Do the Right Thing is set entirely on a street in Brooklyn, where, apparently, no cars ever drive. Taking place over only a couple of days, it focuses on the friendships, tensions and conflicts of its residents as they deal with a heatwave and increasing racial tensions.
What makes this film great is the rich tapestry of characters on display here. There’s Sal and his sons (Danny Aiello, Richard Edson, John Turturro) who run the pizzeria, and their delivery boy Mookie (Spike Lee); Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), an old drunkard who commands a lot of respect in the neighbourhood; the confrontational Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) and his friend Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn); Sweet Dick Willie (Robin Harris) and his friends; and Mother Sister (Ruby Dee), a woman constantly looking out of her window. Rarely seen but often heard is Mr Senor Love Daddy (Samuel L Jackson) who hosts the local radio station and provides the soundtrack in a way not dissimilar from Reservoir Dogs‘ “K Billy’s Super Sounds of the Seventies”.
By devoting plenty of time to all the characters, Lee creates a real sense of community. He gets brilliant performances from his actors, especially Ossie Davis, Samuel L Jackson and Lee himself, who plays a delivery boy who is arguably the film’s central character, and looks far too young to be directing a film.
The film is doused in a red filter which detracts from the realism somewhat as it looks like photography rather than documentary. Presumably it was done to create a sense of the heatwave, but it has the side effect of making it very hard to forget you’re watching a movie.
While Lee tackles social issues in his films, and they often have an organic feel having been written from his own experience, he is also not afraid of creating a visual style. Many would take a different approach. Precious, for example, opts for a far more naturalistic feel. While this makes Lee’s films nicer to look at, it also lessens their impact slightly.
While the characters in this film certainly talk about race a lot, they aren’t as completely obsessed as in Lee’s Jungle Fever, where it overwhelms the film itself. Do the Right Thing is openly political, with references to the approaches of both Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X, but it doesn’t stifle the film itself. Lee is not afraid to criticise black people as well as white, and never points the finger of blame for racial tension at a single group, rather he presents it as a failure on all sides. Do the Right Thing feels like the best of Jungle Fever combined with the best of Crooklyn, and is, as such, a very enjoyable film.