'Do The Right Thing' Turns 20

Considering all the effort put into shrouding Barack Obama in swarthy otherness during the election, it's a wonder that one biographical factoid went without much scrutiny. On their first date, he took Michelle to see Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, the dystopian meditation on race relations that, a full 20 years after its release, remains the hottest firebomb in Lee's provocative filmography. Never mind Jeremiah Wright and Michelle's Princeton thesis; if anything would have given "hardworking white Americans" pause, it's the thought of their president and first lady courting at a film that features a black mob gleefully torching a white man's business. There's even a recitation of a Louis Farrakhan quote about how the black man will one day "rise and rule the earth as we did in our glorious past," but Obama wasn't asked to reject or denounce his choice of date movie. (Story continued below...)

That the film never came up is more surprising considering that the two decades since Do the Right Thing's release haven't blunted its impact. The film takes place on a record-hot day in Brooklyn's predominantly black Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. Lee plays Mookie, a pizza schlepper for Sal (Danny Aiello), an Italian-American whose pizzeria is either a great place to grab lunch, or akin to a foreign military base, depending on who is asked. During the film's climax, Buggin' Out (Giancarlo Esposito) and Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) storm Sal's to demand he put a black face among his all-Italian-American wall of fame. A fight breaks out, and when the NYPD shows up, Raheem is choked to death by an officer, sparking the riot that destroys Sal's pizzeria.

Do the Right Thing demands that the viewer make an uncomfortable value judgment: what's more important, a white man's property or a black man's life? Lee was unconvinced that white America would reach the right conclusion, as the film ends with a mayor's statement on the riot, read by a radio announcer: "The city of New York will not allow property to be destroyed by anyone." (That line, Lee admits, was aimed directly at then-mayor Ed Koch.) It would be nice to write off Lee's pessimistic view of race relations, particularly as the police are concerned, but the deaths of Amadou Diallo in 1999 and Sean Bell in 2006 bear out the notion of police killing innocents, then dressing up racial malice in gross incompetence's clothes. If Lee made the film in 2009, it would probably be more indignant rather than less, the election of Obama notwithstanding.

The film's most controversial feature was actually in the credits, in which two quotes roll: one from Martin Luther King Jr. repudiating the use of violence, and one from Malcolm X justifying violence in self-defense. There's no bolder choice a filmmaker can make than to create an ambiguous ending, to force the audience to decide how it feels about what it's seen rather than simply agree or disagree with him. To watch Do the Right Thing now is to be reminded why Lee stands among our most original, most daring filmmakers. It's still relevant, still troubling and still more of a third-date kind of movie.