No other film released 25 years ago, and few made since, captured the crosscurrents of a single neighborhood on a sweltering summer day in late 20th-century America the way Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” did.
Lee’s brash masterwork still plays like gangbusters – with an audience or watching it solo.
Confined to a single day leading to a deadly street clash between African-Americans and Italian-Americans in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, the film was based on a notorious 1986 incident in the Howard Beach, Queens, neighborhood. Lee’s film, as richly colored visually as it is provocative and multidirectional in its points of view, responded directly to tragic events. It is Lee’s masterwork.
“Do the Right Thing” was a financial success, though a long way from the biggest film of the summer of ’89. “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” took No. 1 that year, followed by Tim Burton’s “Batman.” Was “Do the Right Thing” recognized by the Academy Awards as the best film of that year? No. It wasn’t even nominated in the best picture category. “Driving Miss Daisy” was, and “Driving Miss Daisy” won.
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That film can be described as the cozy opposite of “Do the Right Thing.”
Each summer movie season sends forth a movie that represents where audiences were, and what they were into. Will any film in 2014 spark conversations the way Lee’s film did? Perhaps, in a gentler vein, Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood,” 12 clandestine years in the making. It’s already a success on the international festival circuit.
Perhaps the film of the summer of 2014 will be the Wachowskis’ science fiction fantasy “Jupiter Ascending,” grand and ambitious enough – one can only hope! – to make “Cloud Atlas” look like a piker. Perhaps the film of the summer will be one of many sequels and reboots, from “22 Jump Street” to “Transformers: Age of Extinction.”
But the emblematic film of a summer, remember, isn’t always the biggest hit or the best movie.