Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) on one level attributes the infamous confrontation at its climax to the heat that’s settled over Bedford-Stuyvesant and shortened tempers but there is so much more going on in this film. Written by and starring Lee, the picture follows a dozen or so residents (played by Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Giancarlo Esposito, Martin Lawrence, among others) of one of Bed-Stuy’s city blocks as they swelter one long summer day. They bounce between the stoops of their apartment buildings, the Korean-owned grocery and the Italian pizzeria for whom Lee’s character Mookie makes deliveries at the end of the block. Interactions between the black residents and the pizzeria owner (Danny Aiello) and his sons (John Turturro and Richard Edson) are often flinty and foreshadow the film’s fiery ending.
The picture is beautifully shot by Ernest Dickerson; it’s imaginative and exuberant, though narratively uneven — and maybe a smidge too street in the scenes between Mookie and his baby mama Tina (Rosie Perez’s debut role). Lee is an infinitely better director than he is screenwriter, although his writing has a laudable earnestness about it. And he is willing to take chances with flow and composition that match the syncopation of the film’s score, composed by Lee’s father, Bill Lee. Though one of Lee’s earlier features, Do the Right Thing shows Lee’s now familiar affinity for capturing engaging exchanges between his characters — he truly loves filming people talking. He’s a patient and generous director and storyteller in that regard. What his characters say when they’re together is, at least for me, what makes Lee’s work so valuable and, well, dear. His is a singular and important voice, deeply entrenched in African-American culture and sensibility.
Do the Right Thing is dedicated to the memory of men and women who died suspiciously during encounters with the police, among them Eleanor Bumpurs, a mentally ill woman who shot while being evicted from her apartment, and Michael Stewart, a graffiti artist who died of cardiac arrest while in custody. Recently, the film has been mentioned in commentary about the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner on Staten Island. Watching it today, the choking death of Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) during the film’s riot scene is eerily prescient, newly shocking and sad.