I just watched Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing for the first time (the AFI released a new top 100 list, so I guess I have to watch all the ones that weren't on the original list now, and Right Thing is #96). I remember Spike Lee being pretty controversial when I was a kid growing up in a mostly white suburb, but I hadn't seen many of his films and mostly just thought of him as a big Knicks fan, so it was interesting to go back and see what all the talk was about. I've previously only seen Malcolm X (amazing job by Denzel Washington, but the long extraneous dance scenes wore on me) and Inside Man (good, if just a regular bank heist movie) and I thought Right Thing was very uneven. It's a scorching hot day, so everybody's supposed to be upset, but it all just comes across as caricatured and jokey (maybe that's partly because of the colorful way the film was lit and the awful 80's neon spandex everyone is wearing, but one character's name is "Buggin' Out," and he plays the goofy part), so I felt absolutely no tension building throughout the first hour and a half of the movie, and then all the violent emotion at the end felt totally odd. Radio Raheem only appears in a few scenes before the final one, and despite the fact that Spike Lee calls him Mookie's "best friend" in the DVD commentary, it wasn't clear to me that he was particularly tight with any of the main characters, so I hadn't grown attached to him at all.
In the DVD director commentary, both Spike and Joie Lee talk about how people who view the destruction of the pizzeria as more important than Raheem's death need to re-evaluate their priorities. I would completely agree with that in real life, but in the movie I think that's an unfair comparison. Raheem was a bit character who showed basically no emotion through 75% of the movie, but you grow deeply attached to Sal the pizzeria owner: you spend time learning about him and you see him show his care for his sons and Mookie and his sister. So yes, I cared more about the pizzeria than Raheem, and if a minor white character had been killed by cops, I wouldn't have cared about them either--they were a minor character. The movie made me care about Sal's pizzeria, and Raheem was only on screen long enough to boss a couple people around with his big boom box and then he was seriously trying to strangle and kill Sal until the police came. The police are another thing. They were introduced in a comical scene about a fire-hydrant, so the movie didn't give me any reason to think that they serially mistreated the neighborhood. So I think it's a phony comparison and I don't like that Spike Lee might think I'm racist when I really don't think I am.
I happily admit, however, that the movie made me think, a lot, and about important things, which is way more than I can say for Tropic Thunder, which I also watched yesterday. And the image of Mookie calmly taking the trash bag out of the can then throwing the can through the window and instigating the riot is a great moment in film.