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USA 1989
Directed by
Spike Lee
120 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4.5 stars

Do The Right Thing

Spike Lee’s break-out indie hit is probably his most interesting and definitely his most controversial film as he deals provocatively, yet complexly, with racism, leaving audiences unclear as to what exactly is "the right thing" to do

Set over a 24-hour period on the hottest day of the summer in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, writer-director Lee introduces to a number of people who hang out near Sal's Famous Pizzeria. Besides Sal (Danny Aiello) and his two sons (John Turturro and Richard Edson), there’s Mookie (Spike Lee) who works as Sal's pizza delivery boy and a bunch of largely black guys including Buggin' Out (Giancarlo Esposito) and Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), all unemployed, as well as a group of Hispanics, some Asians who own the corner store, and a couple of white patrol car cops. Much of the film is a genial day-in-the-life portrait of these people as they jostle against each other and the thermometer rises. Buggin' Out however has a bee in his bonnet about there being no photos of black brothers on Sal’s Wall of Fame and when with Radio Raheem he confronts Sal at the end of a long day, simmering tensions explode. 

At its time of release most people asked: ‘What, then, is the right thing to do?” Although it is a line spoken by Ossie Davis,  who could be taken to offer an answer, the beauty of the film is that Lee portrays his characters, including his own Mookie,  without aligning them with a clear-cut set of virtues or vices in the standard either-or oppositions that are endemic in mainstream American film. Whatever the abstract desideratum may be "the right thing", Lee seems to be saying, depends on your point of view and your situation and at the end of the day, what is it and who really does it anyway?

Performances are all strong, Lee’s direction is, as always, striking, and his long-time collaborator, cinematographer Ernest Dickerson makes sure that we feel the heat rising from the pavement.




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