Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” was a film that was not only contemporary for its release but also ahead of its time. Released in 1989—over two decades ago—“Do the Right Thing’s” political backdrop is both more than relevant in modern America but is still able to spark a conversation on race relations and how society both views the situation and approaches it.
“Do the Right Thing” takes place entirely within a single Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn neighborhood; the community is tight-knit with everyone referring to one another by name and personal handshakes. The main character Mookie (Spike Lee) is a pizza delivery boy for Sal’s Famous Pizza—a pizzeria that is indeed famous, although only within the neighborhood: “They grew up on my pizza, I’m proud of that,” Sal (Danny Aiello) tells his two sons Pito (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson).
The beginning portion of “Do the Right Thing” is dedicated to a steady introduction of the different characters within the neighborhood and more specifically, their ethnic background and how this ethnic background affects their relations with their neighbors. While Mookie and his friends are African-American, Sal and his two sons are Italian, the deli grocery store is run by a Korean husband and wife duo who live with their infant baby, and finally, one particular stoop is home to Puerto Ricans.
Race isn’t the entire story behind “Do the Right Thing” however. Like Ozu’s films—“Ukigetsu,” and “Tokyo Story” just to use a few examples—there’s also the issue of the generational gap. Plenty of differently aged characters fill the screen, from older men and women such as Sal, Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) and Mother Sister (Ruby Dee), to men and women in their 20s: Mookie, Tina (Rosie Perez)—Mookie’s girlfriend, who’s also the mother of his young son—and Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), to the various children in the background who fill the streets playing games and chasing ice cream trucks.
One example of the clash between generational gaps can be seen in Sal’s role as father: Sal’s son, Vito, is racist and wishes to move out of the neighborhood and re-open the pizzeria in their Italian neighborhood. Despite the trouble that Sal receives from time to time, he’s vehemently against this and conversations between the two throughout the film, stress Sal’s struggle in trying to get Vito to understand his own values.
One of “Do the Right Thing’s strengths is Lee’s ability to use the camera as more than just a tool to capture the story but to turn the camera into a part of the story by tying it into the politics of the film—a technique that recalls Godard’s own style in his films “Weekend” and “La Chinoise.”
After another argument between Mookie and Vito over Vito’s use of the n-word, Lee cuts to a montage of the different characters in the neighborhood where each character slanders their racial enemy. What makes this particular scene stand out is Lee’s use of zoom-in: the camera is placed far away and as the characters begin to speak, the camera rapidly zoom-ins onto them. Whereas Lee could have started the montage with the characters already zoomed-in on, the forward and rapid movement of the camera creates a momentum which gives the monologues of each character a cinematic power. Furthermore, with the characters now face to face with the camera, thus breaking the fourth wall, the monologues become more personal and the film reaches out of itself.
No longer are the characters addressing one another but now begin to address the audience. What Lee is doing in this scene and with the movie as a whole, is that he is using his power as a filmmaker to address social issues that America might not be willing to admit or face and is doing more than asking the audience to reflect on themselves but to reflect on one another, albeit in a more positive way that—hopefully—doesn’t include racial slanders