Sun. Jul 21st, 2019

Retro Review: Spike Lee’s ‘Do the Right Thing’ at 30

Bill Nunn as Radio Raheem in Do the Right Thing (1989)

I have been given only a few filmgoing experiences in my life to equal the first time I saw “Do the Right Thing.” Most movies remain up there on the screen. Only a few penetrate your soul. In May of 1989 I walked out of the screening at the Cannes Film Festival with tears in my eyes.

Roger Ebert

A towering presence as Radio Raheem in Spike Lee’s 1989 masterpiece, Do the Right Thing, Bill Nunn passed away in 2016. Almost exactly a year later, James Alex Fields, Jr., struck and killed Heather Heyer.  Fields, a white supremacist, attended the Unite The Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Somewhere in between these two events, I found myself asking the same questions Spike asked us all in 1989.

Set in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn—”Bed-Stuy” to the locals—a pizza delivery boy, Mookie (Lee), finds himself at the center of an escalating dispute between his employer, Sal (Danny Aiello), and his friend, Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito).  Infuriated by the dearth of African-American heroes on the wall of a local establishment in (what was) a predominately black neighborhood, Buggin’ Out stages a one-man protest.

His portable stereo (in those days, pejoratively called a “ghetto blaster”) powered by 20 D-cell batteries, Radio joins the protest when Sal smashes said box to pieces.  The police arrive and, amidst the looting and rioting, single out and choke the life from Radio.

At the center of institutional racism lies the respectability politics that escalates conflicts between NYPD and the residents of Bed-Stuy.  Most of their apartments without air conditioning, the kids take to the street side fire hydrant to cool off—angering one driver in particular.  These and other minor altercations with white and Korean property owners, and even between African-American youth and their community elders, froths up, exploding at the film’s tragic climax.

A masterclass in Black drama and history, Do the Right Thing features legends Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee as the inebriated Da Mayor and cantankerous Mother Sister, watching over the neighborhood from her stoop.  Married for fifty-seven years, both veterans of Harlem Theatre, recipients of the NAACP Image Award, the National Medal of Arts and the Kennedy Center Honors, their presence graced more than fifty stage plays and films from Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s No Way Out to X in Spike’s eponymous biography of the slain civil rights leader, whose actual eulogy Davis delivered.

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For its thirtieth anniversary, Do the Right Thing is currently open in a limited engagement from Universal Pictures and the Criterion Collection at select AMC, Regal Cinemas, Cinemark, and Alamo Drafthouse theaters across the United States.  Criterion releases a 4K remaster on Blu-Ray on July 23.

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