New York City’s second most-famous Mookie delivers pizza and fights the power in Spike Lee’s breakthrough film. Some critics predicted its provocative portrayal of race tensions would cause riots. Instead, the film started a dialogue.
In the days of the Harlem Renaissance, when Langston Hughes was being attacked in some quarters for writing about black America’s lower classes, Carl Van Vechten remarked jestingly to the poet, “You and I are the only colored people who really love niggers.”
As it was with Hughes, so it has been with Spike Lee. He began his career only half a dozen years ago with the remarkably accomplished student film Joe’s BedStuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads. No one who saw it could ignore either Lee’s talent or his love for the common citizens of the Brooklyn ghetto—not just the upward-striving, the politically involved, the gifted, but the whole range of street-corner society. In She’s Gotta Have It, Lee himself portrays the fast-talking Mars Blackmon, who won’t let anything so small as sexual jealousy come between him and a fellow African-American. In School Daze, the entire film depends on the conflict between black people who are plainly, emphatically black and those who are wannabees -that is, who want to be white. Now, in Do the Right Thing, you can still hear the echoes of Mars Blackmon’s sentiment in the catch-phrase of Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito), whose standard parting line is, “Stay black.”
A love like that separates loyalists from sellouts. It also animates certain troubled characters with a talent for making themselves unpopular. Jesters mock and receive favors in return; satirists love, and that seems to be Spike Lee’s hard fate.
Do the Right Thing is Lee’s most complex, heartfelt and disturbing film to date, a drama about racism that is more shockingly outspoken than any I’ve seen since David Mamet’s great, and neglected, Edmond. Needless to say, the film depicts white bigotry with all due contempt. The best of the white character who seems a very good man indeed—is still ready to scream “nigger” when all else fails; the worst are willing to kill. The melanin-impaired will therefore feel uncomfortable with this film, and with good reason. But so, too, might the black community. Lee loves his fellow African-Americans, but he also portrays them as political good-for-nothings, long on talk and short on action, except when their actions are misguided. In Do the Right Thing, nobody does.
Set on a single block in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Do the Right Thing follows about two dozen characters through a very hot summer’s day, from a morning when interracial civility is already strained to a night when all hell breaks loose. The structure is episodic; brief, seemingly self-enclosed dramas follow one another rapidly, with two characters helping to frame and judge the action. The first of these is Mister Señor Love Daddy (Sam Jackson), disc jockey of an extremely local radio station, who observes the neighborhood through his livingroom window and broadcasts what he sees, along with the finest in black music. The second framing character is Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), an old gentleman who rambles up and down the block all day. Da Mayor is courtly and kindhearted; he’s also a drunk. To some of the younger people, he is a figure of fun. To Mother Sister (Ruby Dee), the block’s reigning older woman, he is a contemptible bum. It is Ida Mayor who enunciates the sentiment of the title, “Always do the right thing,” in addressing his neighbor Mookie (Spike Lee). And in fact, Mookie tries hard to follow that advice. The effort he makes, and the degree to which he fails, will be the subject of debate for everyone who sees the film.