'Do the Right Thing': THR's 1989 Review
On June 30, 1989, Universal brought Spike Lee's drama Do The Right Thing to theaters. The film went on to be nominated for two Oscars at the 62nd Academy Awards, for Danny Aiello's supporting character, Sal, and the screenplay by Lee. The Hollywood Reporter's original review is below:
CANNES — Spike Lee's third feature is going to cause a kerfuffle.
On one hand, Do the Right Thing will grab a lot of positive reactions both as a chunk of spunky entertainment and as a piece of spirited moviemaking by Lee, who produced, directed, wrote and stars in the Universal release.
But it's also going to get its share of slams, triggered by arguments as to whether or not it's a dangerous flick, possibly advocating violence by blacks against non-blacks. Fuel for the controversy will be a story twist that brings the film to a no-holds-barred conclusion, plus the chant that opens and closes the film ("Fight the power, fight the power") and a statement that proceeds the final credits, in which the late Malcom X is quoted as believing "the use of violence in self-defense is...a sign of intelligence." Lee has also stocked the film with plenty of anti-violence messages, but most are in subsidiary positions.
Wisely, he has also stocked it with enough entertainment value to make the project a good bet for strong summer business, even alongside such heavy competition as Indiana Jones III, Ghostbusters II, Batman and other fare. Business will be best in the big cities, and Europe will also like it, judging from the reaction here at Cannes.
Thing is set entirely on a street in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant district, now a predominantly black neighborhood, during one hot, hot summer day and evening. The hub of the story is a pizza parlor run by Sal (Danny Aiello), an Italian-American who's been a landmark on the street for 25 years He's got two sons (Richard Edson, John Turturro) who constantly bicker but share a basic discontent with their lot. Edson, particularly, also dislikes "n******." He disapproves of his brother's friendship with Mookie (played by Lee), the delivery boy.
Via Sal's place of business, Lee introduces a wide spectrum of colorful characters, neatly developed and ultimately intertwined by their common environment and a mutual bonding by race. Tempers are often triggered by the sweltering heat, but things basically stay on a lighter level.
But Thing eventually switches to a stark tragedy when a clash breaks out between Sal and Bill Nunn, a black with a ghetto-blaster always playing at full-tilt, egged on by Giancarlo Esposito, another black who is resentful of the fact that Aiello's pizza parlor displays only photographs of famous Italian-Americans (Sinatra, Pacino, De Niro, etc) with nary a Prince, Michael Jackson or Mike Tyson on the walls.
The rhubarb results in a fistfight that brings on the police, and Nunn gets killed by an overly rough white cop. Lee as Mookie, until then a quiet presence, throws a trash can through the window of Aiello's pizzeria and the neighborhood wrecks the place, stopping just short of doing equal damage to a nearby market run by Koreans.
There are numerous cross-signals here and so many possible interpretations that it will invite post-screening discussions well into the night, a factor likely to reap financial advantages for both Lee and Universal. Controversy, after all, has always been known to be an asset to the box office.
Any way you judge it, Thing reaffirms Lee's position as a filmmaker with audacity, courage and ideas. He has chosen an excellent ensemble cast with Aiello, Edson, Turturro, Esposito, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee handling the showiest parts and each justifying his or her presence.
John Savage is in for a single scene, effectively played. He's a white man taunted by Esposito and some brothers to get out of their neighborhood "and go back to Massachusetts." Replies Savage, "I was born in Brooklyn." Effective stuff.
So are the credits with excellent cinematography by Ernest Dickerson, fine editing by Barry Alexander Brown and lively music by Bill Lee, Spike's father. Lee's real-life sister Joie Lee is also involved, neatly playing Lee's on-camera sibling. — Robert Osborne, originally published May 23, 1989.