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  • Writer's pictureKathy Michelle Chacón

Review: Do the Right Thing (1989)

A Film for Then. A Film for Now.

By Kathy Michelle Chacón

It had been three years since Michael Griffith, Timothy Grimes, and Cedric Sandiford fought for their lives against a rabid mob of white aggressors at Howard Beach. The racially motivated attack, along with the seemingly never ending list of other hate crimes and police brutalities of the late eighties, forced New York inhabitants to make sense of an ugly reality. Heavily inspired by these events, Do the Right Thing (1989) lays bare a community’s fears, frustrations, and heart in a country after the death of Michael Griffith.

This Spike Lee picture follows Mookie (Spike Lee), Sal (Danny Aiello), and other vibrant Bed-Stuy personalities from morning to night on the hottest day of the year — a day jam packed with tension, excitement, and a ton of pizza deliveries. The film is political and socially aware, but simultaneously entertaining, hilarious, and absorbing. It tackles difficult conversations on racism, gentrification, and police brutality in a way that is soberingly honest and reflective. Through the carefully crafted use of film form, Lee is able to transcend the physical limitations of the screen and create a memorable cinematic experience in which viewers walk the streets of Bed-Stuy and exist side by side with the film’s characters.

This experience is partly created through Lee’s intentional use of color. Bright reds and yellows are used extensively to create an overwhelming feeling of heat and overstimulation. Scene after scene, viewers are engulfed by a fiery warmth and sense of panic. This design transports audience members from their seats and into the streets of the New York community. We are invited to feel the scorching weather, and in turn, forced to feel every bit of emotion, annoyance, and irritation that comes with it.

Lee also utilizes sound to establish tension within the community and build atmosphere. Loud rap music, intense yelling, and overlapping chatter can be heard throughout the film. The environment is filled with suspense, anxiety, and uncertainty, and for two hours and five minutes it grants viewers a glimpse of what it must have been like to inhabit this New York neighborhood in the late 1980s. “Fight the Power”, a track by Public Enemy, frequents the picture. The music is roaring, unapologetic, and in your face. Not only does the choice of soundtrack add to our feelings of chaos, but it serves as a call to arms against injustice. The music in the film is equal parts a celebration of Black culture and life as it is a cinematic tool.

The film’s characters are essential to the overall viewing experience. Joie Lee, who plays Jade, gives an especially notable performance. The film is a story about Black existence in America and Lee's performance expands this discussion by exploring the intersections of womanhood, family, and desire. Joie Lee’s creation of this complex character adds yet another dimension to this already engaging film.

Do the Right Thing is important viewing and I strongly recommend the film to all. It is an unfortunately necessary snapshot of late 1980s New York told through the perspective of those living it. The picture does not provide a solution to racism—it does not purport to do that, nor is that its goal—but I believe everybody who watches this film will exit the theater possessing a little more understanding and compassion than they had when they walked in. The story is painfully relevant and its execution is superb. The film is a reflection of us. Chaos. Tension. Humans. That is Do the Right Thing. That is America.

Works Cited

Lee, Spike, director. Do the Right Thing. 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, 1989.



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