Spike Lee fights the powers that be.
DIRECTED BY SPIKE LEE
Around the midpoint of Spike Lee’s brilliant Do the Right Thing, Samuel L. Jackson’s radio announcer and all-purpose Greek chorus calls for a timeout. “Hold up!” he shouts, to us as much as to the characters, diffusing a racially charged argument that’s also a dress rehearsal for things to come, and challenging viewers to take stock of where they stand. As that dramatic flourish suggests, this isn’t a subtle movie. Structured like a modern fable with Lee as the working-class Everyman Mookie, it’s a high-minded but accessible symposium on what it means to co-inhabit a city with other people.
A delicate portrait of a community both at rest and in crisis, this is also the director’s crowning aesthetic achievement. From the cracking opening montage of Rosie Perez dancing to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” a cue that’s threaded through the film like a thesis, Lee and cinematographer Ernest R. Dickerson bathe their heatwave-stricken Brooklyn in impressionistic reds and oranges. The result is as rich a sensory experience as anything in American filmmaking.
While the whole picture is designed as a conversation starter, the ending in particular has been subject to intense debate. Lee claims that only Caucasians ask him whether Mookie did the right thing—implicitly equating the life of a black man with a white man’s property. But the film is more complicated than that response, probably triggered by scores of banal interviews. Notice the moment when the police tell the potential rioters to go home and Mookie sincerely says, “It is our home.” Sal’s Italian American pizzeria, the film’s ethnic and dramatic epicentre, is where they eat: as someone points out earlier, the clientele is mostly black customers, one of whom proudly announces that she was raised on Sal’s food.
It stands to reason, then, that there’s something more ambiguous at work here than just a celebration of righteous violence against property. Instead, there’s the sad recognition that doing the right thing, or not, in the face of systematic injustice is largely a symbolic matter either way. Mookie’s actions are an imprecise translation of a Platonic vision of justice into something messier and earthbound—the only real option he has. The space between those two poles is where Lee works best, tipping his hand to Malcolm X even as he pays tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr.