“Let me tell you the story of Right Hand, Left Hand. It’s a tale of good and evil.“
I think it’s hard to make a good movie about social issues. Most of the time, these kinds of films resort to wallowing in some deep melancholy and wind up terribly boring or they just hit you over the head with their point for a few hours, throwing aside much hope of a good narrative. It takes a smart director to make an exciting movie with strong social commentary, and one such director is Spike Lee. For decades, Lee has been hitting on important societal issues such as race relations and urban life, and Do the Right Thing is his most celebrated success in this area.
Taking place in the Bed-Stu urban community of Brooklyn, the movie focuses on a variety of the area’s residents and their experiences on the hottest day of the year, culminating in a climactic riot and instance of police brutality outside the local pizza shop. I hesitate to call Mookie (played by Spike Lee himself) the protagonist of the film, though he does serve as the central figure. We see him struggle with fatherhood and maintaining his romantic relationship, but his purpose in the story is also for us to watch him watch everyone else. We get to see his frustration at his friend Buggin’ Out for boycotting the pizza place for not having any black people on the “Wall of Fame,” as Mookie is just trying to make a living delivering pizzas. We get to see the mentally disabled man Smiley selling photographs of civil rights leaders. There’s Da Mayor, the old neighborhood drunk trying to make a change in his life, while serving as a sort of moral compass to the whole story; these are just to name a few. One of the most impressive things about this movie is how busy the plot is without being jumbled. Every character on screen is complex and fully realized, and this makes the film feel genuine.
About halfway through the film, I was skeptical if Spike Lee could unify all these different elements into a powerful ending. There are so many characters with their own little stories going on, but the last 20 minutes or so really achieve a phenomenal thing. Buggin’ Out teams up with Raheem to take on Sal’s Pizza, and the ensuing conflict seems to drag everyone into the mix for some powerful final imagery. The Wall of Fame burning to the ground was a great visual, but I loved it even more when Smiley finally got his moment of victory and pinned one of his photographs to the incinerated wall, tacking thematic relevance with the teachings of MLK and Malcolm X into the film’s discussion. The way Lee comes at his commentary is really effective. He keeps tossing in anecdotes of the black experience throughout the film, but he really drives home the point at the end with imagery that speaks more powerfully than dialogue could.
As always, I took special note of the technical elements of the film as well. Spike Lee pulls out some really cool cinematic choices that give the movie a distinct tone. I like the POV shots when two characters are confronting each other, as if you are looking up (or down) at someone yelling right in your face. It all feels very real, as if Lee is placing you right into the urban environment of Bed-Stu. The bit that jumps around to different characters spouting off racial slurs into the camera is a very jarring but effective scene, and I think the POV is really impactful here as well. I also liked the bits of musical transition by Samuel L. Jackson as Mister Señor Love Daddy (a role originally offered to Laurence Fishburne, interestingly enough). This isn’t a movie about cool cinematic effects, so they are really just used to highlight major themes, and the whole film feels richer due to this atmospheric style. Spike Lee also makes the decision to use a lot of effects throughout the film, playing around with editing, cinematography, etc. to give a more frantic, offbeat sort of atmosphere to the film’s presentation.
Do the Right Thing is a really complex movie centered around its themes, but Spike Lee manages to drive these themes home with some strong writing and powerful imagery. There are so many memorable moments for me. Raheem’s Love vs. Hate speech, Sal’s confrontation with Buggin’ Out and Raheem towards the end, and even just those three guys riffing around on the street corner. The hatred and bigotry of urban life (and just life altogether) is highlighted by these stunningly real moments, which are based in really strong characters facing their struggles honestly. Clearly, the “hottest day of the year” represents the culmination of these struggles and offers a justification for the demonstrations, the violence, and the unrest over police brutality when it occurs. In 2016, these issues are as important as ever, and Spike Lee manages to tackle them in an engaging way through this film. Do the Right Thing is a highly significant movie, and I predict that it will remain so for years to come.
Films Left to Watch: 964