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Cinematic Essentials: Movie Review – Do the Right Thing (1989)

by Dave Umbricht

Do The Right Thing (1989) - Ossie Davis and Spike LeeIn 1989, the media billed Do the Right Thing as a dangerous movie, suggesting lives were at risk if viewed in a theater.  The panic was overblown, but the movie remains incendiary.  From the opening moment when Rosie Perez explodes onto the screen, shadow boxing to the pulsing beats of Public Enemy, few films energize the audience and take them through an experience that captures the highs and lows of being human.

Spike Lee had garnered the attention of critics a few years earlier with his films She’s Gotta Have It, a slight romantic comedy/drama and School Daze, a depiction of life at a small black college.  Most Americans never saw those movies, but they knew Spike from the Nike commercials that paired his She’s Gotta Have It character, Mars Blackmon, with Michael Jordan.  This popular culture notoriety marked Spike as an important auteur before he crafted a film to match that acclaim.  Then he made Do the Right Thing.

The movie spans a hot summer day.  Too hot.  All the residents of Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood want to do is make it through the day and stay cool.  The film follows Spike Lee’s Mookie as he delivers pizzas through the neighborhood.  But Mookie is not the real main character, the neighborhood is.  Every resident receives attention, from

Do The Right Thing (1989) - Bill Nunn as Radio Raheem

Bill Nunn as Radio Raheem

Mother Sister, the old matron who sits on her stoop supervising everyone’s actions to Da’ Mayor, the old wino who needs his Miller High Life to escape a life of disappointment and unfortunate decisions.  Each character builds the mosaic of life on the block, highlighting the tenuous racial acceptance of each other, and the small interconnected acts that can undermine it.

Spike Lee started with the very weighty subject of race relations and then used every tool in his director’s kit to create a stylistically memorable movie.  The brightly colored set designs, the way the sun seems to reflect off of the character’s sweaty skin, and the skewed framing of some shots give an otherworldly feeling.  Everything about the style pulses with life, especially the music.  One of the themes in the movie contrasts the teachings of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.  While there are overt references to the two, the score is an auditory reminder, alternating between a soothing jazz score (the loving response of MLK) and the powerful, attacking rhythms of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” (the action oriented response of Malcolm X).

Do The Right Thing - Aiello and Turturro at Sal's Pizzeria

Aiello and Turturro at Sal's Pizzeria

Revisiting the movie twenty plus years later, I was surprised how my perception of it was so different from reality. I remembered the danger, thinking the movie gave me a glimpse of a world I would never visit lest I risked my life. However, the neighborhood depicted is populated by everyday working citizens. There are no drug dealers and no thugs. The only gang on hand dons pastel colors and includes Martin Lawrence as a member, hardly frightening. The real menace to the neighborhood is the mistrust and fear of one another. And we watch as the reactions to this universal human trait slowly builds to a troubling climax. There is a great deal of debate about the ending section. It is not perfect, but neither is life, which makes this film even more life affirming.

Spike Lee is a polarizing filmmaker.  Unlike some, he does not have blind allegiance from film fans.  His movies are judged on their individual merit.  Some of his later work has been very good, such as 25th Hour, and some has been excruciatingly preachy, like He’s Got Game.  In the ’80s, Spike was a lot like the guy with whom he shared the Nike commercial, both had a ton of potential.  Spike reached his pinnacle in 1989, a few years earlier than Jordan.  He may have never reached the same heights as he did with Do the Right Thing, but that does not matter, it is one of the most kinetic movies out there, and it never fails to energize.

Clip from Do The Right Thing (1989)

Dave Umbricht loves his family, movies and the NBA (in that order). His unexplainable, genetic attraction to movies flourished in the early ’80s thanks to Siskel and Ebert. It’s also believed Dave was the only 8-year-old to know of My Dinner with Andre, even though he didn’t see it until he was 28. In the ’90s he wrote three awful screenplays, including next summer’s Cowboys and Aliens (or at least a script with the same title). He still can’t dunk a basketball.

Check out his blog here.

Or follow him on Twitter here (@dumbricht).


15 comments for “Cinematic Essentials: Movie Review – Do the Right Thing (1989)

  1. February 10, 2011 at 11:32 am

    A very good remembrance of the movie! Some brave words of the apprehension the author felt when originally engaging the movie back in 1989, and how he was changed by the experience of spending time with these characters. Despite the conflict in the film, I, too, feel it is “life affirming.” Bravo!

    • February 10, 2011 at 8:58 pm

      Hi Nathan! Thanks for pointing that out. I agree that Dave really captured what makes Do The Right Thing an essential film-viewing experience. Thanks for commenting!

  2. Allison
    February 10, 2011 at 7:10 pm

    Wow- what a fabulously well written review. I know what movie I’m watching Friday night!. Thanks for sharing.

    • February 10, 2011 at 8:56 pm

      Hi Allison! Thanks for commenting and I agree, Dave did a fantastic job, didn’t he? 🙂

  3. John
    February 11, 2011 at 11:10 am

    This is a really interesting review. It’s good to read that the movie is still watchable 20+years later. I’d like to re-watch myself, given how much has happened in race relations since then. I’m sure there are some aspects that are a bit dated, but it seems the story/themes still hold up.

    • February 11, 2011 at 9:36 pm

      Hi John, thanks for commenting! Yeah, I guess great storytelling spans the decades. Sure, the clothes, hairstyles, and lingo may be dated, but if a film is well crafted and its story well told, I suppose it doesn’t matter when it came out. But to your point, it’s always nice to know that all these years later, a film we connected with in our youth still holds up. Thanks again for stopping by! 🙂

  4. February 11, 2011 at 12:44 pm

    Thanks for the comments everyone. I look forward to writing more. There are so many great movies that need to be remembered. I always welcome suggestions for movies to revisit. Joel has created a nice forum here and I thank him for welcoming me.

    • February 11, 2011 at 9:28 pm

      Thanks Dave! I hope the conversation with movie fans just keeps growing, and growing… 🙂

  5. Greg
    February 11, 2011 at 12:54 pm

    Great review! It really brought back visceral memories of a forgotten classic. Spike Lee did a phenomenal job as a director capturing the feel of a scorching hot day in Brooklyn in 80’s. But you nearly matched him with just a few hundred words. Awesome job and I look forward to your review of “The Last Starfighter”!

    • February 11, 2011 at 9:28 pm

      Hi Greg! Thanks for the comments and I agree that Dave really captured the feel of Lee’s “joint” in his review. And if he’s doing a LAST STARFIGHTER review, I can’t wait to read it too! 🙂

  6. Moses
    February 14, 2011 at 6:12 pm

    Quite the captivating review of an iconic but underappreciated film. You hit on everything good about the film, Spike Lee and your/our own misperceptions from 20 years ago. Keep the reviews coming!

  7. RChapman
    February 15, 2011 at 2:49 pm

    Wow. Blast from the past. Insightful review…thanks for prompting me to add it to my NFLX queue…..along with Mo Beter Blues.

    • February 15, 2011 at 9:34 pm

      Hi RChapman! Thanks for commenting and I’m glad you found Dave’s review helpful.

  8. September 14, 2011 at 6:51 pm

    Hi Martin, Dave did an excellent job with his review, didn’t he? I’m glad you found it useful.

    On Wednesday, September 14, 2011, Disqus <

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