"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Million Dollar Movie

Since it is hotter n July today, why not check out a scene from this classic NYC summer flick:

I remember seeing this on opening day near Times Square (my friends and I were the only white kids is the audience). I’ll never forget how we were introduced to Rosie Perez, shadow-boxing of sorts over P.E. Man, the movie, and that theater were charged–hyped, as they used to say.

I don’t think Do the Right Thing is a great movie, but it’s as close as Spike has gotten and I think it is his best, even though it is deeply flawed. It is funny as hell, Ernest Dickerson’s photography is weird and evocative, and Spike really captured a moment in time. When this movie dropped, he was hottest thing in town.


1 ms october   ~  Jun 28, 2010 2:42 pm

this is one of my favorite movies.

it really does capture a moment in time very well.
there are some absolutely hilarious lines in it and a bunch of interesting characters.

it's not quite jheri curl hot today, but it is damn hot.

2 RagingTartabull   ~  Jun 28, 2010 2:47 pm

I love that Barack and Michelle saw this on their first date.

definitely Spike's most fully realized movie, the characters were written with a level of respect and affection that he didn't put into some of his later work (i.e. the garish caricatures in Jungle Fever) and like Ms. O says it really captures a moment in time. You put this movie on and its Brooklyn, Summer '89 for 2 hours.

3 Jon DeRosa   ~  Jun 28, 2010 2:49 pm

a pile of my friends (13 and 14 yrs old) were in a station wagon for this one. a suburban NJ theater.

at 13, i rooted for mookie, but i didn't understand why he threw the garbage can. i took it as mookie saying it was sal's fault when i didn't think it was.

i heard a q & a w/ spike 10 years later and someone asked him that. he said "mookie's friend was just killed. how can you compare a storefront window to radio raheem's life?"

4 RagingTartabull   ~  Jun 28, 2010 2:55 pm

[3] I think I've seen that interview too, I remember Spike insisting that Sal was a racist. Which I think is a little bit of a cop-out and doesn't do justice to the depth of the character or Danny Aiello's performance.

Sal definitely had his prejudices, but in the course of the entire movie he's being established someone who might have some paternalistic instincts ("these kids were raised on my pizza") but isn't hateful. So for Spike to say after the fact "oh yeah...he was racist" that never sat right with me. I mean he's not any MORE of a racist than Buggin' Out.

5 ms october   ~  Jun 28, 2010 3:01 pm

[3] [4] it might not have been sal's 'fault,' but sal could have stopped a lot of what happened. sal has power that buggin out just does not have.

6 TheGreenMan   ~  Jun 28, 2010 3:08 pm

[4] Spike would probably disagree with you about Buggin' Out being just as racist as Sal. I remember reading once that Spike felt that it was not possible for black people to be racist. That racism, by definition, was a one-way street. White against black. I don't know what definition he was using, but that seems pretty foolish to me. Anyone can be a racist. Even Spike.

That being said...I loved me some "Do the Right Thing". Along with "She's Gotta Have It", it's my favorite Spike Lee film, er, joint.

7 RagingTartabull   ~  Jun 28, 2010 3:09 pm

a good discussion of the movie from last year:


[5] I get Spike's comments about the value of a white man's property vs. a black man's life, and think that a lot of it rings true. I just always thought broadly labeling Sal a "racist" was overly simplistic. He was condescending, he was paternalistic, and he was ignorant. But to say he was "racist" is to suggest that he hated every Black person on the block regardless of character or background...and I just don't think you got that from the character.

8 ms october   ~  Jun 28, 2010 3:16 pm

[6] [7] it's interesting how people interpret and impart meanings to words.
for me racism does involve power. so i don't think buggin out can be racist - he can be prejudiced.
also, i don't necessarily think someone who is racist hates every black person - to me sal had some racist tendencies, but i don't think he hated every black person - he definitely felt mostly positive things about mookie.
sal's inability to understand why the kids that came in his shop and resented him was problematic.

9 Matt Blankman   ~  Jun 28, 2010 3:26 pm

I caught this one on its opening night at some theater around Westbury or HIcksville. It was a packed house and a largely non-white crowd. I recall my friends and I had to split up and find seats wherever we could. There was serious tension in the air as the movie started - don't forget, when it had played in Cannes, people were suggesting it would start riots in the US. Of course, that didn't happen and all of us, black, white and other, in that movie theater just had a great night at the movies.

I am not a big fan of Spike Lee, but I would say that Do The Right Thing *is* a great movie. It's flawed, to be sure, but it really pulses with life and color and passion. Yes, it's also a great window on 1980s New York City.

10 RagingTartabull   ~  Jun 28, 2010 3:30 pm

[8] admittedly I'm going on the strictest definition of Racism, which Webster's puts as "a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race."

Institutional racism absolutely requires power (an institution) to exist. So Sal's refusal to put any black people on the wall is an example of institutional racism, in the same way that institutional racism exists in something like the criminal justice system.

But to me, to say Sal himself is a "racist" is to say that he displayed a feeling that he was superior to everyone else in the neighborhood simply by virtue of the fact that he was white. I guess my point is just that while Sal may have been prejudiced, that doesn't necessarily make him racist. They're two different things.

Sal is a problematic character, but thats what makes him a great character. He's multifaceted.

11 ms october   ~  Jun 28, 2010 3:42 pm

[10] i agree fully that being racist and prejudiced are two different things. i don't think i would call sal a racist, but i do think he had racist tendencies (such as the refusal to put any black people on the wall, and probably even more importantly to refuse to understand why that was such a big deal to buggin out), but i don't think he was a racist. that might sounds like i am splitting hairs, but i think being a racist and having racist tendencies are also two different things.

but yes, sal is an extraordinarily fascinating, multi-faceted character (his fondness for jade was an interesting part of his character).

12 Alex Belth   ~  Jun 28, 2010 3:43 pm

11) I think the movie broke down in the last act when it became a Bertolt Brecht morality play. (That's just my taste, I don't dig that stuff.) But it did fit the tone he'd set-up, which was anything but naturalistic.

Lee just calling Aiello a racist undermines the complexity of his performance and also of racism in general. I thought Aiello did a good job with a narrow characer, where as Esposito was one-note as Buggin Out.

Maybe it is a great movie. As Matt and I have discusssed the great ones are usually far from perfect. It sure was a movie of the moment. Spike never hit a nerve again like he did here, and his flaws earlier on--characters, especially women, narrative--never did improve. He's an important director but I think of him more as a commercials director who also happens to make movies.

13 Jersey   ~  Jun 28, 2010 3:46 pm

One of my favorite moments in ANY movie is right at the end of Do The Right Thing, when Smiley hangs a photo of MLK and Malcolm X on the wall, as the pizza shop is burning around him, with a look on his face that comes off as rather chilling or crazed, given the somewhat vacant stare of this "slow" character with flames in the background framing him.

I thought it was powerful imagery, partly because, at the time, I thought that Spike was trying to make some kind of counter intuitive statement or warning about the potentially destructive consequences of militancy (i.e. "by whatever means necessary"). This interpretation made a lot of sense to me, given all that we had just seen. In hindsight, I believe I gave Spike too much credit, partly because of interviews like that mentioned by [4]. I still think it's a chilling scene, but I don't think the intended message was nearly as complex or thought-provoking as I'd thought, maybe.

14 Jersey   ~  Jun 28, 2010 3:51 pm

[11] What was the reasoning Sal gave for the photos he chose or didn't choose to display? Was it about Italian pride or was it racist? Or was it just not elaborated upon? I honestly don't remember.

15 RagingTartabull   ~  Jun 28, 2010 3:53 pm

[12] what always bothered me about Spike saying that was I felt he was throwing a character he created, and the actor who did an amazing job brining him to life, under the bus a little bit. To say basically "Danny plays Sal the racist pizzeria owner"...at the point you're throwing the character and the performance into a pile with the KKK cartoons from Mississippi Burning or Stacy Keach in American History X. Aiello and "Sal" deserved better, I thought.

Spike's biggest problem as a writer is his tendency to stick to outmoded stereotypes. Pretty much all the women fall somewhere on the Madonna/Whore curve, many of the Italian-Americans are the stuff of an overheated UNICO press release (I say this as an Italian-American), the Jews are invariably "slick," and if an Asian shows up chances are they own some kind of store.

That being said I generally enjoy most of his work, but find it deeply flawed.

16 ms october   ~  Jun 28, 2010 3:54 pm

[13] yeah i absolutely loved that scene too.
i kind of interpreted it that even after everything that happened smiley (aptly named) was trying to salvage something. at the time that picture was taken both mlk's and malcom's views had evolved some in different way, so i thought the message was that there needs to be a greater understanding of how to deal with race in america.

17 ms october   ~  Jun 28, 2010 3:54 pm

[14] sal said it was italian pride - he didn't discuss further.

18 Jersey   ~  Jun 28, 2010 4:09 pm

[16] Really interesting take, just as valid. Maybe what makes that scene so great is the openness to interpretation, in spite of the visceral imagery. I fall reflexively on the MLK / Ghandi / nonviolence side of the social change spectrum, so that might explain why I had that interpretation.

[17] I thought that was the case.

19 Raf   ~  Jun 28, 2010 4:24 pm

[17] He also mentioned that when they opened their own shop, they could put whoever they wanted on their walls.

I don't agree that Sal was racist. At the very least, he may be bigoted (and even that's a stretch). Pino, OTOH...

20 Raf   ~  Jun 28, 2010 4:34 pm

he said “mookie’s friend was just killed. how can you compare a storefront window to radio raheem’s life?”

Yeah, but still. It started when Raheem went into Sal's and refused repeated requests to turn his radio down. Sal eventually took a bat to it, and all hell broke loose.

21 RagingTartabull   ~  Jun 28, 2010 4:34 pm

I try not to be Mr. Overly Sensitive Son of the Mezzogiorno, but I definitely think Spike has some serious issues with Italian-Americans.

It makes sense when you take into account the influence events like Howard Beach and Yusuf Hawkins had on his film making, plus the changing demographics of places like BedStuy when he was growing up (I'm sure he had his fair share of unpleasant experiences as a kid with classmates whose names ended in vowels). But when you look at Do The Right Thing, Jungle Fever, and Summer of Sam he sure does seem to have some baggage there.

22 The Hawk   ~  Jun 28, 2010 4:55 pm

[6] Spike Lee's definition of racism isn't that it's a one way street color-wise, but power-wise.

It's a sort of annoying thing when people redefine words because it confuses things. He ought to just have said yeah blacks can be racist but it's meaningless most of the time because they aren't in a position of power. But he had to be controversial!

Also, in regards to a lot of comments above, it's probably best to ignore a lot of what Spike says about this movie. I think it's safe to say by the reactions of many people that it contains far more than he intended, and I wouldn't give his opinions too much credence. They limit the movie's thematic richness, frankly.

Anyway I think Do the Right Thing is a great movie. Sometimes I take issue with the idea of things being "flawed", as if perfection is the one thing worth striving for. 9 times out of 10 I'd prefer a mighty, "flawed" movie to a pusillanimous, "perfect" movie. It's nice to have both I guess but I don't believe in giving demerits for imperfection.

Oh and the opening credits of this movie are spectacular.

23 Alex Belth   ~  Jun 28, 2010 4:58 pm

The more I think about it, actually, the more I think it's NOT a great movie. Just has some great set pieces and was timely. I don't know that it SAID anything, and the politics in it were it's weakest quality.

The opening scene is the best. Plus Sweet Dick Willy.

24 RagingTartabull   ~  Jun 28, 2010 5:00 pm

[23] Coconut Sid FTW

25 The Hawk   ~  Jun 28, 2010 5:18 pm

[23] I love the movie and think it's great because it seems to be saying something in very strong terms, but it's open to interpretation what that is. I think it's definitely saying something, that it's saying quite a bit in fact, but it's an open question as to what a lot of it is. It's very easy to see most characters' point of view, even though that POV often changes over the course of the film.

26 Raf   ~  Jun 28, 2010 5:23 pm

[23] "If Mike Tyson dreams about whoopin my @ss, he'd better wake up and apologize" - Sweet Dick Willy


27 Cliff Corcoran   ~  Jun 28, 2010 5:45 pm

Great stuff here, and funny that Alex went to this one today because I was on KLAA this morning and when they asked me about Carlos Zambrano and Longoria/Upton I said something like "the weather's getting warmer, it's like Do The Right Thing, temperatures are getting hotter and tempers are getting hotter."

28 Matt Blankman   ~  Jun 28, 2010 6:30 pm

[23] Maybe "great" isn't the word, as it implies somehow a Pantheon of the "GREAT MOVIES." You know, like 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Sorry- couldn't resist.)

But for all its flaws - it was just so vibrant and alive and got people interested in seriously discussing movies and their part in society. I'll forever love it for starting a great dialogue, not just about race, but about the movies themselves.

I don't think Lee ever came close to it again.

29 edoubletrouble   ~  Jun 28, 2010 8:38 pm

"Deeply flawed" AB? Come on now kid. If you can see that he set the last act up the way he wanted then where's the flaw? Do the Right Thing Al, and take it back.

And for the record, I knew the Yanks were gonna come back in the ninth last night. And I knew it in the fourth.

Peace, love and good movies.

30 Mr. OK Jazz TOKYO   ~  Jun 28, 2010 8:50 pm

[26] Classic!

I love this film..I think it captured so much of what NYC was like in my youth. I showed it to Mrs. Jazz and while some of the racial dynamics were hard for her to understand, she thought it was still very powerful...

[8] I agree with you msoctober, "racism" involves the power of one group over another, it is a different beast to "prejudice", though they are intertwined.

[21] Raging, I was wondering about that...I thought the chracter of "Sal" was very complex, but in "Summer of Sam" (which I did enjoy) too many of the Italian chracters seemed to be paper-thin stereotypes..I wonder though how people like John Tuturro and other regulars in Spike's films feel about his presentation of Italians-Americans..

31 Raf   ~  Jun 28, 2010 9:15 pm
32 Alex Belth   ~  Jun 28, 2010 9:35 pm

I think ultimately Spike is a provocateur, more interested in stirring shit up, in his politics than he is in character and storytelling. This is his greatest success in that regard because the movie got people talking. Hell, more than twenty years later, on a slow, off-day, we still get can heated talking about this movie. I've got to give him credit there.

But I'm less interested in politics, in broad statements, in being riled-up by propaganda than I am in the more subtle, complicated craft of story and narrative.

I think Spike is a hype artist and this is his lasting cinematic achievement but I don't think it taught me anything about race or culture. Like Taxi Driver, it does say something about a time and a place and how some people (the creative team) felt about it.

In a way I'm overly critical now of the movie looking back because I don't think that Spike grew very much as a filmmaker after that. Not that his entire output is rubbish, far from that, but for a moment there, his movies were events--at least in NYC--and I don't think he really built on that.

I think his lasting achievement--which is nothing minor--will be putting black faces and stories on the screen, dark black men and women kissing and screwing and fighting and living their lives. That's a big deal. He's certainly a trailblazer. I just think he's a mediocre director and his weaknesses twenty years ago remain today, and now he's no longer timely.

33 George   ~  Jun 28, 2010 9:57 pm

DTRT is certainly alot of fun, and captured the zeitgest of its era well, but did not do much more than that for me, for many of the reasons set forth in the comments. I thought X, Clockers and, especially, He Got Game were far superior. The prostitute with whom Denzel Shuttlesworth has a brief relatiionship is a brillient twist on Spike Lee female characters -- she is indeed a 'ho, but not really by choice. She doesn't have many choices. She is not looking to score a stud or a money bags. Instead, she has a barely perceptible (almost snuffed out) hope to to be genuinely loved and respected. I thought she was a neat contrast to Jesus, who has the same sorts of aspirations,and challenges (he's just a piece of valuable meat to most of the other characters, even his father to some degree) but on a far different stage, with what appear to be far higher stakes. But he is no more deserving of love and respect than she is.

34 RagingTartabull   ~  Jun 28, 2010 10:00 pm

[30] yeah, it always seemed odd to me that he seemingly regressed in his portrayls of Italians. Sal, Vito, and even Pino are all richly detailed and layered. The "Bensonhurst" characters in Jungle Fever are probably his most offensive as the women are all big hair and gum snapping, while the men are basically racist, sexist, homophobic wife beaters. It was like a minstrel show with Sunday gravy.

Summer of Sam is interesting because it might be his only ensemble movie that basically focused on a mainly white cast. But yet again the male characters were basically all pigs, with the exception of Adrian Brody who was bi-sexual instead, and the women were pretty two dimensional.

I agree with the idea that the movie's, and Spike's, greatest legacy is that he unwittingly created a time capsule of a very specific time in NYC history. Basically the 5 year period between Howard Beach and Crown Heights where it looked like it all might go to Hell at any second. But like Alex says, that might make him an essential figure of his time just not a particularly great director.

Inside Man was effing awesome though.

35 edoubletrouble   ~  Jun 29, 2010 1:32 am

Well, alright then Al Belt. Alright.

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