Do the Right Thing

AFI Rank: #96 (10th anniversary list)
Year Released: 1989
Director: Spike Lee
Actors: Spike Lee, Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Giancarlo Esposito

When it came out in 1989, Do the Right Thing was a powerful look into racism issues that some feared would spark riots. I watched this recently as part of my quest to watch all movies on the AFI Top 100 Listings. I had already watched the full 100 movies from the original list, created in 1998. Do the Right Thing was NOT on that list. However, when the AFI revoted in 2007 and added 23 new movies to their list, Do the Right Thing got brought on at spot #96.

I had already watched 100 movies from the original list, plus another six of the 23 new ones, before reaching this movie. And what is fairly telling about the state of our movie industry is that EVERY movie up until this point was about white males. Sure, I suppose one could say that Snow White has a female lead, but that's on the list for its technical animation skills. And as a side note, women who applied to join Disney at the time were REJECTED because "Women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen" (text from an actual rejection letter). So in any case with that exception the AFI "worthy movies" were ALL are about white males. I suppose one could say that Samuel L. Jackson appears in Pulp Fiction. Laurence Fishburne is in Apocalypse Now. But those are all stories about primarily white men, where they added in a black man or two. Certainly one might posit that there are more white men than black men, so more stories would be about them, but ALL of the stories?

It is wonderful, therefore, to finally have a movie on the AFI Top 100 which presents a black male view. We are seeing the world of Mookie, a young black man who lives in a run down part of Brooklyn. Unlike many movies set in this type of area, this isn't about gangs or about drugs. It's simply about people - a community who is trying to get through life as best it can. They have squabbles, they have friendships, and they have wildly different opinions on things. Part of the fascination of the movie is to hear all of the varying points of view and how the characters and lives intertwine.

This one day in the life of Brooklyn is a pressure cooker of simmering heat. Issues which might have stayed under the surface on a quiet, wintry day are bubbling over. The blacks are annoyed with the Koreans for "moving into their territory". The Hispanics and Blacks have turf wars. The Italians who run a local pizza joint are both supportive of the community as well as fairly racist. Everyone has fairly strong views about why their attitude is the right one.

The ending of the movie is fairly controversial and part of what is fascinating is that different groups of people see the "meaning" of it from different angles. That right there helps to show just how powerful the racial, and perhaps the have-vs-have-not, divide still is in the world. We do not all have one reference point from which we see things. We have different points of view and the same scene can elicit very different emotions. It's sort of like Rashomon where the exact same event is seen quite differently by different observers.

I was quite moved by Do the Right Thing and spent hours researching it and discussing it once I'd finished watching it. Which right there shows how powerful the movie was. There are few other movies on the AFI Top 100 which had me this fascinated.

Like just about every movie made, the movie is fairly male-centric. We have three female characters, and they are fairly minor. They never talk with each other, only to the men around them.

Yes, one could say that some of the characters are stereotypes, but that is true for just about any movie we watch. The Godfather would have us believe all Italians are part of the mafia. The Last Picture Show indicates that all small-town-Texas folk are sex maniacs. People picked on Fargo for its portrayal of residents of Minnesota / North Dakota. Movies use characters like these to help make a point. Spike Lee certainly made his.

Highly recommended. To me the point of watching Do the Right Thing is not to come up with a "final truth" about what the characters did or should have done. It's about the discussion surrounding the whole situation, and how it helps all of us learn more about each other's views. Buy Do the Right Thing from Amazon.com

AFI Top 100 Film Listing
Male vs Female Actors in the AFI Top 100
The Bechdel Test in the AFI Top 100