“Wake up!” The first words of director Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing echo the last lines of his previous film, School Daze. Most aspects of Do the Right Thing — celebrating its 20th anniversary with a Fox Theatre screening July 11 — emphasize Lee’s sensibility as a cinematic provocateur. With the urgency and energy of an alarm clock, Lee tried to rouse movie-goers from their complacency and urge them to look around, register to vote and “Fight the Power,” to quote the Public Enemy song that recurs 15 times throughout the film.
In his early 30s at the time, Lee celebrated vitality over subtlety at nearly every chance in Do the Right Thing. Rosie Perez’s pugnacious dance moves during the opening credits’ rendition of “Fight the Power” sets a tone of confrontational pride and high-spirited indignation. Lee’s camera hungrily seeks and reveals information of the cultural cross-section in a block of Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in the midst of a heat wave.
Do the Right Thing's success may have instilled some questionable creative habits in Lee, who, in his subsequent films, seemed to fall in love with either incessant camera effects or constant soundtrack music. At times Do the Right Thing's strings and saxophones sound positively mawkish, in keeping with manipulative characterizations like Roger Guenveur Smith’s stuttering Smiley. Through some of the film’s famous set pieces, such as a roll call of African-American musicians or competing rants of racial epithets, Lee proves capable of pushing positive emotions and ugly impulses to their heights.
With a few exceptions, Lee’s ensemble looks like a dream team of rising stars and old pros, from Samuel L. Jackson’s velvet-toned disc jockey Mister Señor Love Daddy to John Turturro’s bigoted pizza baker to the late Robin Harris, who steals his scenes as street-corner raconteur Sweet Dick Willie. In an Oscar-nominated turn, Danny Aiello ensures that Italian pizzeria owner Sal comes across as hypocritical but not inconsistent as he alternates from dictatorial bullying to lordly condescension toward his black clientele.
Lee’s central performance as Sal’s delivery man Mookie seems like a missed opportunity amid such strong actors. As a young, underemployed worker, unmarried father and friend to Sal’s son Vito (Richard Edson), Mookie stands at a social crossroads. Lee’s poker-faced portrayal makes Mookie a blank slate for the audience to project ideas and raise questions. A more expressive performance, though, would enrich the role and clarify some of Mookie’s motivations.
Some details now prove quaint or dated, such as the giant boombox blasted by the intimidating Radio Raheen (Bill Nunn). Still, Do the Right Thing seems like a film both of its time and just ahead of it. Lee articulated real-world racial tensions and outrage over 1980s incidents of excessive police force that would, three years later, explode following the verdict of the Rodney King trial.
At the time, some critics accused Do the Right Thing of ignoring the inner-city drug problem, a point that now seems overblown, particularly given Lee’s explorations of drug abuse in Jungle Fever and other films. To this day, discussions of the film frequently turn into debates over whether Mookie does the right thing with a destructive act that ignites the neighborhood’s long-simmering powderkeg. The film’s final act almost feels like an attempt at narrative sleight of hand, as Lee shifts attention from one community’s charged undercurrents to outrage over police brutality. The film comes short of endorsing riots, but Do the Right Thing’s climatic ambiguities seem to imply that, in matters of social justice, two wrongs can make a right.