Do the Right Thing: A Retrospective

DVD Copy of Criterion Collection version of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989), distributed by Universal Pictures

I am not exaggerating when I say that Spike Lee is like a second father to me. As a young black man who has been pursuing his dream of filmmaking for the past 4 years, his films have meant the world to me. My parents owned a copy of School Daze on DVD, but I did not get a chance to watch the film until I went to college (I lived in a “well it’s rated R so…” household). Fortunately, my Dad would play the film’s gorgeous soundtrack on lazy Friday nights and car rides home from school.

When I watched Spike Lee’s masterpiece Malcolm X for the first time my sophomore year of college, my roommate just so happened to walk in during the assassination scene. He was a white kid who one might consider “country,” but when he looked at the screen in horror, looked back at me and said with genuine curiosity: “Malcolm X was assassinated?” I could not believe my ears.

About a year later, I walked in on 2 classmates watching Bamboozled for an assignment and after seeing the looks on their faces I said to myself, “I gotta watch this movie.” It even made my favorite “woke” professor a little bit nervous when I brought it up at a college social event.

Giancarlo Esposito as Buggin’ Out in the infamous “Yo, your Jordans are FUCKED up” scene from Do the Right Thing (1989), distributed by Universal Pictures. GIF used via GIPHY

It’s been 30 years since Do the Right Thing and the film still resonates heavily. You don’t have to be a Spike Lee fan to see that. There’s the obvious (police brutality), the more subtle but still there (gentrification), and even a brief piece of dialogue on global warming. The Academy blatantly decided to undermine the film’s resonance by awarding Best Picture to a much more socially conservative film: Driving Miss Daisy. Now I have yet to see that film, but a Good Morning America interview with Spike Lee from 2016 told me all I needed to know (the comments on Driving Miss Daisy don’t start until about the 5:30 mark).

“Sal, how come you ain’t got no brothers up on the wall here?” These words uttered by Buggin’ Out (played flawlessly by one of my favorite actors of all-time Giancarlo Esposito) kick off what will eventually become the central conflict in a film filled with them. Meanwhile, Radio Raheem walks the streets, proudly playing Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” on his boombox (by the way, shout-out to The Goldbergs for referencing Public Enemy on their show). When Buggin’ Out asks Raheem (played by the late Bill Nunn) if he has any other songs to play, Raheem is strong in his “no.” Sometimes the demand for equality requires constant work, even when the world seems to turn against you.

Bill Nunn as Radio Raheem in Do the Right Thing (1989), distributed by Universal Pictures

In what may be the most powerful scene not just in the film, but in cinema history, Radio Raheem explains the meaning behind his love and hate rings. This may be a stretch, but is it any coincidence that hate usually seems to come from the right-side of politics while the left tends to make more attempts towards inclusion? Okay, technically the love ring is on Raheem’s right hand, but the viewer sees it on the left side so I rest my case. This is just a theory so don’t take me too seriously on it, but I’ve seen crazier theories on the internet.

Mookie (played by Spike Lee himself) is just trying to get paid. He’s a delivery man for Sal’s Pizzeria, simple enough right? Unfortunately for him, one of the owner’s sons Pino (John Turturro) is a racist who believes all the worst stereotypes about black people.

As I re-watched Do the Right Thing a few days ago, I was moved by something that didn’t click entirely the first time I saw it: I related to all of these characters (Buggin’ Out, Radio Raheem, Mookie), I was and am all of these characters. I’ve worked at places where I had to deal with racism, I’ve been chastised for my musical choices, and like Buggin’ Out, I’ve spoken out and been labeled a “troublemaker” because of it.

Roger Guenveur Smith as “Smiley,” a mentally-challenged character in the film who hands out pictures of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. GIF used via WordPress, Do the Right Thing (1989), distributed by Universal Pictures

When Buggin’ Out finally gets his wish, enough damage has been done for some viewers to ask: was it really worth it? Ernest Dickerson’s cinematography, however, puts you right up in the faces of Buggin’ Out and Radio Raheem as they come to Sal with their request. Was their approach the best? It doesn’t matter. By the way the camera is placed, you can look into the eyes of these young men and truly feel their pain. It places the voices of the voiceless into a loudspeaker. They’re hot. They’re angry. They’re sweaty. And damn it, they want pictures of black people put up in a restaurant where the crowd is unanimously black.

Spike Lee may have just won his first Oscar, but the president of the United States continues to do the exact opposite of what Lee does with his films: completely ignoring the disenfranchised and lifting up those already in power. Some people who view Do the Right Thing today may ask “is it that big of a deal?” “Couldn’t they have just went home?” This sort of thinking has brought us to this point in time in America and it’s this sort of thinking that will keep us here. I rest my case.

Young, hungry, cinephile, NBA fan, former bookworm (still one at heart), Hip-Hop & music lover, comedy head. Most of my articles on here are about movies