Do The Right Thing opens with the introduction of young actress Rosie Perez, enthusiastically dancing away to the tune of Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power”. It is a sequence that serves as a stylistic introduction for what is about to come from Spike Lee, an explosion of colour and energy utilising films formal elements of montage, cinematography and acting performance to generate a vibrant whole. It carries an energy that immediately hits you directly, a confrontational address that appeals to our key senses.
The images and actions on screen are matched with larger-than-life radio monologues from Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson) that help set the tone for the events of the film. Spike Lee, who writes and directs the film, also stars as the protagonist-of-sorts, Mookie, a young pizza delivery worker for Sal’s Famous Pizzeria. The pizzeria has been an important part of the neighbourhood for many years and the black community seems to enjoy an amicable relationship with the proprietor Sal whose food they have grown up on. He has two sons who also work for him, Vito who enjoys a friendly relationship with Mookie, and Pino (John Turturro) who holds deep resentment for the black community and dislikes the fact his father’s business is reliant on them.
We are introduced to a series of different characters, each with their own unique quirks and memorable style. From Radio Raheem, an imposing figure who carries around a boombox wherever he goes, to Giancarlo Esposito’s “Buggin’ Out”, whose confrontation with Sal and Pino over the decision to only have photos of white Italian-Americans on the pizzeria’s walls essentially lights the fuse of the ticking time bomb of tension that follows.
In this scene we have a handful of different characters each with their own opinions and ideas, Buggin’ Out wants to boycott the pizzeria until there are some photos of black heroes on the walls. Sal points out that he’s a white Italian-American and it is his business so he can do what he wants. His son Pino is more aggressive on the issue and later reveals himself to view the majority of blacks with disgusting racist contempt despite many of his heroes being black. Mookie is the middle man, almost a mediator. He understands the concerns that his friend has, but has no problem with Sal who has provided the community with food for years as well as himself with employment. Should this itself mean that the complaints are not valid or should not be voiced? The answers of course are not so clear cut and the reality is that the world and race relations are very complex. There are no black and white rules in place defining how people should act and what is acceptable for everything, and it is possible for people to enjoy relationships and be grateful for contributions whilst also having legitimate complaints and still wish for more to be done.
The question of how minority and marginalised communities - like the black community in this film - should participate in society is an issue that Lee has continued to explore throughout his career. In last year’s BlackKklansman he shows characters who each have different answers to what their place and actions in their community and the country should be.
What makes Lee’s work so effective is that he fully embraces the cinematic medium and understands that through this he has a number of tools available that he can use to emphasis his message in unique ways. The film is littered with memorable elements, whether it is the famous breaking of the fourth wall monologues between the various different neighbourhood communities or Radio Raheem’s recreation of Robert Mitchum’s famous Love and Hate scene from The Night of the Hunter.
These scenes paint a fascinating picture of a community with many different characters we can relate to. These characters are human beings, often with many flaws but also with many redeeming qualities that we can sympathise with. Lee reminds us of the importance the little moments of human interaction we can enjoy in our life - children jokingly playing with a fire hydrant on a hot summer’s day, Mookie getting intimate with Tina in a sensual scene using ice cubes, or the "relationship" between Da Mayor and Mother Sister who constantly berate each other but come to realise a mutual respect.
The human characters and their lives are endlessly watchable and often hilarious. They remind us that we do have far much more in common than which divides us, a message often repeated in today’s fractured society. Two years after the film was released, Rodney King was the victim of police brutality in a violent arrest that led to race riots in Los Angeles, events foreshadowed in Lee’s films. During the riots he famously asked, “can we all just get along?”. Such a question might seem simple in comparison to the more complex quotations from Martin Luther King and Malcom X showed before the film’s credits, but the sad reality is that even thirty years on from Do The Right Thing we are still asking the same questions and seem even further away from the answers.