Cinema: Hot Time in Bed-Stuy Tonight

6 minute read

You are getting a free preview of a TIME Magazine article from our archive. Many of our articles are reserved for subscribers only. Want access to more subscriber-only content, click here to subscribe.


Directed and Written by Spike Lee

On the hottest day of the year, good people can do bad things. Especially in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn’s black ghetto where the crime rate sizzles and hopes evaporate in the summer glare. Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing is the story of a day in the death of the American Dream.

The day starts calmly enough, as if the people on Lee’s Stuyvesant Avenue are the cheerful graduating class of Sesame Street. Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) spreads inebriated wisdom, Uncle Remus-style. Sal (Danny Aiello), the Italian American who runs the corner pizzeria, brags that the locals “grew up on my food.” His delivery boy, Mookie (Lee), doles out advice while dodging duties to his girlfriend and their child. Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) keeps the block pulsing to the rap song, Fight the Power, that bleats from his boom box. By day’s end, though, the neighborhood has erupted. Sal and Raheem start fighting about the loud music; the cops arrive and, in the struggle, kill Raheem; Mookie throws a trash can through his employer’s window; the place goes up in a puff of black rage.

The rage of race is exactly what has stirred a righteous debate over Lee’s movie. After it lost the top prize at last month’s Cannes Film Festival (to a comedy by another young American, Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies and videotape), jury member Sally Field told Lee she fought to get him a prize. The film’s detractors called it facile and irresponsible; Lee responded by accusing his critics of racism.

With this week’s U.S. release of Do the Right Thing, the furor goes Stateside. Not since the Black Panthers cowed Manhattan’s glitterati 20 years ago has there been such a virulent outbreak of radical chic — or so many political-disease detectives ready to stanch the epidemic. A single issue of the Village Voice ran eight articles on the movie, with opinions running from raves to cries of “fascist” and “racist.” A political columnist for New York magazine charged that Lee’s film could undermine the New York City mayoral campaign of a black candidate. Everywhere, the film has polarized white liberals for whom Bed-Stuy is as exotic and unknowable as Burkina Faso. Some see Lee as the movies’ great black hope; others tut till they’re tuckered. A few fear that Do the Right Thing could trigger the kind of riot it dramatizes and perhaps condones.

The 32-year-old auteur (She’s Gotta Have It, School Daze) must be enjoying his prominence as the angry young man of the don’t-worry, be-happy ’80s. Of all the blacks who have strutted through the studio door that Eddie Murphy kicked down, Lee is the one who won’t settle for being a Murphy manque. Sure, he markets himself cannily, as a performer in Air Jordan commercials, and with books and The Making of . . . spinoffs of his own movies. But Lee will not be ingratiating; he wants to be accepted on his own rude terms. Same goes for Do the Right Thing.

To accept the film, though, one must first understand its point of view, and that is maddeningly difficult. All we know for certain is that Do the Right Thing is not naturalistic. Golden sunset hues swathe the street at 10 in the morning. The color scheme is chicly coordinated, as if Jerome Robbins’ Sharks and Jets were about to dance onscreen; the picture could be called Bed-Stuy Story, full of Officer Krupkes and kindly store owners. At first, the dilemmas are predictably pastel too: populist cliches brought to life by an attractive cast. Even the racial epithets have a jaunty tinge, as in a series of antibrotherhood jokes made by blacks, Italians, Hispanics, white cops and Korean grocers — the film’s best sequence. On this street there are no crack dealers, hookers or muggers, just a 24-hour deejay named Mister Senor Love Daddy (Sam Jackson), who punctuates every mellow bellow with “And that’s the truth, Ruth!”

But what is the truth of Do the Right Thing? Whose side is Lee on? Is the movie a revolutionary scream or a fatalistic shrug? Lee leaves plenty of hints — contradictory epigrams from Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, a dedication to families of blacks slain by police, graffiti proclaiming TAWANA ((Brawley)) TOLD THE TRUTH — but no coherent clues. Lee cagily provides a litmus test for racial attitudes in 1989, but he does so by destroying the integrity of his characters, black and white. They vault from sympathetic to venomous in the wink of a whim. One minute, Sal delivers a moony monologue about how much he loves his black neighbors; the next, he is wielding a baseball bat, bound to crack skulls. One minute, Mookie urges caution; the next, he trashes the one store the brothers can call home.

In Hollywood the black man’s burden is to be all things to all people: stoic Sidney Poitier and sassy Eddie Murphy, angelic sitcom kid and fuming rapmaster. Lee’s movie bravely tries both approaches. It gives you sweet, then rancid, but without explaining why it turned. He holds the film like a can of beer in a paper bag — the cool sip of salvation on a blistering day — until it is revealed as a Molotov cocktail.

The morning after igniting the riot, Mookie slinks back to demand that Sal pay him his week’s wages. Behind the camera, Lee wants the same thing: to create a riot of opinion, then blame viewers for not getting the message he hasn’t bothered to articulate. Though the strategy may lure moviegoers this long hot summer, it is ultimately false and pernicious. Faced with it, even Mister Senor Love Daddy might say, “Take a hike, Spike!”

More Must-Reads From TIME

Contact us at