Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing as an American Epic


Ashley Clark in Moving Image Source:

On paper, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989)a modestly budgeted comedy-drama that took place entirely on a single Brooklyn block on the hottest day of the year—might seem a curious fit for the label of “American Epic.” Traditionally, when we think of what constitutes “epic” cinema, we might imagine inflated running times, mega budgets, sweeping vistas, and the leap-frogging of decades. And, if we’re talking specifically about Lee’s oeuvre, isn’t Malcolm X (1992), his 201-minute, $33 million, continent-hopping biopic of the life and times of the eponymous activist and orator, a safer bet for the label in such a retrospective?

If we cast away such generic preconceptions, it soon becomes apparent that the earlier film is the bolder choice. Within the strict temporal and location confines ofDo the Right Thing lies a work concerned with tackling the biggest of American themes—race relations, ambition, urban survival, economics, violence, and liberty—on a microcosmic scale. With its thrillingly unorthodox blend of Aristotelian unity and Brechtian artificiality, it locates the big in the small, and the national in the local. Over 120 swift minutes, it assails the viewer with a mixture of character drama, comedy, poetry, music, and then, in its riot finale precipitated by the cops’ murder of young Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), dares to echo SNCC member H. Rap Brown’s darkly diagnostic pronouncement in the 1960s that “violence is as American as cherry pie.” (He meant “apple,” but he made his point.) Intended by Lee as an artistic response to the racial tensions in a New York City then under the Mayorship of Ed Koch, the film sparked huge controversy, prompting a host of misguided cultural critics to speculate that it would cause riots. It didn’t, of course, but it struck a nerve because it said more about the state of contemporary race relations, and with more complexity and brazen confidence, than any other film in the American cinema to date.