by Thom Ernst Wednesday February 13, 2013

Spike Lee was 32 when he made, "Do The Right Thing" (1989).  It would be just as remarkable if he were to make it today at the age of 55.  But if the film was done today, Spike would have a foundation of like-minded filmmakers to build upon.  Spike Lee didn't have a Spike Lee to turn to when making "Do the Right Thing".  Prior to Lee, there were few, if any, films where black characters appeared on screen for any other reason than because they were black.  As well-intentioned as Stanley Kramer, Martin Ritt or even our beloved Norman Jewison might have been (all directors who've made films that tackle themes of racism) their stars played black.  In other words; if the role didn't specifically call for someone black, Asian or Native, the role went to a white actor.

It's arguable that the characters in "Do the Right Thing" are defined by race for the story to work:  Saul needs to be Italian, Mookie needs to be African-American, the fruit-market owner's need to be Vietnamese.  Not so much his earlier film, "She Gotta' Have It" (1986), which could be cast with no regard to race, although that film does delve into areas specific to the African-American experience but that is more of a directorial preference than a racial definitive.

It's easy to forget the significant strides and breakthroughs Lee has made in cinema.  And yet there are few directors who come under-fire more often than Spike Lee.  His vocal objections against Quentin Tarantino's work - notable the amount of racial slurs uttered by Samuel L. Jackson  in "Jackie Brown" and recently of Tarantino's presentation of the American slave story as an entertaining western in "Django Unchained's" - leaves some to pass him off as a reactionist.  But critics of Lee were around long before the arrival of Tarantino.  They began in 1989 when "Do the Right Thing" was released and immediately perceived by some as dangerous; a strongly militant film that runs the risk of inciting riots.  To date no known riot has ever been linked to a screening of "Do the Right Thing".

One reason for concern is based on an assumption that the events in the film are endorsed by the filmmaker but there is nothing in the movie to substantiate this to be true.  Yes, Mookie, who is played by the director, is the audience's closest connection to the story and traditionally that's the character we trust as a moral guide throughout.  The assumption again is that the character we most closely connect with will act in a way that is in keeping with the moral standards and ideas of the filmmaker, and by proxy, our own standards.   So when Mookie does what Mookie does, he does it with or without audience, or perhaps even the director's, approval.  The film depicts events without casting judgment.   It's not a movie that sets out to raise alarms, or call people into action or even to placate us with a hope.  The film does not ask us to take sides, nor does it choose sides for us.

Film critic, Roger Ebert has written several articles on the film.  He wrote that he was so moved by the picture when first seeing it that he left the theatre in tears.  Says Ebert, "...anyone who leaves the movie with more intolerance that they walk in with wasn't paying attention".  Ebert then adds, "Do the Right Thing comes closer to reflecting the current stat of race relations in America than any other movie of our time."  He wrote that in 1989.  The sentiment remains today.

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