Do the Right Thing ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

If 2018’s The Hate U Give is the movie I said every (white) person should watch now in 2020 amidst continued upheaval regarding racial injustice in America, next on my syllabus would be 2018’s magnificent Blindspotting. After that, maybe 2017’s Detroit, but really you should ask someone other than me as I am by no means an expert in this field. However, a movie usually talked about in this vein that I have been slow to see but I now know absolutely needs to be a part of that syllabus is 1989’s Do the Right Thing. The question for me is: is this a movie to watch before all those mentioned, or after you’ve seen them all. (Side note: Green Book, while a fine movie, is not on the syllabus!)

I say this not because Do the Right Thing is a bad movie. On the contrary, it’s probably the best of the bunch I listed above. More I raise this question because it’s the least “easy” film of those listed above. I love (read: LOVE!!!!!) The Hate U Give, but you’d have to be dense or willfully ignorant to not get its message. Do The Right Thing is trickier; it’s more realistic, it’s morality hazier, and it’s liable to leave certain people with the wrong impression of what it’s trying to say. And that’s not a fault. In fact, it’s what I think makes it so powerful. Different people will leave this movie convinced of who are the heroes and who are the villains, and it’s hard to say definitively who is right in the end.

Now, fair warning: I generally like to write these up before reading others’ analyses and so I am positive I am going to misinterpret parts of this movie, particularly as this is a movie that has been written about ad nauseum since its release. Also fair warning: I’m a white dude in his 20s from the suburbs, so take my thoughts on this film about the lived experience of Black men with a grain of salt.

But I do think that’s what this movie, on one reading, is about: the lived experience of Black men. While much is rightfully made and written about the film’s climax (and we’ll get there), the majority of the movie is just following a day in the lives of the residents (mostly men) of one block in a Black neighborhood in Brooklyn during the hottest day of the year. We get the full spectrum of life: there’s the elders who spend their days sitting and shootin’ the shit, breaking each others’ balls, and reflecting on the impending gentrification of their home. There’s the block’s elderly guardian and de facto leader, an alcoholic who commands varying degrees of respect nicknamed “Da Mayor.” There’s the young twenty-somethings and teens who pass the day hanging around, and then there’s the small children playing in the streets. We hear from dialogue that this is a “scary” neighborhood where you should be afraid to even drive their car, but that’s not what we see in this film. We see a community, a vibrant community where everyone knows and cares for one another. When one character’s new Air Jordan sneakers get scuffed, at least ten others from the block come rushing to his defense. The movie paints an almost idyllic portrait of a healthy, vibrant Black community, regardless of the multiple problems they as a community face (joblessness, poverty, police brutality, and just general racism). Whether or not this idyllic community accurately reflects or reflected reality I have no ability to say, but I have to imagine that in 1989, Spike Lee did something pretty powerful by just portraying a healthy, happy Black community on-screen, and it clearly resonated with so many of its viewers.

Embedded into this haven of Black culture are just a few interlopers, including a corner store run by a Korean couple and a pizzeria run by Italian-American man and his two sons. Both stores’ presences upset the residents to different degrees. But it’s the pizzeria around which the film’s plot revolves. The film’s protagonist Mookie (played by the director Spike Lee) is the joint’s deliveryman and only Black employee. He often finds himself playing the role of a mediator between the restaurant’s sometimes boisterous all-Black clientele and the sometimes-hot-headed, all-white family who runs it. To say that Mookie is ambivalent about his job is an understatement. He is, truthfully, not the greatest employee. From dialogue we glean that he has a reputation for taking an hour to deliver a pizza just up the block, and in the film we see him twice take unauthorized breaks in the middle of his work day: once to go home and take a shower, the other to flirt with his girlfriend (in a very tender and well-shot scene!). Yet, for all his faults as an employee, the store’s owner Sal (Danny Aiello) recognizes how vital Mookie is to his operation. He may chide him for taking his time or talking on the restaurant’s only phone for too long, but he knows he will do his job and is overall a good person. What I love about Mookie, who is really the heart of the film (the one told ominously at the film’s start by Da Mayor that he must “do the right thing!”), is how Lee makes him so charming, so cool, and so cool-headed. He is constantly antagonized by his co-worker, Sal’s outwardly racist son Pino (a young John Turturro), yet either ignores his provocations or tries to reason with him. Yet at the same time, Mookie encourages his other co-worker and Sal’s other son, the weak, yet kind-hearted Vito, that he needs to be more assertive with his brother, to meet his aggression with aggression. Mookie (and Lee the writer) understand deeply the complex relationship of race and power. Given the foul things Pino says both to Mookie and about Black people in general, Mookie would be well justified to knock him about, but as a Black man he understands that will do nothing constructive. However, encouraging Pino’s white brother to rise up? No one would be bothered by that if Vito gave Pino what he deserved.

Mookie (and Lee in the writing) strike a fine balance between philosophies of MLK and Malcoln X, two prominent Black figures who loom large in the film. Despite the famous opening sequence where a woman (Rosie Perez) dances to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” there’s a sense in the film that violence, no matter the perpetrator, is an evil to be avoided. Da Mayor suggests that a young mother not spank her boy for lying. The man who has his shoes scuffed prides himself on being a righteous man who actively chooses not to retaliate. When Sal will not add any Black people to the pizzeria’s wall of fame that consists only of Italian America, the glasses-wearing character “Buggin’ Out” (an unrecognizable Giancarlo Esposito!), tries to organize a peaceful boycott.

But yet, for all the attempts to refrain from violence, “Fight the Power” becomes confused with a threat of violence. The song is inextricably linked to the character of Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), an imposing, largely silent individual who seemingly commands respect from his peers wherever he goes and is always carrying with him a large, boom-box that is constantly blasting “Fight the Power.” When he first enters Sal’s pizzeria mid-way through the film, the song still loudly playing on the boom-box, Sal refuses to serve him until he turns down the music, yelling at him to do so. It didn’t strike me at first that Sal was much at fault: Radio Raheem walks into an establishment with a giant boom box playing loud music… Raheem’s clearly in the wrong. But as Raheem later points out, Sal didn’t say as much as a “please.” Now, we don’t know the pair’s history. Presumably this is not the first time, Radio Raheem has entered the pizzeria in this way, and maybe the first time he did so, Sal responded with a “please.” But you get the sense from the film that Sal has little respect for Radio Raheem, and would never give him this benefit of the doubt. At the end of the film when Radio Raheem returns with Buggin’ Out to stage their protest/boycott, Sal responds violently to them and Raheem’s loud music. First he yells at them while holding a baseball bat, and then uses said bat to destroy Raheem’s radio, proudly exclaiming, “I killed your radio!” Sal calls “Fight the Power” “jungle music,” exposing his true thoughts about his customers. His destroying the radio and his joy to be doing so is, to me, a sign of his want for control. He is upset that his store is so reliant on Black people for customers. Even if his son is the one who says it explicitly, it becomes apparent that Sal too views some Black people as exceptional (such as Mookie’s sister), while the rest are “N-words.” Destroying that radio was the result of decades of Sal’s built-up frustration with his situation and underlying racism. The subsequent destruction of his shop by the community too was little more than the result of decades of the Black community’s frustration with Sal and his intrusion into their otherwise peaceful society.

There’s a great scene related to Do the Right Thing in the underrated 2016 movie Southside With You, an origin story, so to speak, chronicling the courtship and first date of Michelle and Barack Obama. In the film, they go see Do the Right Thing, and afterwards outside the theater the couple run into one of their white employers who was upset by the film’s ending, specifically that Mookie would abandon Sal and throw a trash can through the restaurant’s window, starting its destruction. Barack spins these actions in a way to make Mookie into a hero, who started a riot focused on destroying property in order to spare Sal and his family. The white people love Barack’s explanation and walk away. As soon as they do, Barack turns to Michelle and says, “I made that up. Mookie did what he did because he was mad.”

I agree. Mookie’s mad as hell. At Sal. At the police. At the fact that when the police showed up in response to an on-going brawl between Sal and Radio Raheem/Buggin’ Out, they asked zero questions, automatically assumed that the Black people were the aggressors (despite Sal displaying the initial violence), and proceeded to kill Radio Raheem (a scene that is shot without much artifice or drama, that somehow powerfully makes the death feel more real). Mookie’s mad at his job and his employer who profits off people he doesn’t care for. His anger is not something that can be reasoned away, but it is no means unjustified.

I absolutely love the movie’s ending. Just before the credits, Lee displays an MLK quote about the importance of non-violence and the evils of violence. The quote sets up the audience to condemn what they have just seen, to condemn Mookie and the rest of the block for destroying Sal’s shop. It’s a moral that white audiences in particular would celebrate. But then Lee challenges us. There’s a pause, and a new quote appears, this time from Malcolm X, explaining that while he doesn’t advocate for violence outright, violence in self-defense to protect one’s rights is warranted.

Do the Right Thing asks difficult and unresolvable questions. To what extent do storeowners owe anything to their customers? What relationship should white landowners/shopkeepers/employers have with the minority community in which they are operating? To what extent can Black people and minorities themselves be racist (not against white people, but against other minorities like the film’s Puerto Ricans and Koreans)? To what extent is looting/rioting ever an appropriate response? And the beauty of the movie is that while Lee has an answer to some of these, he’s not here to lecture anybody. This is an extremely realistic film, full of flawed and complicated characters. You respect Radio Raheem one minute and are detested the next by his treatment of the Korean store owners. Sal treats Da Mayor with respect but Buggin’ Out with disdain. If you hate black people walking into this film, you will still hate them walking out. If you hate white people walking into this film, you will still hate them walking out. But if you walk in with the paradoxical understanding that people are more than their race but also live in a society where they become defined by it, then Lee offers for you a great examination of the life of and injustices faced by Black folk in America, which sadly has not changed much since 1989.