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Movie of the Week: Heatwaves and life lessons in Spike Lee film 'Do the Right Thing'


“Wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up, up you wake, up you wake, up you wake, up you wake!”

Perfectly setting the scene on the hottest day of the year in the Brooklyn neighbourhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, the opening line of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing is undoubtedly one of the greatest of all time. Transitioning well from the frenetic credit sequence featuring ‘Fight the Power’ by Public Enemy, in keeping up the pace of the intro whilst nodding to the urgency of the film’s central message, Lee crafts the perfect introduction to his pertinent summer drama. 

Born from the L.A. Rebellion filmmaking movement in the 1980s that elevated the status of black directors who challenged Hollywood conventions, Lee’s film featured working-class characters as powerful forces for change, alongside a cinematic style equally celebratory and innovative. The iconic summer-inspired comedy-drama from Lee is fueled by an electric energy that lights a stick of dynamite underneath a community in Brooklyn that is tight with racial tension.

Under the golden hue of the baking sun, Bedford-Stuyvesant becomes a hotbed of racial tension in Spike Lee’s 1989 classic, where the black neighbourhood turns against a pizzeria owned by a racist Italian family. Filled with youthful energy, these tensions are heightened by the film’s lead characters, Mookie (Spike Lee), Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) and Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito) whose dormant anger of prejudiced attitudes reaches boiling point.

The spark of fury comes to life when Buggin Out visits the pizzeria owned by Sal (Danny Aiello) and his two sons Vito (Richard Edson) and Pino (John Turturro). Sitting down with a slice of pizza, he questions why there are no black people on the ‘Wall of Fame’ that’s dominated by Italian-American icons including Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, John Travolta, Frank Sinatra and many more. 

With many of these individuals being actors, this inciting incident no doubt is inspired by Lee’s own thoughts towards Hollywood which has long been dominated by white male media moguls. The filmmaker has never held back his view on this either, speaking up about two film stars who have been detrimental to American cinema, John Wayne and John Ford. Speaking at a BAFTA event, the director went so far as to state, “I’ve never been a fan of John Wayne and John Ford and that cowboy bullshit. I hate them: Native Americans depicted as savages and animals…Fuck John Wayne and John Ford”. 

It’s no surprise that Lee has such a strong view of the western genre, with one of the oldest Hollywood genres having long-held archaic beliefs about the makeup of American society, supporting a romantic vision of old America. Though John Ford, the director of The Searchers, Stagecoach and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is known for pioneering the western genre, he was also responsible for accentuating such racist attitudes by making them integral parts of his movies. 

Lee’s thoughts on the industry are suffused throughout Do the Right Thing, marching to the beat of the director’s drum as it cries out for an end to racial prejudice and injustice.

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