Do the Right Thing (AFI #96)

April 26, 2011 at 1:21 am (AFI Top 100 in 100 Days)

My first semester as a film major at Chatham University was Fall, 2010. One of my classes, Representations of Race and Gender in the Media (which I described to my friends and family as “Angry Class”), introduced me to the films of Spike Lee. Prior to that class, I had only ever seen “Malcolm X.”

I have since sought out Spike Lee’s work on other occasions, in and outside the classroom. I’ve seen several examples of both his narrative and his documentary work, and was surprised to learn that he directed the pilot episode of TV’s “Shark,” starring James Woods.

“Do the Right Thing,” from 1989, is one of Lee’s films I’ve seen before. According to IMDB, it’s been his most critically-acclaimed narrative, though I found “Bamboozled” a lot more upsetting and my favorite of his films is “Get On The Bus” because of its wide emotional range. Since 1989, Lee has learned to use rage alongside hope, compassion, and sadness, (ie. “When the Levees Broke”) and it has made him a better filmmaker.

Despite the fact that he is to blame for introducing Rosie Perez, Lee occupies an important place in the national conversation about directors who have made a difference to the movies. If Tyler Perry makes movies for black people, then Spike Lee makes movies about them, in a manner that gives voice to the racial rift in the United States.

In “Do the Right Thing,” it is as interesting to see a young Martin Lawrence, and an unusually subdued, non-vulgarian Samuel L. Jackson, as it is bittersweet to see late husband and wife acting team Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. Lee doesn’t mince his transitions, as it’s always a cut; but the thing I hadn’t paid enough attention to on my first viewing is his camera angles, which he uses to emphasize points when characters are at cross purposes.

Some people dismiss Spike Lee as an angry black man who makes angry black films. If he were truly the “angry black man” some white film enthusiasts would paint him as, he would not have handled Danny Aiello’s character at all like an honorable man who simply has a really bad day. To my way of thinking, if you think Spike Lee is just an angry black man, you 1) don’t know much about American history and 2) haven’t seen enough of his work.

Does “Do the Right Thing” belong on the AFI list? Yes. But they should do the right thing and make it higher than number 96.

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