THE CONTENDER: Do The Right Thing (1989)
Number of Nominations: 2 – Supporting Actor (Danny Aiello); Original Screenplay (Spike Lee)
Number of Wins: 0
When Green Book took home the Best Picture prize at last February’s Academy Awards, many viewers and film pundits felt like they were experiencing déjà vu. It was eerily similar to the 1990 ceremony where Driving Miss Daisy unexpectedly won Best Picture. Full disclosure: I haven’t seen Green Book, so I can’t comment on its quality. But there are undeniably some surface similarities between the two films. Both are about white people who learn valuable life lessons about tolerance from an African-American. Both are centered around cars. Both managed to win Best Picture without receiving a nomination for their directors. And both films had to share the spotlight with the eternally outspoken Spike Lee.
Which is not to say that absolutely nothing had changed in the nearly 30 years between ceremonies. Lee’s 2018 film, BlacKkKlansman, was nominated in 7 categories, as opposed to Do The Right Thing‘s paltry two. Perhaps more importantly, BlacKkKlansman was not alone at the party. It was honored alongside other strong African-American films like Black Panther and If Beale Street Could Talk. Aside from Driving Miss Daisy, the other Best Picture nominees back in 1990 included Born On The Fourth Of July, Dead Poets Society, Field Of Dreams and My Left Foot. When people refer to “Oscars So White”, this is exactly the kind of thing they’re talking about. It’s hard to imagine a whiter lineup of films than that one.
Do The Right Thing inspired passionate reactions from the get-go. It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it was shut out of the awards despite rave reviews from critics and audiences. Lee, ever the diplomat, has long blamed jury president Wim Wenders for the loss, although Wenders denies that he had it out for the film. By the time it opened in the States in July, it was accompanied both by glowing reviews from the likes of Siskel and Ebert, as well as dire warnings of the potential for violence at screenings from folks like David Denby and Joe Klein.
Needless to say, Do The Right Thing failed to incite a single riot apart from the one depicted on-screen. The idea that audiences (and, let’s be clear, these articles were specifically talking about black audiences) would be so quickly and easily provoked into violence is condescending at best, outright racist at worst. Not only does it insult and underestimate the audience, it undervalues the film itself and fails to take in the entire scope of what Spike Lee was able to accomplish.
Taking place over the course of one very long, very hot day in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, Do The Right Thing is, first and foremost, a master class in form and structure. By the end of the film, any viewer would be able to draw a reasonably accurate map of the neighborhood. That’s how thoroughly and clearly Lee, director of photography Ernest Dickerson, and editor Barry Alexander Brown have covered and depicted the space. It’s a cliché to say that the location is a character but in this case, it’s really true. The homes and businesses of Bed-Stuy inform everything about the film. It’s a vibrant, living neighborhood and you can feel the heat radiating off the asphalt.
Sharing this space are some of Lee’s most vividly drawn characters, played by an astounding ensemble of actors. In addition to Danny Aiello as pizzeria owner Sal and Lee himself as delivery guy Mookie, there’s Ossie Davis as local drunk Da Mayor, Ruby Dee as Mother Sister, Giancarlo Esposito as Buggin Out, Bill Nunn as Radio Raheem, Roger Guenveur Smith as Smiley, John Turturro and Richard Edson as Sal’s sons, Pino and Vito, Sam (not yet Samuel L.) Jackson as DJ Mister Señor Love Daddy and many more. Every character is so distinct and well-crafted that the names alone are enough to conjure up vivid images of each one. It’s a shame that the Screen Actors Guild didn’t start presenting awards until the mid 1990s. This almost certainly would have had a lock on Best Ensemble.
What’s fascinating about Do The Right Thing and, I think, what made its detractors so deeply uncomfortable is how thoroughly Lee delves into the lives of these characters and their beliefs. In 1989, this was arguably the most urgent and passionate film about race relations in America that had ever been made. Even today, it remains potent and timely. Lee digs deep, looking into what causes these feelings and beliefs and showing just how easily a simple question like “How come there ain’t no brothers on the wall?” can spiral into an argument and worse. Buggin Out has a point. Sal’s clientele is mostly black, so it’d be nice and respectful of him to make some concessions in the décor. But Sal has one, too. End of the day, it’s his place, has been for a long time and he can do what he wants with it. And with neither side willing to listen to the other, it’s not a conflict that’s going to be resolved easily.
It’s also interesting that when Buggin Out tries to organize a boycott of Sal’s, not only does he receive zero support from the community, he encounters outright hostility and disbelief. The idea of a boycott is ludicrous, especially over such an insignificant issue. The only people he can rally to his cause are Radio Raheem, who had his own run-in with Sal that day over his music, and Smiley, the mentally challenged street vendor who not only had gotten into it with Sal’s son, Pino, but was probably also just happy to be included in something. They’re looking for a fight when they confront Sal, so things rapidly spin out of control thanks to a multitude of factors: the lateness of the hour, the aggression on both sides, and, of course, that infernal heat that has everyone on edge.
The big question mark that hangs over the film is this: is the violence that follows justified? Lee seems to be leaving it ambiguous by concluding the film with contrasting quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. But I don’t think it’s really all that hard to interpret. After Radio Raheem’s death, the anger is entirely justified. Therefore, the violence that erupts is understandable, if not justifiable. It certainly doesn’t solve anything. But that anger needs an outlet. It’s been tamped down for too long. Of course it’s going to end up exploding.
Cooler heads need to prevail but when tempers and temperatures are running hot, there are none to be found. Certainly the police aren’t the answer. They should be there to restore order, not make things worse with excessive force. The cops in Do The Right Thing remain ciphers throughout and that’s appropriate for the story. This movie is about the community and the police are pointedly not a part of it. They’re outsiders who come and go. In a neighborhood where everybody knows everybody, they don’t seem to know anyone’s name except for Sal. They are not going to be the ones to fix this problem.
It’s disappointing but not terribly surprising that Do The Right Thing was shut out at the Oscars. Aiello ended up losing to Denzel Washington for Glory, which was certainly a deserving win, and Lee lost his category to Tom Schulman’s script for Dead Poets Society, which…um…was not. It was a strong year for the Original Screenplay category, with nods for Woody Allen’s Crimes And Misdemeanors, Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape and Nora Ephron’s When Harry Met Sally. Literally any of those other four nominated scripts would have been a better choice.
Perhaps even more disappointing were the categories that completely overlooked Do The Right Thing. In addition to Best Picture and several other actors and actresses, Ernest Dickerson would have been a deserving nominee for his shimmering, colorful cinematography. Dickerson was a phenomenal cinematographer before he turned his attention to directing. Astonishingly, he was never even nominated for an Oscar. Editor Barry Alexander Brown finally got an editing nomination for BlacKkKlansman (he had previously been nominated for co-directing the documentary feature The War At Home in 1980) but his work here is just as good.
And then there’s Best Original Song. Obviously the Academy just wasn’t ready to recognize a rap song back in 1990. But Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power” is a phenomenal track, instantly iconic and, as far as I’m concerned, one of the best examples of a song written specifically for a movie in my lifetime. As near as I can tell, the song wasn’t even eligible due to a rule that states only songs that are “original and specifically written for the motion picture” are considered. Which means that a song like “Fight The Power”, which is built on a bedrock of samples, is out. It would take a while longer for the Academy to catch up. Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” would become the first hip-hop track to be nominated for (and win) an Oscar…over a decade later.
We’ll see more Spike Lee joints in this column but not as many as you might think. Considering that he’s probably one of the most recognizable filmmakers working today, Spike Lee is curiously undervalued. He’s a risk-taker, a challenging and provocative director who has rarely compromised, making the films he wants to make. That is not a surefire recipe for mainstream success. His biggest hit, the 2006 thriller Inside Man, made quite a bit of money both domestically and overseas. Even so, Lee was still unable to get the funding necessary for a proposed sequel.
Both Lee’s best films (including Malcolm X, 25th Hour, Summer Of Sam, and especially Bamboozled, a movie I would dearly love to see Criterion release) and his worst (I can’t say I was a huge fan of Chi-Raq) are all clearly and immediately identifiable as his films. With BlacKkKlansman, the Academy finally started to catch up with what they’d failed to recognize almost 30 years earlier and it’s about damn time. The film world needs more Spike Lees, not less.
Do The Right Thing is available on DVD from The Criterion Collection and on Blu-ray and Digital from Universal Studios Home Entertainment.