DO THE RIGHT THING (1989)


From Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Written & Directed by Spike Lee, starring Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Richard Edson, Giancarlo Esposito, Samuel L. Jackson, Joie Lee, Spike Lee, Bill Nunn, Rosie Perez, and John Turturro.

24 hours on one block in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, NY.
On the hottest day of the summer, racial tensions simmer between residents of a predominately African American and Puerto Rican neighborhood, and the Italian American owners of a pizza parlor. And then they explode.

Spike Lee had touched on racism earlier in SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT and SCHOOL DAZE, but following what became know as The Howard Beach Incident, he decided the gloves needed to come off. This is the script than earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, and the film that earned him a Palm D’or nomination at Cannes. It also earned him the fear of critics like newspaper columnist Joe Klein, who wrote “Spike Lee’s reckless new movie DO THE RIGHT THING … opens June 30 (in not too many theaters near you, one hopes).” The controversy surrounding DO THE RIGHT THING in the summer of 1989 cemented Spike’s reputation as a voice who demands to be heard.

It’ll finish Friday.
Love, Jim

P.S. Come early, or you’ll miss Rosie fightin’ the power with Public Enemy!

AFTER THOUGHT from 11.20.2011
I don’t know if Spike Lee still does this, but in the early days of his feature directing career, he used to do college tours with his films in the weeks before they opened. My brother Ed & I used our Emerson College IDs to see him present DO THE RIGHT THING at a theater in M.I.T. This was just a few months after MISSISSIPPI BURNING, a fictionalized story lacking any significant African American characters despite its civil rights themes, received 7 Oscar nominations. Ed and I arrived fairly early; we were among the first 100 people into the theater, in what turned out to be a packed house with many people turned away. Waiting for the movie to start, I spotted a young man with a t-shirt featuring a parody of the MISSISSIPPI BURNING logo: “Brooklyn Burning.” I approached this guy to ask him where he got this shirt, and I realized it was Spike Lee! I immediately forgot the shirt and became tongue-tied. I managed to introduce myself and thank him for this screening; he shook my hand and thanked me for coming out to see the movie. During his introduction to the film, Spike acknowledged early critics who predicted DO THE RIGHT THING would incite racial violence, balancing their concerns with his personal mandate that “the gloves come off” following the aforementioned Howard Beach incident. In aspiring to directly address an elephant in the room that had been ignored for years by mainstream films, he calmly and humbly set the bar very high for himself and an ensuing generation of film makers.

I rolled DO THE RIGHT THING nearly two decades later in our agency conference room. It was generally well received, but to my younger coworkers who were raised on the generation of filmmakers who followed in Spike’s footsteps, they found the story overly episodic without enough of a narrative through-line. While that is a fairly accurate point, I submit that it is irrelevant, as DO THE RIGHT THING is not a standard three act structure with a protagonist and an antagonist. Oh, it’s very well disguised as one, enough so to make it marketable. If you want to pick a “good guy” and a “bad guy” out of this bunch, Spike’s pizza deliverer Mookie is a funny and likable enough hero, and Danny Aiello’s pizzeria owner Sal is frequently bombastic enough to be a villain. You can even find a story arc over the course of the single day storyline in that Mookie begins the film as an apathetic quasi-irresponsible kid, and through a sequence of events beyond his control, emerges as a man who makes a stand and takes control with an irreversible decision that affects his entire neighborhood.

Yes, you can say that DO THE RIGHT THING is about Mookie and Sal, and the general racial tension that I used to pitch this film to my coworkers. On further analysis though, I don’t think this is that kind of movie, and I submit that the title alone tells you what type of movie this is. Let’s look at two other titles: TOMBSTONE (1993) and WYATT EARP (1994). I like both, I am in the minority that prefers WYATT EARP, but I think it is notable that their titles alone tell us that these are very different movies. TOMBSTONE is about one event, the infamous Gunfight at the OK Corral, and its effect on the lives of many people. It begins shortly before October 26, 1881 and ends shortly after, padding its running time with some fun western cliches, plus a level of historical inaccuracy required to make These Guys heroes and Those Guys villains. WYATT EARP is about many events in the life of one man, who lived from 1848 to 1929. Since it follows this one man’s life, WYATT EARP is able to give us a more nuanced portrait of Wyatt Earp than TOMBSTONE, examining positive and negative aspects of Earp’s life and personality. DO THE RIGHT THING does not belong to any one character, but there is also more at work than a single event in the lives of many people.

A title like DO THE RIGHT THING has less similarity to TOMBSTONE or WYATT EARP, and more to do with an intangible like THE RIGHT STUFF (1983). It’s probably no coincidence that when I screened THE RIGHT STUFF, some viewers preferred APOLLO 13, again because of its strong central characters an singular story arc. THE RIGHT STUFF and DO THE RIGHT THING are titles that tell you that this is a movie about a specific idea or value. As a pilot you either have THE RIGHT STUFF or you don’t, and only fellow pilots can really discern who possesses that quality. On a sweltering day in Bed-Stuy, with a continuing heatwave expected the following day, you can either DO THE RIGHT THING or not. Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) pointedly admonishes Mookie to “always to the right thing. That’s it.” He does not tell Mookie what the right thing is, or how to do it, only when to do it (always). This is a film about each character’s decision to do right or not, and what happens when one person’s decision collides with that of another. ***SPOLIER ALERT — skip to the next paragraph if you have not seen the film*** – Spike Lee has observed that more have criticized Mookie’s decision to through a garbage can through the window of Sal’s Pizzeria than have objected to the N.Y.P.D. character’s decision to use a lethal (and now illegal) choke hold on Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn).***

To some of my former coworkers, and maybe to some who read this, DO THE RIGHT THING plays as a little outdated. If this is so, it is because we do not make as many films these days about intangibles like the Right Stuff, the Right Thing to do, or faith and doubt. [Spike Lee addressed faith and doubt in THE MIRACLE AT ST. ANA in a manner rarely seen since THE MISSION (1986) and other films written by Robert Bolt.] Because DO THE RIGHT THING wrangles that quality of a single person with the inequality of races in a neighborhood and a nation, the story is able to show examples of each across its spectrum of characters. Sal is not a villain through and through; early in the film he treats Mookie with the same stern affection as he does his own two sons, and embraces his position in this neighborhood, even over the objections of one of those sons. Mookie is not a hero through and through, but don’t take my word for it, ask his girlfriend Tina (Rosie Perez). Da Mayor tries to live by his own advice, and be a good guy, but he is mostly seen as a bum by those around him. Good intentions go wrong. Decisions are often hard to make, and often have unintended consequences. Inaction comes with its own consequences. As long as these things are true, DO THE RIGHT THING will be one for the ages.

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