guy for Sal’s Famous Pizzeria in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, which Lee shows in the first stages of white gentrification. His girlfriend Tina (Rosie Perez) rules the movie by virtue of her explosive dance sequence over the opening credits, to Public Enemy’s Fight the Power. Sal is the middle-aged restaurant owner, who employs his two shiftless sons and is at once wary of his predominantly black clientele and sentimental about having “fed” them all since their childhood. He is also gallantly and tragically in love with Mookie’s sister Jade (Joie Lee), to the intense embarrassment and chagrin of everyone else.

Mookie is reasonably friendly with Sal’s younger son Vito (Richard Edson) but in a permanently hostile state with the elder son Pino (a lean, livewire John Turturro), who is angry, depressed and very racist. As the temperature climbs, so do the racial tensions, and things reach boiling point when Mookie’s friend Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) looks at Sal’s black-and-white photographs of Frank Sinatra, Joe DiMaggio, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro and demands to know why there aren’t any “brothers on the wall”.

Do the Right Thing.
A scene from Do the Right Thing. Photograph: Alamy

That argument is Lee’s masterstroke: it’s a culture war, a war about representation that could have come straight from a social media exchange in 2019. Buggin’ Out suggests, to Sal’s astonishment, that because African-Americans form virtually all his customer base, they have a democratic right to at least one black American on his wall. Sal is not ready for a new political world, whose dawn Lee sketches out here, in which it is not enough simply to refrain from making overtly racist gestures: omission or erasure is equally insulting.

White people are at war with black people, who are in turn at war with Latinos, but Lee extends to each faction a vibrant pop-culture identity. Where he is less complimentary is to the Koreans who run the convenience store across from Sal’s. They are still an exoticised mystery, and in the riot scene it isn’t immediately clear if they will be protected from looting by virtue of ethnic underdog status or be considered de facto whites. (There hasn’t been much from Hollywood or indie cinema about the Korean experience in New York or Los Angeles – although Justin Chon’s 2017 film Gook is worth a look.)

The film closes with contrasting statements from Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, one saying that violence is never justified and the other that it is in self-defence. Malcolm X effectively gets the last word. But just as affecting is the desolate peace process between Sal and Mookie as they debate how much back-pay Mookie is owed.

Contributor

Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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