[Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.]
Spike Lee’s vibrant, vital, thoroughly accomplished third feature opens on a call to action — “Fight the power!” shouts Public Enemy in the credits — and ends with a call to “wake up!”
Rosie Perez pumps out an aggressive shout of a dance in the opening credits, staged in front of a tenement set bathed in fiery red light. Not merely an evocation of the heat wave (literal and figurative) on this scorcher of a summer day in New York’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood, it anticipates the incendiary drama to come: Confrontation will end in conflagration.
As a private citizen, Spike Lee is aggressively outspoken and provocative. As a filmmaker, he is remarkably inclusive and egalitarian. Do the Right Thing gives every character in the bustling ensemble a voice, a sensibility and a dignity, from ranting would-be activist Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) to philosophical neighborhood drunk Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) to pizzeria proprietor Sal (Danny Aiello), who displays his American-Italian pride on his ethnic-exclusive “Wall of Fame.”
Danny Aiello vehemently tussled with writer/director Lee over the portrait of Sal. To Lee, Sal was (for all his generosity) a racist, while Aiello saw him as just a guy getting by in a neighborhood where he had become a minority. That tension is all over the movie. No characters think they’re racist (not even Sal’s angry bigot of a son, played by John Turturro), yet the racial divide defines the social currency of the film, whether it’s the increasingly heated war of words and wills between Sal and Buggin’ Out, the escalation of the violence when the cops respond to a brewing riot, or the unveiled contempt with which everyone treats the Korean shop owners.
Race is surely the hardest issue to tackle with any honesty and insight in American cinema (just look to Crash to see it reduced to a battle of stereotypes). Lee doesn’t attempt to answer the complicated questions of racism, misunderstanding and simmering anger as much as confront them with a hard clarity.
The blast of violence that ends Do the Right Thing accomplishes nothing, but it expresses a deep well of disenchantment and unfocused rage that, for a few moments, finds an outlet and a focus. It’s a ferocious, uninhibited scream in the face of injustice while the conflicts and contradictions remain unresolved to the bitter yet compassionate end.
Universal releases a new edition on DVD and Blu-ray this week.