Spike Lee’s tale about inner-city New York has become a cornerstone of Black Cinema. Set in the mainly African-American community of Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn, it’s the hottest day of the year and racial tensions are running high.
The film’s main character is Mookie, played by Lee, who works for a family of Italian-Americans. As tensions heat-up, he has to make the decision whether to side with his employers or the rest of his community. The film fits squarely into the category of Titles That Are Also Lines In The Movie* (cf. Law Abiding Citizen, You’ve Got Mail and Home Alone . In this case Mookie is told by “The Mayor” to do the right thing.
Very much an ensemble piece, Lee’s aim is clearly to get under the skin of the community it depicts. Taking time to set-up all the characters and their motivations, it shows the differing ways people react to cultures separate from their own.
Lee’s film is very much of its time. The way characters dress, speak and love their Nike trainers all screams the 1980s. This also applies to the racial issues it depicts. Middle-aged black men talk scold at the Koreans who have moved in and quickly set-up a successful business, while questioning their own inability to do so. Mookie, while speaking to an Italian American, boldly claims blacks will once again rule the world, designed more to rile his counterpart, than prove a point.
Of course, we now live in a time when the most important man in the world is black. And where there are plenty of African-Americans who’ve been successful in fields outside of sport and music. We also live in a time where the kind of riots and police beatings that existed 20+ years ago are no longer as prevalent. What then, does a movie such as Do The Right Thing? have to say to a modern audience?
The honest answer is not a lot. Although significant at the time, not only for its depiction of black culture, but also as a cornerstone of black cinema, the film feels very dated now. Some films of their time still work very well, since the issues they depict can be fairly universal or perhaps they capture something about a period which is important or significant. In particular films like Wall Street, Trainspotting or American Beauty still hold up because of, rather than despite, their depiction of the era in which they were made.
If it does have any significance, it is surely historical. In bringing to light the kind of issues people had never seen in film before it was viewed as being very controversial. Many critics of significant clout argued that it might insight African-Americans to riot. Lee was incredibly dismissive of such suggestions, pointing out, quite rightly, that black people were just as capable of controlling their emotions and resisting the urge to riot as their lighter-skinned counterparts.
Perhaps such attitudes show why Do The Right Thing should be given some credit for allowing these issues to come to light. Its significance goes beyond its content, to what it represented to people at the time: a further platform for a voice which felt belittled and marginalised by a society full of fear and suspicion.
*Wanna see other films which use their titles as lines of dialogue? No problemo!