It’s 1989 and it is hot. Spike Lee’s third feature film is a terracotta-hued, slice of life character piece, set on the hottest day of the year—and the heat is getting to just about everyone. With a score that tips its hat to Porgy and Bess, and a camera that wanders languidly up and down a Bed-Stuy Brooklyn block, Do the Right Thing chronicles a day in the life of a cast of characters that reaches Altman levels of eccentricity. From brownstone stoops to the pizza parlour, bodegas and the streets themselves, a story evolves out of questions of race, rights, and expression. What does it take for a man to take a stand? How does a misunderstanding at a neighbourhood pizzeria end in a riot?
Exasperated with typical Hollywood depictions of race relations, Lee sought to fill the void with a more honest rendering. Inspired by the tragic events of the Howard Beach Incident in 1986 and the rise of Afrocentric activism in hip-hop, Lee hit the zeitgeist with his brash sense of humour, interspersing violence with empathy.
From the moment Rosie Perez dances her heart out to “Fight The Power” by Public Enemy (a song that swims through the film like one that you can’t get out of your head) during the title sequence in all her fearless fly girl glory, decked out in red, white, and blue, you know you’re in for a visual assault on the American Dream. Lee’s camera follows Mookie (played by Spike Lee) as he ambles, indifferent, in a Jackie Robinson jersey on his delivery runs for “Sal’s Famous Pizzeria.” A fight breaks out between Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito) and a Larry Bird-jersey clad John Savage over a pair of scuffed Air Jordans. There’s Radio Raheem’s (Bill Nunn) ‘Love/Hate’ rings and the parable that comes with them, Mother Sister’s (Ruby Dee) caftans, DJ Love Daddy’s (Samuel L. Jackson) parade of hats that are as relevant as his commentary, and Jade’s (Joie Lee) effortless charm in her belted dresses; the neighbourhood is brimming with style. Prolific costume designer Ruth E. Carter developed a visual feast that has aged incredibly well, despite being, for all intensive purposes, a very timely film. Watching Do The Right Thing now, after all that has happened since then, is just as relevant and fearless as it ever was.
text and screencaps by Cayley James