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From Under A Rock: Do the Right Thing

August 2, 2018 | Posted by Michael Ornelas
Do the Right Thing
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From Under A Rock: Do the Right Thing  


I (Aaron) don’t know if it’s as hot everywhere else in the states as it is in Kansas, but this summer has exhausted me with it’s heat. And when I think about hot summers, there’s one movie that always pops into my brain, and that’s this week’s pick.

You only get one first time, and for some people, it comes later than it does for others. This particular column is about documenting the first viewing of a “classic” movie or TV show determined at the discretion of Aaron Hubbard and Michael Ornelas in alternation.

Last week Michael chose Pan’s Labyrinth. This week Aaron takes Michael out from under the proverbial rock to show him Do the Right Thing.

Do the Right Thing
Released: July 21st, 1989
Written, Produced and Directed by: Spike Lee
Spike Lee as Mookie
Danny Aiello as Sal
John Turturro as Pino
Giancarlo Esposito as Buggin Out
Samuel L. Jackson as Mister Señor Love Daddy

Aaron Hubbard: Well, this was a no-brainer pick for me. Do the Right Thing made a huge impression on me when I first saw it, and I always knew I’d get around to picking it eventually. This summer seemed like the right time. And a… big SPOILER WARNING for this column.

Michael Ornelas: I had a really hard time getting into this movie…the intentional building of tension didn’t really hook me until about the halfway point.
The Start of a Conversation
Aaron: Do the Right Thing is the most critically acclaimed film of 1989, but it’s also one of the most controversial movies of its era. More than a few critics were sure that it would incite race riots, an accusation I find condescending, paranoid and more than a little bit racist. There’s also debate over whether Mookie actually “did the right thing” at the end when he attacked Sal’s restaurant with the garbage can. Well, I say debate. As Spike Lee points out, no black person has ever questioned this. Mookie recognizes the justified anger that comes when the police murder Radio Raheem, but turns that anger against property instead of his boss. That some people seem to think that destroying property is somehow equal to or worse than the murder of Raheem baffles me, and I also think Spike Lee’s film takes a decidedly neutral stance on the morality of the riot. After all, why else would he present two opposing comments from Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. and a photo of them getting along as the final statement of his film?

Michael: This movie was so difficult to digest for me. I was mortified at the death of Radio Raheem, and the riot was so intense to watch on screen. When you feel like those who are supposed to protect you don’t care about you, and are killing you…it would be hard not to take drastic action as you have essentially been silenced. Riots happen in pretty much only two cases: when peaceful protest no longer feels like it can accomplish progress, or when your sports team wins or loses a major championship game. A movie about the latter would be dumb but Do the Right Thing has much to say about the former. I’m not black and I’m not oppressed, so it’s not really my place to say if Mookie did the right thing. I know I didn’t like Buggin’ Out, really, as he was disruptive over how a pizza store owner chose to decorate his wall. Sal didn’t refuse service to people of color nor did his decor include anything derogatory about them. He was celebrating his own heritage. I’m all about representation and equality, but store owners can decorate how they want if it’s not disparaging. But the death of Raheem did warrant a huge response. The stakes were disproportionate in the battles they chose to fight.

Aaron: I think what may be dissonant here is that Do the Right Thing really doesn’t want you to choose sides with any one group. Buggin’ Out is an obnoxious person who clearly is looking for a fight. Sal seems to be a good guy, but he’s got his own complicated racist feelings. Mookie is pretty chill about race relations but isn’t likable as a person, really. I believe Spike Lee’s goal was to present a community (and not just a black community) as honestly as possible and show viewers what these neighborhoods are like, how these riots start from pettiness and how they have terrible ends. In that, I think he succeeds. As Spike says, he isn’t trying to give answers; he’s just tired of nobody asking the questions.
Fight the Power
Michael: The song “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy was a constant in this film. It was the song that was always blasting from Radio Raheem’s boombox. It was the song that Rosie Perez danced to through the opening credits. It was the theme (both literally and figuratively) of the film. But it created constant noise. The characters yelling over one another, constantly bickering created even more noise. The anger these characters felt amplified the noise of the bickering. Noise, noise, noise. This movie had me on edge and in an unpleasant space the whole time because it was building tension through its constant barrage of sound. I hated the experience, but understand that it wasn’t supposed to be enjoyable. It was a calculated movie by Spike Lee that made me feel something, and I respect that…but it prevented me from being able to focus, and I didn’t enjoy it.

Aaron: “Fight the Power” was in fact made for this movie, which is why you hear that song specifically so much. It’s also our only real clue to the personality of Raheem for most of the movie, a man who lets his music speak and his facial expressions talk for him. But as for the noise… well, I can’t blame you for not enjoying it, but it is very authentic. This is a neighborhood with no fences, where everyone knows everyone like family, and where some of the residents are openly hostile. You’re gonna be loud just to cut through the noise and be heard. And when everyone does that, nobody can hear anyone, and then we end up where this film ends up. And when the movie finally gets quiet for a moment, man does it work.

Michael: I agree. The silence is easily the most powerful moment in the film. It’s brilliantly earned, but man is it tough to get to.
Breaking Down Walls
Aaron: One of the most memorable sequences in the film is when Spike breaks the fourth wall and has five characters speak directly to the camera, unleashing every slur in the book. It’s a moment that expresses the racial tension of everyone on the block, something that simmers under the surface. And it ends with Mister Señor Love Daddy speaking directly to the audience saying “You need to cut that shit out!” It’s delivered with the subtlety of a Looney Tunes anvil, but some anvils need to be dropped. If you look at the movie landscape before Do the Right Thing, you’ll find very few movies that deal this frankly with racism and racial violence. Especially from black directors who are from these urban melting pots where hatred boils over. It’s a Message Movie and one that absolutely changed the Hollywood landscape.

Michael: Oh my jeez, yeah that scene was frankly quite nuts, if for nothing more than the “Wait, are you allowed to do that?” factor. It was bold, and certainly stuck with me. It actually may be the only scene from the movie I had seen before, as I’m pretty certain it was shown to me in film school. I didn’t mind the lack of subtlety — it got across all the points it was trying to make, and Samuel L. Jackson’s button on the end of it pushed it to the next level. Weirdly enough, the scene made of American History X in just how hate-filled it was.

Aaron: Yeah it’s really jarring to certain audiences members, including me (the first time). But I think it’s a great example of what makes the film work. Spike isn’t really concerned with making the movie feel real in the immersive sense. He’s more concerned with reaching to his audience and talking to them, involving them in the situation, and creating empathy. He’s breaking down illusory walls so he can break down the walls in our shared conversation about a subject that needs to be talked about. And it works; Do the Right Thing sticks with me.

Michael: This movie is very craftily made. Lee knew exactly what he was doing in the construction of this film’s structure. It was certainly disruptive, but I didn’t really like any of the characters (which isn’t to say they were badly-written or portrayed), I didn’t like the first 30-45 minutes of the plot (I didn’t feel like it did much), and just on the whole, I didn’t enjoy it. My grade is representative of the filmmaking being great despite my personal lack of enjoyment.


Aaron: Do the Right Thing is a game changer, a landmark film in an era where those are fewer and farther between. It’s powerful, unique and entertaining, and one of my favorite movies. Any short list of “must watch films” that I make would include this movie.


Michael: This is actually the first time I’ve ever seen a riot portrayed in a movie, I think.

Aaron: Yeah, it’s not a common topic for what I assume are obvious reasons.

What other riots in film are memorable to you?

Next week:

Michael: Next week we get to dip our feet back into the waters of light-hearted creature feature.
Aaron: I know John Boyega is in this and nothing else. But that’s all I need really.

Michael: I’m curious to revisit it now that he’s a much bigger star.

What’s your favorite British horror film?

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The 411
Michael and Aaron both admire the craftsmanship of Do the Right Thing, but feel differently about its overall quality. Whether you think Spike Lee's film is an unassailable classic or one with a few flaws, it's certainly worth seeing. Check it out if you haven't gotten around to it. And always do the right thing.