Thoughts on "Do the Right Thing" (1989)

reading time 4 min

Thoughts about “Do The Right Thing” (no spoilers)

Wednesday night my wife and I rewatched Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing” (1989). I had seen it when it first came out, and I’d been wanting to rewatch it as an adult for comparison. A diversity group at work mentioned it, so that gave me motivation to rewatch it this week. It was just as powerful as I remember it… more so, actually.

It was so ahead of its time. Some things I didn’t notice back in 1989: while the main story is about race relations, there are dialogs and scenes that touch on every important progressive issue. For example there’s a brief discussion of what we now call the climate crisis… in 1989 it seemed like a throw-away conversation just used for character development. Now I realize Spike Lee wanted to touch on the broad array of issues to show that struggle is universal and none of us are alone; just like MLK, Jr. always took the time to do in his speeches.

There are a zillion little bits of dialog or actions that seem to be superfluous but have a pay-offs later on. In that sense, all the moments that seem to be “extra” turn out to have significance later. Today we think of Kevin Smith or Christopher Nolan as directors that do that, but Spike was doing it in 1989. As a result, there is an amazing economy of words. What you think it yet another superfluous character development scene has pay-off later. This is both a tribute to the writing, but also to the film editing. Like Strunk & White (and Dorothy Parker, and many others) say, the art of editing is to keep removing anything that is non-essential until you can’t remove any more, then remove a little more just to be sure. There is no “fat” here. It is all meaningful. Like time-travel movies that you want to watch a second time to see if you can catch all the foreshadowing and call-backs, I want to watch this movie a second and third time.

Another thing I noticed was the music. I could easily re-watch it just to pay attention to the songs selected for each scene. The music for each scene is perfect: it sets the mood, but also has lyrics that relate to what’s going on. Unlike some movies where the music is selected much later, possibly in the editing process, there is intentionality to the music and I bet Lee picked the songs concurrently with the writing. Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power” carries the film… at first you assume its just about the title, but that song is an encyclopedia of racial problems in America, and we hear each segment timed with the action in the scene. Like the Greek Choruses that would summarize what’s going on in classic theater, Lee uses Public Enemy to foreshadow, reenforce, and move the plot along.

Speaking of music… The opening was a full 5-minute music video. In 1989 it felt too long. Now I realize Spike was saying “I’m giving you 5 minutes to chill the f— down, get into your seats, leave the world behind and enter my world. (In 1989 I didn’t realize that the dancer in the opening is the same Rosie Perez that plays Lee’s girlfriend Tina.)

Then there are very subtle music cues… The any scene with the two old characters (Mother Sister and Da Mayor) has “old time-y” music from the 1930s/1940s, as if mocking their age, but really showing that they are in a different world.

Oh, and then there are the actors… OH MY GOD. There are two groups of actors in this film: brilliant actors that were famous at the time, and brilliant actors that later went on to be famous. In the first category are, obviously, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Danny Aiello. But who are all those other people? In 1989 nobody knew who John Tuturro or Samuel L. Jackson was. (Yes, that’s Samuel L. Jackson as the D.J.!). Giancarlo Esposito (Breaking Bad, The Mandalorian), Frankie Faison (Grey’s Anatomy and a million other TV shows), Rosie Perez, Frank Vincent (many TV shows), Eric Payne (Never Die Alone, Grey’s Anatomy, Boston Legal), and… what??? Martin Lawrence? OMG! Yes, that’s young Martin Lawrence in those scenes!

How did Spike Lee spot so many unknown talented actors that would later become household names? It reminds me of the movie “Diner”: Nobody in that film is famous, but they all “hit it big” with their next film.

I promised no spoilers so I’ll end it here. However, I do encourage you to see the film; or re-watch it. It is on Amazon and Hulu (and probably others).

Tom Limoncelli

Tom Limoncelli

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