Do the Right Thing (1989)

On the hottest day of the summer New Yorkers’ similarly overheated tempers catalyse a full-scale race riot in Spike Lee’s breakthrough film, still all too relevant today.

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Introduction

“A powerful and persuasive look at an ethnic community and what makes it tick – funky, entertaining, packed with insight, and political in the best, most responsible sense.”
Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader, 1989

Spike Lee used to be dubbed “the black Woody Allen” until this incendiary state-of-the-nation snapshot revealed the scale of his ambition, its philosophical complexity underscored by the concluding use of two apparently contradictory quotations from Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

Although restricted to the immediate environs of a multicultural community living and working in and around a brownstone block in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn (where Lee himself grew up), the film anatomises a whole cross-section of US society, and clinically demonstrates the mechanism by which a seemingly trivial dispute (in this case, over the choice of sportsmen displayed by the local pizzeria) can escalate into a full-blown race riot given the presence of aggravating factors such as the searing heat of both the weather and assorted tempers. But this is no one-sided polemic: Lee’s characters (not least his own character Mookie) are all too recognisably human in their foibles and frailties.

Spike Lee’s own Jungle Fever (1991), John Sayles’ City of Hope (1991), David Simon’s HBO series The Wire (2002-08) and Steve James’ documentary The Interrupters (2011) cover similar ground.

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