In Do the Right Thing, writer/director/actor Spike Lee chronicles the lives of working class Brooklyners in the ethnically diverse Bed-Stuy area over a 24-hour period, on the hottest day of the summer. Lee gives a sense of the film’s energy and aggressiveness as early as the opening credits. As Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” blasts, sound and images are combined into a brilliantly edited sequence filled with bright colors, attitude, and anger. Shot by long-time collaborator Ernest Dickerson, the film seems about ready to burst with its palette of strong, saturated colors and emphasis on bright fiery reds and warm oranges and golds that create a visual representation of heat. As temperatures escalate, so do the conflicts between characters; tensions flare up and ultimately explode in racial violence.
Lee treads the fine line between the personal and the political, making his singularly unique characters more than just stand-in representatives for their class and race, but at the same time refusing to focus simply on the individual, instead reflecting on the wider social tensions that come to shape the characters and their actions. From the first shot of the film, a closeup of a ringing clock and Samuel L. Jackson’s character’s first words—“Wake up!” (which also happens to be the closing line of Lee’s previous film, School Daze)—it’s obvious the director is pleading with the audience as much as the characters to open their eyes and see the urgent need for interracial respect and understanding. Lee’s is a clear, level gaze at American politics of race, from a distinct, African American perspective. His films pose questions that evade easy answers; he offers no solutions. By the ambiguous ending of the movie, it is up to us to decide what “the right thing” is.