Role Call

Continuing a topic addressed last week, Do the Right Thing actually provides a perfect case study in how an actor’s reputation, at the time of filming and their subsequent legacy, can inform an audience’s ever-changing relationship to their characters.

Take Ruby Dee, for example. As an avid cinephile of film history, Spike Lee understood that casting one of the queens of the screen as “Mother Sister” would immediately give her rather-tertiary character a gravitas that need not be developed completely on the page; it wouldn’t take much pushing and prodding to convince audiences already familiar with Dee to believe her as a paragon of learned and experienced wisdom, a mother/sister figure for all on the block.

So that’s a conventional approach to casting. But as detailed last week, often the natural course of a career, and how our perception of an actor evolves because of it, can alter how we respond to their earlier performances, especially if we engage with their oeuvre anachronistically.

Besides Bill Nunn/Laurence Fishburne, Do the Right Thing‘s littered with other thespians whose post-Spike success — or lack thereof — will color how new generations watching the movie for the first time will view their characters, for better and, sometimes, for worse.

Let’s start with the former, specifically with four actors whose resulting ascendency helps the roles their parts serve in the story.

Similar to how Ruby Dee’s celebrity bolsters what’s not fully-formed but still suggested in the script, Rosie Perez’s contemporary clout adds a heft to her (dare I say underwritten) romance with Mookie/Spike.

Meanwhile, Sam Jackson’s positioned as the voice of the movie. Though his now-signature, then relatively-unknown pipes can achieve that effect on their own, his current global-superstar status only boosts the strength of his oral presence looming large lording over the proceedings.

Similarly, though John Turturro’s turn is outsized enough on its own to command attention, his later notoriety ensures that audiences take his hate seriously from the jump, treating his hysterics not as peripheral drama nor as throwaway theatrics but as central to what’s really going on here.

In 1989 and for the 20 years afterwards, Giancarlo Esposito was simply the actor playing Buggin Out. But two decades on, when he became recognizable the world over as Gus “Los Pollos Hermanos” Fring courtesy of Breaking Bad in 2009, first-timers to Do the Right Thing will expect him to serve an important function in the narrative, hopefully keying them into focusing on how Buggin Out’s early…well…“bug-outs” relate to the climactic tragedy.

Yet fame can be a retroactive negative, too. While Martin Lawrence’s oversized shtick can be amusing, his transformation into a comedy icon throws off the balance of what’s supposed to be an equal, interchangeable friend group. The blinding light of his spotlight mutates his performance into the stuff of sketch humor, preventing it from blending seamlessly into the ensemble-based firmament.

But the slyest casting choice that incorporates an actor’s offscreen identity was one Spike had total control over. Choosing Rick Aiello, son of Danny Aiello, as the cop directly (but not solely) responsible for the ending’s doom and gloom subtly links the police with Aiello Sr.’s Sal, and thus his pizzeria. White people in positions of power are like a family, banding together to keep the black community down.

A band of brothers, but only of a certain hue.

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