Do the Right Thing: 25 Years Later

On June 30th 1989, nearly 25 years ago, Spike Lee’s classic film Do the Right Thing was released in theaters. To say it caused a stir would be an understatement. Some critics felt it would instigate race riots, and its subject matter of race and racism was addressed so forthrightly and so plainly, that it seemed like a new vanguard in the way racism was to be addressed in America. The film was nominated for two Academy Awards, and it helped usher in a boom of daring, diverse independent movies that would stretch through the whole of the 1990s. Lee, along with Steven Soderbergh, Richard Linklater, Kevin Smith, and Quentin Tarantino (not to mention a few important others), were to become the new sub-Hollywood royalty. Of the indie boom of the 1990s, Do the Right Thing was one of its crown jewels.

We, the audience, may be able to intellectualize what the “right thing” may have been in that instance, but more than anything, we’re caught up in the grief of the moment. Over the course of the film, we’ve come to know the angers, the dramas, the laughter, the longings of all the characters in this small Brooklyn neighborhood. By the time the violence begins, we know why everyone participates, and we hurt at the acts being committed. The true martyr in all this is Radio Raheem, played by Bill Nunn. Radio is savaged by white cops.

Could Do the Right Thing be released in 2014? I’m not so sure that it could. We like to fancy that we live in a post-race America, and that color-blindness is merely one of our natural traits. This is, of course, not true, and racism still permeates a lot of mixed-race neighborhoods exactly the way it does in Do the Right Thing, but it’s not as openly talked about. There are many assured filmmakers working today, of course, but I can’t readily think of many that have the utter chutzpah of Spike Lee. Lee looked at his neighborhood, saw undercurrents of racism, and made a film about it using humor, diligence, and no scraps of doubt. No films are as confident as Do the Right Thing.

It’s often been said that subtlety is dead in modern film, and while Do the Right Thing is brash and loud, it possesses an undercurrent of subtlety that modern films are, I think, perhaps not capable of. I feel that a lesser filmmaker would reduce the characters to broader archetypes, a more comforting place to occupy in 2014’s ultra-safe and increasingly commercial filmmaking environment. In 2014, the film would likely be rated PG-13, and the harsher racial language would be toned down. That, or the racial language would be deliberately highlighted by publicists, touting how daring it was. In 1989, it was a scandal. These days, it would come with a warning label.

In the modern ethos, when Hollywood makes a film about race and racism, it seems to skew more preachy and moralistic. Think of 2005’s Crash, a hugely overrated film about racial fear that never stops tut-tutting long enough to allow the characters to grow past their base simplicity. It highlights racism heavily as a Social Issue. The story never grows any ambiguity or necessary ambivalence. The one instance of middle-road moral ground is a scene of a racist white cop rescuing the black woman he abused earlier in the film. Crash was a thudding, ham-fisted polemic that never preached anything beyond the safest possible messages. Do the Right Thing is an impassioned, funny, serious sermon that asks important questions, addresses real concerns, and ultimately (and realistically) comes to no conclusion.

It’s a film that looks at racism in America and asks us to do the right thing. We, however, can’t always know what that is. Fight the power. But do the right thing.

So the irony here is that Do the Right Thing is a product of its time, but it’s also immediate and universal. Public Enemy announced the year right at the head of the film (1989!), but the film is not trapped there. It just had to come from there to exist at all. I feel that, in 2014, we’d have a sexier, more easily digested, much safer version of what Spike Lee was talking about.

Lee himself has continued to make mostly interesting movies (critics loved his morally ambiguous Red Hook Summer, although many balked at his ambitious wartime drama Miracle at St. Anna; it’s a pity he didn’t end up directing the film version of Rent, as rumor had it back in the day). He still has big things on his mind, but seems to have been relegated to the sidelines as an expected provocateur (an oxymoron!). His films have been shrinking in budget, and just last year, he made his first film (Oldboy) that wasn’t a “Spike Lee Joint.” His next film will be funded through a Kickstarter campaign. The only recent filmmaker who I could perhaps dare to compare Lee to would be Steve McQueen. McQueen, however, is more of a stylist than a minister, staging his moral dramas as photography exhibits rather than living questions.

Do the Right Thing. Happy 25th anniversary. May it eternally provoke.

Witney Seibold is the head film critic for Nerdist, and a contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. You can read his weekly Trolling articles here on Crave, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.