Do the Right Thing is the film that made Spike Lee. The movie is intelligent, poignant, and powerful, and deals with a topic that is painfully relevant in modern day America.
It’s easy to make a generic movie about race relations. Throw in a few slackjawed racists, and some do-gooders, and in the end, everyone gets along and sings Kumbayah. This is not the case with Do The Right Thing.
The film follows Mookie (Spike Lee), a young African American man, as he trasverses through a neighborhood filled with different people of different races. It’s the hottest day of summer in New York’s Bed-Stuys neighborhood, and the heat brings racial tensions to a boil.
In a telling and clever sequence, characters spout racial epithets in a round robin showing the cyclic nature of hate. The Black man hates the Italian man, who can’t stand the Mexicans, who detest the Koreans, and so on. It’s a fast and sharply-written sequence that shows the futility of racism. It’s brilliantly ended by a loudly-shouted “Stop!” by the local DJ (Samuel L. Jackson).
Do the Right Thing focuses on an Italian-American owned pizzeria in the middle of a predominantly Black neighborhood. Danny Aiello‘s compellingly complex turn as Sal, the pizza shop owner earned him a Best Supporting Actor nomination. (The movie, as a whole, was shamefully overlooked by the Academy.)
Throughout the day, tension mounts as the temperature rises. Lee shows us little conflicts. Black men turning a fire hydrant to spray a White man’s car. A group of Mexican men engage in a sort of radio battle with Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), a Black man whose passion is walking around with a boombox that plays Public Enemy‘s “Fight the Power” on repeat. Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito), a local agitator, attempts to boycott Sal’s pizzeria.
Tensions escalate until a fight breaks out in the pizzeria, police are called, and Radio Raheem is needlessly killed by local police. Radio dies with little fanfare. Even the movie itself diverts little focus to the actual circumstances of his death. The ensuing riot is almost a reaction to that absence of reaction, not to the death itself.
It’s important to note that, in this film, there are no good nor bad characters. Sal is kind to his customers and takes interest in many of the people in the neighborhood. But, when push comes to shove, he unleashes a string of racial epithets that turns his customers against him. Is Sal racist or not racist? Who in the film is racist? More importantly, who isn’t?
Do the Right Thing raises more questions than it answers, and Lee portrays racism as a multifaceted issue, without pandering to any audience. The film is a sad film. There’s something terribly depressing about the futility to any effort made to unite the characters in the film.
Do the Right Thing is an excellent film, but it does have its flaws. I found the ice cube scene a bit gratuitous, if not exploitative. However, Spike Lee‘s choice of creating a Puerto Rican girlfriend for the main character and a biracial baby was a nice, realistic addition to the already diverse cast.
Mookie, as a main character, was fairly flat. He didn’t have a strong moral center, but served well as a tabula rasa for the audience to project their own opinions and emotions. The real hero of the film is Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), an old drunkard who has seen the pain of racism past and tries to save the present generation, multiple times.
The film ends with two quotes, one by Dr. Martin Luther King, decrying the senselessness of violence; and one by Malcolm X, advocating violence as a means of self defense against oppression. The motif of Martin Luther King versus Malcolm X is repeatedly depicted in the film. A mentally disabled man named Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith) walks through the neighborhood selling photos of King shaking the hand of Malcom X.
In the aftermath of the riot, we see Smiley tacking one of his photos on the crumbling wall of Sal’s pizzeria, and then running off by himself, for once without words to stutter. In the face of America’s long history of racism and prejudice, aren’t we all a bit like Smiley? Incapable of rational thought, our words deprived of meaning.