Do the Right Thing turns 25 on Monday and it’s – rightfully – being discussed across the internet as a great film. Spike Lee’s meditation on race relations during a balmy, boiling summer day in 1989 Brooklyn said so much, so strongly on the topic that many didn’t and still don’t get that the film is incredibly complicated.
What I’d like to point out is the movie’s often overlooked acting. Lee’s writing and direction get the bulk of the recognition; both of which have a personality and rhythm that feels unique to this day. People often fail to mention how excellent Lee manages ensembles. Considering the wide arrange of tones he pushes into his film, this ability is especially noteworthy.
Let us begin with Sal (Dan Aiello) the pizzeria owner. Sal is an eager-to-please restaurant head who knows that he sticks out in an evolving neighborhood. Aiello shifts his personality depending on the power of a given situation. In an early scene where Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) quietly makes his way into the store as prep is going on, Aiello’s Sal smiles and offers the man a few bucks to help sweep the sidewalk. Da Mayor doesn’t have much in life and Sal’s gesture is given warmth by Aiello. Even as he defends his deed to those around him, the decision is made honest by the acting. However, the character’s tenor rises when his employees (his two sons and Lee’s Mookie) start to bicker and we discover that is a man with a short temper when it’s tied to questioning his logic. The acting is something one would find in any character drama; by no means a complaint.
Compare this to Ruby Dee’s Mother Sister, an unguarded, senior presence in the neighborhood’s black community. Dee’s creation is theatrical, often presented in Dutch-angles as she shouts from her window at the passersby not living up to their potential. It’s a large choice, akin to a Greek chorus stepping into a Cassavetes movie. Lee corrals it all together.
Everything in between Aiello and Dee can be found here. John Turturro is bitter at his situation, the racist son of Sal who manages to briefly let his guard down in a scene with Lee where he admits his favorite celebrities are nearly all black. We have Giancarlo Esposito’s fantastically named Buggin’ Out, frayed nerves that stand ready for an argument over anything and everything. Radio Raheem is a mythical presence via Bill Nunn, a giant, silent man whose take on life is emitted via his boom-box and a stone-cold glare. Every part, whether or not it ties into the narrative arc, builds on the tense atmosphere. Rosie Perez, Samuel L. Jackson and even Lee himself; terrific.
By no stretch should Do the Right Thing be primarily remembered for its acting. It ought to be in the conversation though.