Thirty years on, it’s hard to believe this film is really that old. Ranked by many as the best film of the year at the time, and with cast members and screenplay nominated for Academy Awards, it now seems to have been almost forgotten, and is rarely shown on TV. I had read about the film, and had also seen Lee’s earlier success ‘She’s Gotta Have it’. So I went to see it at the cinema, additionally enticed by the impressive cast list.
I was not disappointed. I thought it was an amazing film, with perfect locations, a superb cast, and a snappy script. It was all there. An unusually hot summer, racial tensions between ethnic groups in a small area, and everyone getting hot under the collar as the temperatures soared. Lee stars as Mookie, a pizza delivery man living in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of New York City. He works for Sal, (a brilliant performance from Danny Aiello) at the local pizzeria. Sal’s son Pino (John Tuturro on top form) is racially prejudiced against black people, but his father refuses to let tensions in the neighbourhood force him to move away from his business.
This film excels in the use of minor characters to set the scene as they watch or become involved in the action as it unfolds. The marvellously-named Radio Raheem, (Bill Nunn) a sociable drunk called Da Mayor, (Ossie Davis) and Mother Sister, (Ruby Dee) who watches everyone come and go from the steps or window of her house. Trouble starts to brew when one of Mookie’s friends protests about the ‘Wall of Fame’ in Sal’s pizzeria. Sal has lots of photos of famous Italian-Americans, but none of any famous black people. Driven on by the stifling heat, protests against Sal’s wall increase, until at the end of a long, hot, and fractious day, things boil over into a dramatic confrontation.
Despite its age, this film could not be more relevant today. It examines attitudes to race, tolerance of the mentally ill, confrontational policing, and the effects of crowding people together in fast-changing neighbourhoods where some resist those changes. Aiello is outstanding as Sal, though everyone involved is nothing less than perfect for their role. This is a film that every film fan should watch at least once, and one that will undoubtedly be seen as historically and culturally significant in the future.