Do the Right Thing
Theatrical release poster
Directed bySpike Lee
Written bySpike Lee
Produced bySpike Lee
Starring
CinematographyErnest Dickerson
Edited byBarry Alexander Brown
Music byBill Lee
Production
company
Distributed byUniversal Pictures
Release dates
  • May 19, 1989 (1989-05-19) (Cannes)
  • June 30, 1989 (1989-06-30) (United States)
Running time
120 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States
LanguageEnglish
Budget$6.2 million
Box office$37.3 million[2][3]

Do the Right Thing is a 1989 American comedy-drama film produced, written and directed by Spike Lee. It stars Lee, Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Richard Edson, Giancarlo Esposito, Bill Nunn, John Turturro and Samuel L. Jackson and is the feature film debut of Martin Lawrence and Rosie Perez. The story explores a Brooklyn neighborhood's simmering racial tension between its African-American residents and the Italian-American owners of a local pizzeria, culminating in tragedy and violence on a hot summer's day.

A critical and commercial success, the film received accolades, including Academy Award nominations for Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (for Aiello's portrayal of Sal, the pizzeria owner). In 1999, it was selected for the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, citing its preservation as "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant".[4][5] In 2022, the film was ranked the 24th greatest of all time in Sight and Sound magazine's decennial poll of international critics, programmers, curators, archivists and academics.[6] It has since been featured on many other lists of the greatest films of all time by numerous critics.[7][8][9][10][11]

Plot

Twenty-five-year-old Mookie lives in Bedford–Stuyvesant with his sister Jade, has a toddler son named Hector with his Latina girlfriend Tina, and works as a delivery man at a pizzeria owned by Salvatore "Sal" Frangione, an Italian-American who lives in Bensonhurst. Sal's racist eldest son Pino is antagonistic towards Mookie, clashing with his father, who refuses to move his business out of the majority African-American neighborhood, and his younger brother Vito, who is friendly with Mookie.

Many distinctive residents are introduced, including friendly drunk Da Mayor; Mother Sister, who observes the block from her brownstone; Radio Raheem, who blasts Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" on his boombox wherever he goes, and Smiley, a mentally disabled man who meanders around town trying to sell hand-colored pictures of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

At Sal's, Mookie's friend Buggin' Out questions Sal about his "Wall of Fame", decorated with photos of famous Italian-Americans, and demands that Sal put up pictures of Black celebrities since the pizzeria is in a Black neighborhood. When Sal declines and ejects him, Buggin' Out attempts to start boycotting the pizzeria.

During the day, local teenagers open a fire hydrant and douse the other neighbors to beat the heat wave before white police officers Mark Ponte and Gary Long intervene. After calling Tina on a payphone, Mookie confronts Pino about his contempt towards African-Americans. Various characters break the fourth wall to express racial insults: Mookie against Italians; Pino against African-Americans; a Puerto Rican named Stevie against Koreans; Long against Puerto Ricans; and Korean store owner Sonny against Jews. Pino expresses his hatred for African-Americans to Sal, who insists on staying in the neighborhood.

Radio Raheem's boombox as seen in "Do the Right Thing". Image courtesy of Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

That night, Buggin' Out, Raheem and Smiley march into Sal's and demand that the Wall of Fame include black celebrities. Sal demands that Raheem turn his boombox off, but he refuses. Buggin' Out badmouths Sal and his sons and threatens to shutter the pizzeria, upsetting Sal, who destroys Raheem's boombox with a bat. Raheem then attacks Sal. His sons and the others struggle to get him off of Sal, then the fight spills out into the street and attracts a crowd. While Raheem is strangling Sal, the police arrive, including Officers Long and Ponte, who break up the fight and apprehend Raheem and Buggin' Out. As the officers attempt to restrain Raheem, Long begins choking him with his nightstick. Though Ponte and onlookers plead for him to stop, Long tightens his choke-hold on Raheem, killing him. Attempting to save face, the duo place his body in the back of a police car and drive off.

The onlookers blame Sal and his sons, but Da Mayor unsuccessfully tries to convince the crowd of Sal's innocence. In a fit of anger and grief, Mookie grabs a trash can and throws it through the window of the pizzeria, sparking the crowd to destroy it. Smiley sets the building ablaze, and Da Mayor pulls Sal and his sons away from the mob, which then turns towards Sonny's store, preparing to destroy it too. A panicked Sonny eventually dissuades the group.

The police return with the fire department and riot patrols to extinguish the fire and disperse the crowd. After the police issue a warning, the fire fighters turn their hoses on the rioters, leading to more fighting and arrests. Smiley wanders back into the smoldering building and hangs one of his pictures on the remnants of Sal's Wall of Fame. The next day, after arguing with Tina, Mookie returns to Sal and demands his weekly pay. After an argument, the two cautiously reconcile and Sal pays Mookie. Local DJ Mister Señor Love Daddy dedicates a song to Raheem.

Before the credits, two quotations expressing different views about violence, one by Martin Luther King and one by Malcolm X, appear, followed by a photograph of both leaders shaking hands, the same one shown by Smiley throughout the film. During the credits, Lee then dedicates the film to the families of six black people, five—Eleanor Bumpurs, Arthur Miller Jr., Edmund Perry, Yvonne Smallwood, and Michael Stewart—killed by police officers and one—Michael Griffith—killed by a white mob.[12]

Cast

Production

Development

Writer, director, and actor Spike Lee conceived the idea for Do the Right Thing after discussing a 1986 incident at Howard Beach, Queens, with actor Robert De Niro. This incident involved an attack on African-American men in a predominantly Italian-American neighborhood, resulting in one victim being struck by a car and killed.[13] Lee was also influenced by the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode "Shopping for Death," in which the main characters discuss their theory that hot weather increases violent tendencies, and the killing of Eleanor Bumpurs by police.[14] He wrote the screenplay in two weeks.[15]

The "love/hate" speech given by Radio Raheem is an ode to a similar monologue in the thriller film The Night of the Hunter.[16]

The original script of Do the Right Thing ended with a stronger reconciliation between Mookie and Sal than Lee used in the film.[17] In this version, Sal's comments to Mookie are similar to Da Mayor's earlier comments in the film and hint at some common ground and perhaps Sal's understanding of why Mookie tried to destroy his restaurant. Lee has not explicitly explained why he changed the ending but his contemporaneous notes compiled in the film's companion book indicate Lisa Jones expressed Sal's reaction as "too nice" as originally written.[18]

Casting

Initially considering De Niro for the role of "Sal," Lee eventually cast Danny Aiello at De Niro's suggestion.[13] Aiello's son Rick played Gary Long, the police officer who kills Radio Raheem. Roger Guenveur Smith, who was pestering Lee for a role in the film, created the character of Smiley, who was not in the original script.[19] Four of the cast members were stand-up comedians: Martin Lawrence, Steve Park, Steve White and Robin Harris. Samuel L. Jackson was chosen for the role of Mister Señor Love Daddy. Jackson later revealed that he spent much of his time on set sleeping as he has no scenes outside.[14] Lee originally wanted Nunn to play the role of Mister Señor Love Daddy but later recast him as Radio Raheem. The acting couple Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, who were friends of Lee's father Bill, were cast as Da Mayor and Mother Sister.[14] Perez was cast as Mookie's love interest Tina after Lee saw her dancing at a Los Angeles dance club. Perez decided to take the part because her sister lived four blocks from the set. She had never been in a film before and became upset during the filming of Radio Raheem's death scene.[14]

Filming

Principal photography commenced on July 18, 1988, on a single block in Brooklyn, New York. The film crew transformed the dilapidated Stuyvesant Avenue, between Quincy Street and Lexington Avenue in the Bedford–Stuyvesant neighborhood, creating new structures such as the Korean grocery store, a functional pizza parlor representing Sal's Famous Pizzeria, and a radio station replacing a burnt-out building. Some characters' residences were set in a former crack house shut down by the production, and the brownstone serving as the home of the only white resident, "Clifton," was a vacant building before filming. Lee organized a block party before principal photography to foster a positive relationship between the neighborhood residents and the filmmakers. Production designer Wynn Thomas altered the street's color scheme, using a great deal of red and orange paint to convey the sense of a heatwave. During filming, the neighborhood's crack dealers threatened the film crew for disturbing their business, leading Lee to hire Fruit of Islam members to provide security.[14] Filming wrapped on September 14, 1988, with a budget of $6.2 million.[13]

During the final confrontation between Aiello's "Sal" and Giancarlo Esposito's character, "Buggin Out," Lee allowed the actors to improvise racist remarks. Esposito, who was of half-Italian and half-African-American descent, found the scene cathartic.[13]

Reception

Critical reception

At the time of the film's release, both Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert ranked the film as the best of 1989, and later each ranked it as one of the top 10 films of the decade (No. 6 for Siskel and No. 4 for Ebert).[20] Siskel described the film as "a spiritual documentary that shows racial joy, hatred and confusion at every turn",[21] while Ebert lauded it for coming "closer to reflecting the current state of race relations in America than any other movie of our time."[22] Ebert later added the film to his list of The Great Movies.[23] In a retrospective review in 2019, Kambole Campbell of the British magazine Little White Lies noted the film's lasting relevance and called it "a bold expression of love and frustration and care and anger that is so vivid and expressive it feels like it exists in the here and now."[24] New York Times film critic Wesley Morris has called Do the Right Thing his favorite film.[25]

Some critics were less favorable in their reviews. Dave Kehr of the Chicago Tribune gave the film two stars out of four; while calling the film "amiable", he resented it for employing white guilt and "seeing violence as a liberating symbol rather than a debasing reality."[26] Ralph Novak, writing for People, panned the film as incoherent and having an unclear message and no likable characters: "If Lee is saying that racism is profoundly painful, frustrating and confusing, no one will argue. But this film states the case without offering any insight."[27]

On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a rating of 91%, based on 105 reviews, with an average rating of 9.20/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "Smart, vibrant and urgent without being didactic, Do the Right Thing is one of Spike Lee's most fully realized efforts – and one of the most important films of the 1980s."[28] On Metacritic, the film has a score of 93 out of 100, based on 26 critics, indicating "universal acclaim", and placing it as the 68th-highest film of all-time on the site.[29] According to online film resource They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, Do the Right Thing is the most acclaimed film of 1989.[30]

Controversies

After release, many reviewers protested its content. Some columnists opined that the film could incite Black audiences to riot.[31] Lee criticized white reviewers in turn for suggesting that Black audiences were incapable of restraining themselves while watching a fictional motion picture.[32] In a 2014 interview, Lee said, "That still bugs the shit out of me", calling the remarks "outrageous, egregious and, I think, racist." He said, "I don't remember people saying people were going to come out of theaters killing people after they watched Arnold Schwarzenegger films."[33]

An open question near the end of the film is whether Mookie "does the right thing" by throwing the garbage can through the window, inciting the riot that destroys Sal's pizzeria. Some critics have interpreted Mookie's action as one that saves Sal's life by redirecting the crowd's anger away from Sal to his property, while others say that it was an "irresponsible encouragement to enact violence".[34] The quotations by two major Black leaders used at the end of the film provide no answers: one advocates nonviolence, the other advocates armed self-defense in response to oppression.[34]

Lee has remarked that only white viewers ask him if Mookie did the right thing; Black viewers do not ask him the question.[35] Lee believes the key point is that Mookie was angry at the wrongful death of Radio Raheem, stating that viewers who question the riot are explicitly failing to see the difference between property damage and the death of a Black man.[32]

Lee has been criticized for his treatment of women in his films. bell hooks said that he wrote Black women in the same objectifying way that white male filmmakers write the characters of white women.[36] Rosie Perez, who made her acting debut as Tina in the film, later said that she was very uncomfortable with doing the nude scene in the film:

My first experience [with doing nude scenes] was Do the Right Thing. And I had a big problem with it, mainly because I was afraid of what my family would think—that's what was really bothering me. It wasn't really about taking off my clothes. But I also didn't feel good about it because the atmosphere wasn't correct. And when Spike Lee puts ice cubes on my nipples, the reason you don't see my head is because I'm crying. I was like, I don't want to do this.[37]

Subsequently, Perez stated that Lee had offered an apology, and the two remained friends.[38]

In June 2006, Entertainment Weekly placed Do the Right Thing at No. 22 on its list of The 25 Most Controversial Movies Ever.[39]

In the 2021 Cannes Film Festival award ceremony, Chaz Ebert, the wife of the late film critic Roger Ebert, noted that her husband had been appalled that the film had not received any awards from the Cannes jury in 1989, and had even threatened to boycott the festival as a result.[40] Lee noted that the U.S. press at the time thought the film "would start race riots all across America". Drawing a loud applause from attending press, he pointed to the continued relevance of the film's story, more than three decades on, saying: "You would think and hope that 30-something motherfucking years later that Black people would have stopped being hunted down like animals.[41]

Awards and nominations

List of awards and nominations
Award Date of ceremony Category Recipients and nominees Result
Academy Awards March 26, 1990[42] Best Supporting Actor Danny Aiello Nominated
Best Original Screenplay Spike Lee
Belgian Syndicate of Cinema Critics 1990 Grand Prix
Boston Society of Film Critics 1990 Best Supporting Actor Danny Aiello Won
Cannes Film Festival[43] May 23, 1989 Palme d'Or Spike Lee Nominated
Chicago Film Critics Association 1990 Best Picture Won
Best Director Spike Lee
Best Supporting Actor Danny Aiello
Golden Globe Awards January 20, 1990 Best Motion Picture – Drama Nominated
Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture Danny Aiello
Best Director – Motion Picture Spike Lee
Best Screenplay – Motion Picture
Los Angeles Film Critics Association December 16, 1989 Best Film Won
Best Supporting Actor Danny Aiello
Best Director Spike Lee
Best Screenplay 2nd place
Best Music Bill Lee Won
MTV Movie Awards June 6, 2006 Silver Bucket of Excellence
NAACP Image Awards December 11, 1989 Outstanding Actress Ruby Dee
Outstanding Supporting Actor Ossie Davis
National Society of Film Critics Awards January 8, 1990 Best Director Spike Lee 3rd place
New York Film Critics Circle January 14, 1990 Best Film 5th place
Best Screenplay Spike Lee 4th place
Best Cinematography Ernest Dickerson Won
The 20/20 Awards 2010 Best Picture Nominated
Best Director Spike Lee Won
Best Supporting Actor Danny Aiello Nominated
John Turturro
Best Original Screenplay Spike Lee
Best Film Editing Barry Alexander Brown Won
Best Original Song "Fight the Power"
Music and Lyrics by Chuck D, Hank Shocklee,
Eric Sadler, and Keith Shocklee

American Film Institute lists

Home media

Do the Right Thing was released on VHS after its theatrical run, and on DVD by The Criterion Collection on February 20, 2001.[44] It was released on Blu-ray on June 30, 2009, for the 20th anniversary. A special edition Blu-ray with a 4K restoration of the film was released by The Criterion Collection on July 23, 2019, for the film's 30th anniversary.[45]

Soundtrack

The film's score (composed and partially performed by jazz musician Bill Lee, father of Spike Lee) was released in early July 1989 while the soundtrack was released in late June 1989 on Columbia Records and Motown Records, respectively. The soundtrack was successful, reaching the number eleven spot on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart, and peaking at sixty-eight on the Billboard 200.[46]

On the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks chart, the Perri track "Feel So Good" reached the fifty-first spot, while Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" reached number twenty, and Guy's "My Fantasy" went all the way to the top spot. "My Fantasy" also reached number six on the Hot Dance Music/Maxi-Singles Sales chart, and sixty-two on the Billboard Hot 100. "Fight the Power" also charted high on the Hot Dance Music chart, peaking at number three, and topped the Hot Rap Singles chart.[47][48]

Do the Right Thing: Original Motion Picture Score
Film score by
Released1989
RecordedDecember 12, 1988 – December 16, 1988
GenreFilm score
Length35:36
LabelColumbia
ProducerSpike Lee (exec.)

Track listing

Do the Right Thing: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Soundtrack album by
Various artists
ReleasedJune 23, 1989[49]
GenreSoundtrack
Length53:14
LabelMotown Records
ProducerGregory "Sugar Bear" Elliott (exec.), Ted Hopkins (exec.), Mark Kibble (exec.), Spike Lee (exec.), Johnny Mercer (exec.)
Singles from Do the Right Thing: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
  1. "Fight the Power"
    Released: July 4, 1989[49]
No.TitleMusicProducer(s)Length
1."Fight the Power"Public EnemyHank Shocklee, Carl Ryder, Eric Sadler5:23
2."My Fantasy"Teddy Riley, GuyTeddy Riley, Gene Griffin4:57
3."Party Hearty"E.U.Kent Wood, JuJu House4:43
4."Can't Stand It"Steel PulseDavid R. Hinds, Sidney Mills5:06
5."Why Don't We Try?"Keith JohnVincent Edward Morris, Raymond Jones, Larry DeCarmine3:35
6."Feel So Good"PerriPaul Laurence, Jones5:39
7."Don't Shoot Me"Take 6Mervyn E. Warren4:08
8."Hard to Say"Lori Perry, Gerald AlstonLaurence3:21
9."Prove to Me"PerriJones, Sami McKinney5:24
10."Never Explain Love"Al JarreauJones5:58
11."Tu y Yo/We Love [Jingle]"Rubén BladesBlades5:12

In popular culture

In 1990, the film was parodied in a sketch on In Living Color.[50] Many television series have parodied the trash can scene, including The Critic, The Boondocks and Bob's Burgers.[51]

The scene where Buggin' Out confronts the white Celtics fan about scuffing his Air Jordans is parodied in the music video for the 2008 Nelly song "Stepped on My J'z".[52]

In 2016, Air Jordan released a special Radio Raheem sneaker.[53]

In 2014, the film's 25th anniversary, Barack and Michelle Obama praised the film, and said they went to see it together on their first date.[54][55][56] This was later referenced in the 2016 film Southside with You where Barack discusses Mookie's motives with a white colleague after seeing the film.

Do The Right Thing Way

The section of Stuyvesant Avenue between Quincy Street and Lexington Avenue in the Bedford–Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, where the entire film was shot, was renamed Do The Right Thing Way in 2015. The renaming came from a push by Bed-Stuy's city council representative Robert Cornegy Jr.[57] and was included as part of a bill to honor important figures from New York City's history.[58] The renaming was meant to occur in 2014, but was delayed through the city's legislature. The street is the only street in New York City named after a work of fiction, and one of the only streets named after a work of fiction in the world.[59] Lee was reportedly “excited” by the renaming, and has also begun selling faux street signs for the street on his website.[60]

Related films

Officers Gary Long and Mark Ponte return in Jungle Fever (1991). In Lee's 2006 film, Inside Man, the police provide Sal's pizza to the hostages.[61]

Mookie makes another appearance in the 2012 film Red Hook Summer, where he is shown delivering pizzas. According to Lee, Sal took the insurance money from his burned pizzeria and reopened the restaurant in Red Hook. He then rehired Mookie, agreeing to include Black celebrities on his Wall of Fame.[62]

In the second season of Netflix series She's Gotta Have It, based on the film of the same name, Rosie Perez returns to portray Tina once more and it is revealed that not only is she the mother of Mars Blackmon (Anthony Ramos), but that Mookie is Blackmon's biological father.

See also

References

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Bibliography