Dir. Spike Lee
(1989, R, 120 min)

Do the Right Thing ends with two contradictory quotes. The first is by Martin Luther King Jr., arguing the importance of peace and the futility of violence. The second is by Malcolm X, who insists that violence in self-defense is not violence at all, but necessary to defend your rights. Reflecting on those quotes after the film, I found that both seem equally true. That’s part of the push-pull tension of Spike Lee’s sweltering 1989 urban drama. It’s a bold, chaotic, free-form poem about racial unrest in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York.

The story is set during one day of a record-breaking heatwave that serves as both catalyst for the events of the film and a metaphor for the tinder-box animosity that exists between the neighborhood residents. Some have a deep-seated mistrust of other races. Others just want to be seen, heard, and acknowledged. They’re all teetering on the edge, and it would take only the slightest push to explode the uneasy, neighborhood-wide stalemate. Consider a mistrustful glare exchanged between police officers and three older black men sitting on the sidewalk. Or the look of rage in the eyes of two observers when an Italian man and a black woman have an innocent flirtation. The climax of the film is a sad, violent event, which escalates faster than anyone can stop it and stains everyone involved. It’s also inevitable. It’s built into the DNA of this neighborhood, angry and dormant, until suddenly and for no good reason it’s unleashed. Spike Lee empathizes with all parties and is critical of them too. Black, Hispanic, Asian, or Italian – racism makes a victim of all, and no one, it seems, is completely free of blame.

 

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