The hottest day of the year starts calmly enough, as if the people on Stuyvesant Avenue in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood are the cheerful graduating class of Sesame Street. Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) spreads inebriated wisdom. Sal (Danny Aiello), the Italian American who runs the corner pizzeria, brags that the locals “grew up on my food.” His delivery boy, Mookie (writer-director Spike Lee), doles out advice, and Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) keeps the block pulsing to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” which 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.
So did some critics when Lee’s day-in-the-death melodrama opened. Cries of “fascist” and “racist” filled The Village Voice. A political columnist for New York magazine charged that Do the Right Thing could undermine the New York City mayoral campaign of black candidate David Dinkins (he won anyway). Lee, a canny writer-director and a brilliant showman, must have smiled at all the free publicity, which made the movie a word-of-mouth sensation. The main charge against the film, that it took both sides of an explosive issue, now seems to miss the point. Lee was not only an angry young man on Stuyvesant Ave., he was the Old Testament God watching from above, sending plagues of fury and prejudice as an impossible test for ordinary people.
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