Part of the pleasure of so many Spike Lee films comes from the sheer volume of ideas each one contains — not just political ideas, but also his visual innovation and liveliness. All the Brooklynite filmmaker’s works are full of messy humanity, finding art in controversial topics and grey areas. In recent years, his search for a middle ground has gotten somewhat frustrating (take the likes of BlacKkKlansman), but his filmmaking is no less galvanizing. Lee constantly swings for the fences, and while that turns up some misses, it also makes for one of the most exciting filmographies of any US director.
The centerpiece of that filmography is, of course, 1989’s Do the Right Thing. Set over the course of one oppressively hot summer day in Bed-Stuy, it follows pizza delivery boy Mookie (Lee himself) and other residents, weaving a tapestry of the neighborhood through monologues and vignettes. It feels important to recognize the film’s craft upfront; like a lot of Lee’s thematically dense work, it’s most often remembered for its continued social relevance. But Do the Right Thing is also memorable because of its soulful and frequently rageful soundtrack, as well as Ernest Dickerson’s sun-soaked and romantic cinematography (he would become Lee’s longtime collaborator and a great director in his own right). Lee’s humanist slice-of-life story is composed with formal beauty and electrifying directness, complete with soliloquies and monologues directly to the camera, compiled in montage to evoke the tension the neighborhood is feeling in the heat.
Lee filters contemporary America and the weight of its history through the structures of theatre. Its now-iconic opening moments, featuring Rosie Perez dancing and shadowboxing to Public Enemy, appears on a stage built to look like Bed-Stuy. This continues through to its insular setting, and the story taking place over a single day. It’s essentially a Greek tragedy where everyone is wearing Nikes. Its mimesis comes down to a microcosm of America contained within Bed-Stuy.
These theatrical structures and the film’s frequent direct-to-camera addresses illuminate different points of view, most famously with Radio Raheem’s (Bill Nunn) story of the “right hand of love and left hand of hate.” Characters speak in deliberately colorful dialogue that heighten the theatrical feeling. Dickerson’s framing swings from humble to almost religious reverence of the characters, utilizing low-angle shots as they give sermons. Watch as Smiley (Roger Guenever Smith), standing in front of a Baptist church, preaches of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, not the Lord. The movie even makes space for a Greek chorus, in the form of three shit-talking old-timers. They talk about climate change and gleefully insult each other and anyone who walks by in hilarious interludes. It’s a playful touch that Lee would later replicate in Jungle Fever with a “war council” of wives, and he would invoke the concept even more faithfully to its roots with Chi-Raq, an adaptation of Lysistrata.
The energy of Do the Right Thing doesn’t just form as anger or melancholy; any mournfulness is built from its charm, from the intimacy between characters, all of which is dispelled in the screaming and harrowing last act. The film has its little joys and humanistic segments, like the young folks cooling down with an open fire hydrant, turning it off only to let Radio Raheem pass by with his signature stereo. The look ranges from sweltering heat to cool and sensual tones, or it can be strikingly energetic in how the camera swoops and zooms (while being no less lush and humanist in its focus).
In the film’s conception of Greek tragedy, catharsis is realized communally in the form of the neighborhood trashing Sal’s Pizzeria, the site of Radio Raheem’s murder by police. Lee’s messy humanism comes to a head without moral judgement on how they express their anger. On the subject of whether Mookie did indeed “do the right thing,” by instigating the restaurant’s destruction, Lee has often said, “Only white people asked me that.” The building can be rebuilt; Radio Raheem is gone forever. Perhaps the staginess of Do the Right Thing is why it packs such a huge punch. The illusion of artifice is broken by the realities of history and structural injustice in the US.