It’s hard to believe that Do the Right Thing, one of the greatest movies about life in New York City, turns 25 this year. It seems timeless, doesn’t it?
Spike Lee’s masterpiece could easily have come out yesterday — or in 1961 or in 1978 — and it would pack the same cultural wallop. It was raw and mesmerizing then, and remained so when I watched it on cable TV a few weeks ago. I remained riveted even though I knew the movie by heart.
It shows New York at its worst in many ways…a racially divided and hateful city. All it takes is the hottest day of the summer to make everyone go a little crazy and hold nothing back — their true feelings about their neighbors or the violence they secretly want to commit.
And yet, under Spike Lee’s direction, it also a very compassionate film; that’s right — compassionate. You could argue that nobody in the movie is inherently evil, that everyone is simply frustrated beyond belief, and that they all can’t hold back for one second longer.
It’s the most rare kind of big-scale movie because it has absolutely no heroes! Think about it. Danny Aiello? Ha! He treats Spike’s “Mookie” like dirt. John Turturro? He comes across as a stereotypical hypocritical racist. Spike? He should treat his girlfriend more respectfully, no? The NYPD? In Bob Dylan’s classic phrase: “The cops don’t need you — and man, they expect the same.”
Yet, nobody should count as a villain, either. Everyone is just trying to get by and cope with the seismic changes sweeping through New York, amid the proliferation of Korean-owned bodegas, gentrification of black neighborhoods by Caucasian, bike-riding LARRY BIRD fans (the ultimate insult) and all the rest.
You could also sense that justice was served in the end. Danny Aiello and the great John Turturro hurled one too many barbs in the cocoon of their pizza parlor. They got a cruel fate, for sure, but maybe they had it coming to them.
It is also a beautiful movie. I don’t know Spike Lee, but I suspect that nothing was left to chance here. He and his director of photography must have had a clear vision of how they intended New York City to look: gritty, timeless, beautiful.
Do the Right Thing is ultimately a movie about NYC. The city plays as crucial a part in the film as it did in Manhattan or Hannah and Her Sisters or Taxi Driver.
This movie couldn’t possibly have taken place anywhere else. Like Tom Wolfe’s epic novel Bonfire of the Vanities, it is indelibly stamped at a specific time in history — yet it is, well, timeless. It’s forever engrossing, thoughtful, and entertaining.
I’m starting to ramble a bit, so I’ll end this here by writing that everyone who proudly calls himself or herself a New Yorker should see Do the Right Thing on a regular basis — say, once every nine months.
It would be time well spent.