Retro Review: Do The Right Thing (1989)

Thirty years on, it’s hard to believe this film is really that old. Ranked by many as the best film of the year at the time, and with cast members and screenplay nominated for Academy Awards, it now seems to have been almost forgotten, and is rarely shown on TV. I had read about the film, and had also seen Lee’s earlier success ‘She’s Gotta Have it’. So I went to see it at the cinema, additionally enticed by the impressive cast list.

I was not disappointed. I thought it was an amazing film, with perfect locations, a superb cast, and a snappy script. It was all there. An unusually hot summer, racial tensions between ethnic groups in a small area, and everyone getting hot under the collar as the temperatures soared. Lee stars as Mookie, a pizza delivery man living in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of New York City. He works for Sal, (a brilliant performance from Danny Aiello) at the local pizzeria. Sal’s son Pino (John Tuturro on top form) is racially prejudiced against black people, but his father refuses to let tensions in the neighbourhood force him to move away from his business.

This film excels in the use of minor characters to set the scene as they watch or become involved in the action as it unfolds. The marvellously-named Radio Raheem, (Bill Nunn) a sociable drunk called Da Mayor, (Ossie Davis) and Mother Sister, (Ruby Dee) who watches everyone come and go from the steps or window of her house. Trouble starts to brew when one of Mookie’s friends protests about the ‘Wall of Fame’ in Sal’s pizzeria. Sal has lots of photos of famous Italian-Americans, but none of any famous black people. Driven on by the stifling heat, protests against Sal’s wall increase, until at the end of a long, hot, and fractious day, things boil over into a dramatic confrontation.

Despite its age, this film could not be more relevant today. It examines attitudes to race, tolerance of the mentally ill, confrontational policing, and the effects of crowding people together in fast-changing neighbourhoods where some resist those changes. Aiello is outstanding as Sal, though everyone involved is nothing less than perfect for their role. This is a film that every film fan should watch at least once, and one that will undoubtedly be seen as historically and culturally significant in the future.

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34 thoughts on “Retro Review: Do The Right Thing (1989)

  1. I’ve always felt compelled–even pressured (just me being neurotic)–to like this film, but I just don’t. Spike Lee to me, is like Alfred Hitchcock to you. I think he’s overrated, though I acknowledge that he is talented. Just not my cup of tea I guess. Nice review though.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pete, you are absolutely right…this year, Spike made his most important film since then, with “BlackKklansman” – it will receive some attention this Oscar season as well! His voice is so important today, and even if the quality of his films is variable at times, he knows how to make a masterpiece as well

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I really liked ‘Malcolm X’, ‘Clockers’, ’25th Hour’, ‘Summer of Sam’, and others. Yes, he made some duds, like ‘Inside Man’, and there was no need to remake ‘Old Boy’. But overall, he is definitely in front! 🙂
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I noticed at least two other famous faces in the trailer—Samuel L. Jackson and Rosie Perez. I haven’t seen the film, but, of course, I’ve heard about it. It does look good. You’re right about racial tensions, though it now extends beyond black and white.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I have missed this one back in the day (I think the late eighties was a time where I was not really visiting the cinema a lot, being busy with school). Having seen the trailer now, and you saying this is a film that every film fan should watch at least once, how can I not check this one out. Definitely seems like a very cool and significant film😊

    Liked by 1 person

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