In 1963 the celebrated cultural historian Irving Howe commented of African-American author Richard Wright's revolutionary 1940 novel Native Son, "The day [it] appeared, American culture was changed forever." Reading Ed Guerrero's masterly monograph on what is arguably Spike Lee's finest feature (beaten, for me, by He Got Game), one is tempted to pinch the quote and give it a new slant. For from the evidence presented by Guerrero, Associate Professor of Cinema Studies at New York University, it would be fair to say that when Do the Right Thing first appeared in cinemas on 30th June 1989, American culture was overturned once more.
In this guide, Guerrero proves how Lee's film, the follow-up to School Daze and the precursor to Mo' Better Blues, "came to spark more media attention and critical debate than any other film in the history of black American film-making." Opening, like Wright's Native Son, to the sound of an urgent alarm clock, the film served as a severe wake-up call for the public to recognise the state of the nation. Lee's prediction of its impact, quoted by Guerrero at the start of the book, was right on the money: "No doubt this film is gonna get more heat than any other film I've done. I know there will be an uproar about this one."
Depicting the escalating tensions of a 24 hour-period during a sweltering summer in Brooklyn, the film's explosive mix of political debate and sporadic violence made it a sign of the times, and Guerrero succinctly places its appearance within a number of different contexts. First, he presents it within the socio-political context of America, and more specifically New York City, at the end of the 1980s - a time when the black community was rocked by a number of mob-related killings and the high profile Twana Brawley rape case. (The original inspiration for the film came from the mid-'80s Howard Beach murder of a black man at the hands of a group of white youths.) "In the summer of 1989," comments Guerrero, "New York City, along with many other urban combat zones, could not have been more tense and divided along racial lines."
With the scene on the streets set, the author also examines Do The Right Thing's artistic context, delving into the 'culture wars' of the late American '80s - a time when the arts suffered right wing policing for moral content and works such as Scorsese's The Last Temptation Of Christ, Serrano's Piss Christ, and Madonna's Like A Prayer music promo were debated and drubbed.
Simultaneously charting his success not only as a film-maker, but also as an actor, producer, writer, marketer and celebrity, Guerrero also places Do the Right Thing first within the impressive body of Lee's work and then within numerous broader cinematic contexts. Principally, he aligns the film with classic Hollywood cinema (such as The Night Of The Hunter, evoked by Radio Raheem's love/hate knuckle rings) and Blaxploitation trips like Superfly (evoked, in Guerrero's opinion, by Lee and Rosie Perez's tender love-making scene).
Readers may or may not agree with Guerrero that Do The Right Thing is one of the most "prophetic masterpieces of American cinema", but it is fair to say that Lee is a director who has consistently provoked strong opinions from his audiences. Love Lee or hate him, Guerrero's intelligent, insightful prose and the book's bountiful selection of accompanying stills are sure to provoke the desire to re-visit this particular Spike Lee joint.
Reviewed by Chris Wiegand