The thing that grabbed me on first watching Do The Right Thing was the quality of the writing – behind the mind numbing amount of profanity (the only thing I’ve ever found controversial about the film, in the same way I find it controversial in Casino, Summer of Sam etc., i.e. not at all) beats a clearly structured morality play. This is not a call to violence, this is a call to actually try and resolve some of the issues that lead to violence. That it doesn’t ram that message down your throat is a clear indicator of the quality of the writing and direction.
It follows a clear three act structure. Whilst the Prologue sets the scene (the hottest day of the year), Act One introduces the key characters and their various needs. The thing is that here it abandons tradition in favour of the most modern of film making techniques, bringing in elements of overlapping dialogue that were introduced by Altman, along with a visual short hand that owes a huge debt to Scorsese (it feels a lot like Mean Streets in its structure, if not the story). Whilst the issue of racism is raised at this stage, more important appears the issue of money, most notably those that control who has it. The second act introduces the catalyst for what is to come, as the conflict over money becomes one of race (or more accurately, inherent racism) before an outside force lights the touch paper at the beginning of the third act and sets in motion of chain of events that will change everyone. Many films would be happy to leave the future uncertain at this point, but the strength of Lee’s script is that the prologue strengthens all that has come before. If all of this sounds terrifyingly worthy it isn’t – there’s a blistering streak of black humour that runs through the film a mile wide, never more so than a sequence in which a stream of racial expletives are thrown at the viewer from all sides, at once disarming the viewer to their use but also reinforcing their meaning for what is to come. That it wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture the same year that Driving Miss Daisy won says everything you needed to know about the Academy at the time.
(On a related note, the film was originally given an 18 certificate by the BBFC – it would be interesting to see what it would receive today, the language isn’t particularly strong given the context, and the use of racial language likewise has a strong context. I suspect it would remain problematic – the BBFC still retain a knee-jerk reaction to films that try to address racism seriously due to the films that either don’t or are racist themselves, but this is a film that may need re-assessment.)
Away from the superb writing the film is a visual treat – the saturated colour palette would be stolen by Baz Lurhmann seven years later for Romeo & Juliett, but here it feels less a stylistic device than a means of setting the scene perfectly. It’s a film that feels rooted in its own geography, we never see the entirety of the neighbourhood but we feel we could draw a map of it completely by the end of the film. Lee keeps the camera at street level throughout, although it’s never in a documentary fashion (along with the script, the direction would also translate to the stage as well), often in close up for when a character is addressing the camera directly, but also extreme long shot at times as well (although still tightly focussed on its subject). It never feels gimmicky, more like someone who knows precisely what he was doing with each shot. Lee is well aided by his cast, in particular Danny Aeillo & John Turturro as characters to whom racism almost comes naturally (although Aeillo’s Sal perhaps recognises that this is a failing, particularly the fact that he has passed on his prejudices to his son). In fact perhaps the weakest link is Lee’s Mookie, although he isn’t the primary focus of the film, just someone that the viewer is able to relate to. This isn’t to say he isn’t a good actor, just that he’s outclassed by nearly everyone else in the film. Lee retains a superb ear for music in his films to this day (in a similar fashion to Scorsese, as a means of telling the story rather than delivering mood in way Mann does), and here is no different. For me, only his use of “A Change is Gonna Come” in Malcolm X is better than the more naturalistic soundtrack here.
Lee is a director who either delights or infuriates me, I’ve never seen a film of his that I’ve felt occupied the middle ground, and for me this remains his strongest feature. It encapsulates all of his strengths (original writing, an ear for dialogue that only the Coen’s rival, a theatrical nature to his direction) with none of the things I find annoying in his later films (occasional recourse to sentimentality, a weakness when directing action). Do The Right Thing was not only one of the best films released that year (Hollywood was at the height of its “Worthy Picture” treadmill, which did no one any favours), but over twenty years later its still one of the few that still feels relevant, not in its subject matter, but in the way that it uses a language still recognisable in modern filmmaking. Many of its contemporaries feel somewhat stilted these days, the pace in particular feeling quite slow – Do The Right Thing never suffers from that, it still feels modern.