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Why 'Do the Right Thing' is still a great movie
The movie, enormously controversial when it was released in 1989, has been embraced as a classic.

by A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- For our latest Weekend Watch Party, we revisited the broiling Brooklyn of Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” a film whose unflinching, complex depiction of racial tension has not dated much in 31 years. What has changed is that the movie, enormously controversial when it was released in 1989, has been embraced as a classic.

It’s part of the curriculum now: We received comments from high school students who watched it for class as well as remarks from some teachers. The students had a lot to say about Lee’s painful themes and arguments, which, among other things, dynamically put Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X into play.

Unlike too many contemporary (OK, white) critics who focused on their own racial fears, the students also appreciated Lee’s art. Badly made films seldom make history, and one reason that “Do the Right Thing” remains resonant is that it is still, as Vincent Canby said in his New York Times review, “one terrific movie.”

I’ve come to the conclusion that Lee believes that the “right thing” is actually less important than the action of “doing the right thing,” which X and King themselves both embraced through constant direct action against racism. — Kaylan N, Sunnyvale, California (senior at the Harker School in San Jose.)

A.O. SCOTT: I saw “Do the Right Thing” for the first time in Baltimore, the week it opened. Of course, I remember what we’re now in the habit of calling “the discourse” — the critics and commentators warning that it would provoke riots; the TV news panels about the State of Race in America; Spike Lee’s disinclination to play nice in the media — but mostly I remember the excitement of feeling that I was watching one of the great films of my lifetime.

After this last viewing — I lost count a long time ago — I still feel that way. But what I also felt, maybe for the first time, was something like nostalgia. Bill Nunn and Danny Aiello, who played Radio Raheem and Sal, are both gone, following Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee and Robin Harris. Looking at some of the other faces, I marvel at how young they look, and also at Lee’s often underrated skill as a director of actors. There is so much life and personality here, a truthfulness that bursts out of the narrow conventions of realism and turns into something else.

But I have to be honest: Through most of this viewing what I was thinking about most was pizza. I miss pizza so much.

As part of a series of tough conversations on difficult issues, my congregation selected this film as a jumping-off point to discuss racism and our roles in continuing it. It was probably the most enlightening conversation we ever had. Although we have always viewed ourselves to be progressive, liberal, white do-gooders, those images of ourselves were exposed for what they were ... skin deep (pun intended). — Julie, Portland, Oregon.

MANOHLA DARGIS: A few things jump out at me now, including how heavily history presses down hard on the film via Martin and Malcolm but also Dee and Davis. Their off-screen roles as artist-activists set an exemplary model for a conscious, conscientious life, yet that history makes a biting, poignant contrast with their roles here. Davis plays Da Mayor, a shambling souse who’s by turns tolerated, mocked and valued by younger people, while Dee’s Mother Sister mostly watches the world pass by.

The casting of high-profile civil rights veterans in a story about racial acrimony and injustice can be read as a critique of — or lament about — the promises and disappointments of an earlier activist era. But it’s also a great authorial stroke and just one of the many significant and signifying parts of a movie dense with ambivalence and cultural meanings. Here, every sneaker (Jordans), sports jersey (Jackie Robinson, No. 42), song on the radio (“Fight the Power”) and blast of color (“Afrocentric bright” as Lee once described it) is another tile in a larger cinematic mosaic.

Put differently, Lee is a great filmmaker, and, as filmmaker Ryan Fleck (“Captain Marvel”) reminded us in a comment, also an influential one:

My feelings about this movie haven’t changed. Thanks Spike! — Ryan Fleck, Brooklyn, New York.

SCOTT: It’s funny — by which I mean, it’s sad — that after all this time it can still feel as if Lee hasn’t been given his due as an artist. That’s partly because of the way he relishes his public role, rarely shying away from sharing his views, and partly because the subject matter of his movies, including this one, is often explicitly political.

The chants of “Howard Beach” during the climactic conflict — referring to the Queens neighborhood where Michael Griffith, a 23-year-old black man, was killed after being chased by a white mob in 1986 — may require a footnote now, but the list of the victims of similar violence that appears before the end credits only needs an update. It’s impossible to watch Radio Raheem’s death without thinking of Eric Garner, Philando Castile and so many others.

Unfortunately, it is a timeless masterpiece. With a couple of minor tweaks — adding names such as Michael Brown, Freddie Gay, Sandra Bland — it could have been made in the present time. — Felicia, Maryland

How does that happen? How does it keep happening? “Do the Right Thing” looks for the answer in the details of everyday life, which is full of accidents, potential flash points and micro (and not so micro) aggressions. It’s also full of tenderness, silliness and small moments of sorrow and grace.

Lee’s genius resides in the way he orchestrates all of that. This is one of the funniest movies I know — I’ll just mention Sweet Dick Willie and leave it at that — and also one of the saddest. It’s noisy and quiet, brazenly theatrical and breathtakingly subtle. Not all at once, but in just the right order.

DARGIS: I mean, to restate the obvious, the only reason it took an unconscionably long time for Lee to receive his artistic due is because he’s black and speaks his mind. That isn’t a surprise, but it was pleasant to look at the film without all the original static so I could focus on its formal strategies, its operatic quality and its shocking shift from commedia dell’arte to tragedy. Lee works in his own register of realism in which everything is at once familiar and heightened. It’s par for the course then that the soundtrack by his father, Bill Lee (with help from Branford Marsalis), directly engages with Aaron Copland, who (like Spike) fuses different idioms, both old and new.

That all said, I did wince yet again at how Lee uses Rosie Perez’s body in the sex scene, which nods at Jean-Luc Godard’s “A Married Woman” but feels deeply exploitative. One reader, Elle Roque, sharply reminded us of how abused Perez felt by quoting from a 2000 New York Times interview with the actress. “I also didn’t feel good about it because the atmosphere wasn’t correct,” Perez said. “And when Spike Lee puts ice cubes on my nipples, the reason you don’t see my head is because I’m crying.”

So what has aged well or seems still relevant is the commentary on gentrification and, presumably, harsh policing in Black and Latino neighborhoods. What seems to have aged poorly is the treatment of female characters, specifically making Tina seem annoying when she has a deadbeat dad as a boyfriend and giving little screen time to Jade, who is probably the most level-headed character in the film. And Smiley’s character seems to be a bit of a caricature of a mentally handicapped person. — Lena, Austin, Texas.

SCOTT: There are also some cringey moments of ethnic caricature involving Perez’s character and her mother, and the Korean couple who own the grocery store across the street from Sal’s Famous Pizzeria. It doesn’t excuse anything to say that insult humor was a more acceptable practice then, not least on the streets of big cities like New York. The sequence when Lee stops the action to let his characters spew a round-robin of slurs is justly notorious, but it helps to illustrate a point Radio Raheem makes (with a nod to Robert Mitchum in “Night of the Hunter”). Love and hate are always contending, and the hostility that pulsates among neighbors within and between various demographic groups is always tangled up with intimacy and affection. And there is no one in the movie that the filmmaker doesn’t love.

The film is a modern tragedy in the mode of other 20th-century tragedies such as Death of a Salesman. Someone dies who is not a hero. He dies for reasons, but no good reason.— mjelse, Hadley, Massachusetts.

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