Do the Right Thing

Photos from Do the Right Thing – Spike Lee, 1989. If it isn’t the best film about racial tensions in urban America, it’s certainly one of the most well known (and I’d argue, for all the moral questions it raises and its confrontational nature, it’s one of the most important). Do defines bravura filmmaking, a director exercising every inch of his craft and control to create a vision that is both utterly personal and socially concerned (to say “socially conscious” seems to sell short the film’s treatment of racial tension). Every frame (masterfully composed by Lee and cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, director of Juice) is filled with burning New York summer, the music is pitch perfect–P.E.’s anthemic “Fight the Power” and Bill Lee’s pastoral score providing the heat and slightest breeze of a scorching day–and the performances, though decidedly over the top, perfectly convey a neighborhood on the brink of explosion. It is as worthwhile a film as has been made in recent memory about race in America. It does not allow us to simply sit comfortably and pat ourselves on the back for “understanding the issues” and “empathizing with the characters.” It denies us the simple satisfaction of films like Crash or Babel, with their self-congratulatory pseudo messages–look, we’re all different but we’re all the same! we just need to learn to communicate! And it is not that these in and of themselves are messages unworthy of our time; on the contrary they are important ones, but they must be earned through more than a mere cataloguing of cultural misunderstandings. Do doesn’t give easy answers–its end famously consists of dichotomous quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. It might be a bitter pill for some, but it is still a highly resonant, expertly made work from one of New York’s quintessential filmmakers.

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