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Do the Right Thing

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David Hast and Scott Vander Werf discuss the Spike Lee classic, Do the Right Thing. Released in 1989 it stars Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Danny Aiello, Samuel L. Jackson, Giancarlo Esposito and Rosie Perez

[Music from Do the Right Thing]

David Hast: Scott, have you seen Do the Right Thing?

Scott Vander Werf: I have seen Do the Right Thing. I saw it when it originally came out in 1989. I had already seen She's Gotta Have It by Spike Lee, so I was really eager to see this, and it blew me away then, and I've watched it again recently, and it blew me away once again.

DH: Yeah, what … What was it about it that blew you away?

SVW: Well, anytime there's a movie that takes place within a 24-hour period, and they're able to make it move along really quickly, and yet you see sort of the gravity of each event as it accumulates over the course of the narrative. It's a movie that does it perfectly.

DH: Yeah, and as you said, it's a movie that's set in one day in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, one very hot summer day. They established that right away, that it's incredibly hot. And the movie is lots of interesting character studies. It's kind of lighthearted for a lot of it and funny. But we see that, you know, underneath all of it are these tensions that are growing between what's now a mostly black and Hispanic neighborhood. And there's this pizzeria around which the story centers run by Italians, Italian-Americans, who've been there for decades. And there's this kind of racial tension there. We also see it with the Korean grocery store owners across the street. And it becomes extremely dramatic near the end.

SVW: And you mentioned the fact that it's on a hot summer day. And one of the key inspirations for the beginning of this film in terms of creating the film was that Spike Lee wrote that during the summer months when it's very, very hot that violence kind of escalates in urban neighborhoods. So that was one of the things that started his interest in writing this script. And then there were other things. There were, just as there have been in recent years, there were a lot of police killings of black men in the 1980s. And so that was another thing that was an influence for this movie.

DH: Yeah, it's ahead of its time in that sense. I mean, there's a part in the movie where they're chanting the names of black people that have been murdered by the police. And then, you know, it really feels like it's looking ahead to, unfortunately, to what developed later.

SVW: But it's a beautiful film. It's got beautiful photography. And they actually worked on the neighborhood, it’s actually shot in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn.

DHL Yeah, Spike Lee said if he made a movie that was supposed to be in Bedford-Stuyvesant and he didn't actually shoot it on location there, people would hate him. So he made sure to shoot it. They got this one block and they took weeks to shoot it, but they had to make it look like this one day. What blew me, you talked about what blew you away about the movie. What blew me away about it watching again was the visuals. It's a beautiful movie. I mean, it's so beautiful that part of it makes you happy. The color palette is incredible. The cinematographer, Ernest Dickerson, made sure to just totally emphasize reds and yellows and oranges to make you feel the heat. And he's just a really accomplished cinematographer. I mean, these were young filmmakers at the time. Spike Lee was just 30. This is his third film. Dickerson's about the same age. I don't know, Spike Lee's an NYU graduate. I don't know if Ernest Dickerson was, but it almost has, you know, in a weird kind of way this fresh spontaneous feeling almost like a student film, except it's a four-star film, it's a great movie, but it has this, really, don't you think it has a kind of spontaneous feeling to it that way?

SVW: It does have a spontaneous feeling, but what you're saying in terms of the quality of the filmmaking, it also sort of harkens back to realistic movies that were made in the 50s and the 60s around New York City. And if you ever read any interviews with Spike Lee, there's a whole litany of directors that he was influenced by like Sidney Lumet and other film directors that had, you know, approached things with almost American neorealism.

DH: Yeah, the gritty New York style that was sort of a reaction to the Hollywood studio films. It started in the 50s where they actually started to go shoot on location and it was mostly New York scenes and a New York style of filmmaking, which goes all the way deep down even to this day to sort of the New York, if you look at the film schools, the NYU kind of type of movie versus the UCLA USC type, I guess. But...

SVW: And you're talking about the colors and how it looks and how beautiful it is. And, but you also get the, you definitely see that the fact that these are lower income residents of New York City, they're living in, of course, all apartments are very small in New York, but generally speaking, even in affluent areas, but you get to see where they live inside and outside and the amount of the populace on this block that spend their time out in the street.

DH: Yeah, and it really does show the people. That's what I love about it too. Not only just the beautiful color palette of it, but he develops these characters. The movie is full of really nice close-ups and two shots. And you really, he loves faces, Spike Lee. And some of the faces in this are really interesting actors. The top-billed actor is Danny Aiello, who plays the owner of Sal's Pizzeria. But then we have two great theater and film black actors who go back to the 1930s, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. It was the film debut of Rosie Perez and also of Martin Lawrence. And then some people in it who are pretty early in their careers but went on to great careers, Giancarlo Esposito, John Turturro, and Samuel L. Jackson.

SVW: You know, it's interesting, Samuel L. Jackson playing almost the narrator of the film because, and its kind of interesting, he's on this station, WLOV, We Love Radio, and he's broadcasting out of his apartment. And it makes me, I mean, this is one of those things where it's kind of not a realistic thing, being in the radio biz. Unless he's basically a pirate radio guy. But it doesn't matter. And I have forgotten that he played this character.

DH: Yeah, it reminded me of like, it's sort of a device in movies sometimes with a radio broadcast in the background. It reminded me of American Graffiti with Wolfman Jack throughout the whole thing. You know, sort of a backbone on which to build the neighborhood and the scene around. You know, we should talk about this films important role in black cinema, in films written, directed, made by black filmmakers. The big context, this show we do, we do a lot about old movies and Hollywood history. And uh, Hollywood has a terrible history with black actors and Hispanic actors. I mean, the portrayal of blacks in Hollywood was almost uniformly racist. The roles were always stereotypical terrible roles, you know, maids and train porters, and there were very few black filmmakers. There were some, you know, if you go back to the silent era and the 1930s, Oscar Micheaux is the most famous, and there were some interesting black filmmakers like Gordon Parks and Melvin Van Peebles in the 60s. But there was really no breakthrough, I mean the door was shut to black filmmakers, except in small ways. And I think this film opened it in many ways. It was very successful. Spike Lee, it was his breakthrough film, and he's been going ever since, making great movies. And I think that the filmmaker, you name a few names, like today, the Ava DuVernay who made Selma, Steve McQueen who made 12 Years a Slave, Barry Jenkins, Moonlight, and Jordan Peele, who's in a little different category because he makes horror films, Get Out and others. But I think their time would have come. But I think Spike Lee opened the door a little more quickly and was followed by some interesting films. And finally, what talks in Hollywood is money. So finally, it's not that they suddenly got over their racism, but they saw opportunity.

SVW: Yeah. And John Singleton, he was the next black filmmaker that followed with Boys in the Hood two years later.

DH: Yeah, just a couple of years later. And he was quoted as saying when he saw She's Gotta Have It. And he said, I got to do my own LA version of this.

SVW: And that's actually a more topical in terms of in comparison, because there's almost a mythological quality to She’s Gotta Have It and Boys in the Hood is more of a, you know, what's happening with teenagers in Los Angeles.

DH: Yeah. And gangs, right?

SVW: And the gang around the gang culture. Another thing about, uh, do the right thing is that, uh, from the beginning of the movie till the very climactic scene, you hear the music of Public Enemy. And, uh, so this was, when you said this is a breakout for Spike Lee and it was very successful, this is when a Public Enemy really blew up outside of black culture.

DH: Oh, I didn't know that. Yeah. Yeah, it's a crossover film in that way. It's not just the music, but it's kind of, it's a crossover as cinema as well.

SVW: So, Do the Right Thing, one of the important films from the 1980s and one of the important films in the entire history of cinema.

DH: Yeah, and a beautiful movie to watch. I highly recommend it. People should just stream it right now and see it.

SVW: Thank you.

DH: Thanks, Scott.


David Hast is a retired high school English teacher. He has an MFA in Radio/TV/Film from Northwestern University and worked 15 years in the film and video industry. Some years ago he taught video production part-time at GVSU, and as a high school teacher he regularly taught a course in Film and Media Analysis.
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