I was a teenager when writer/director Spike Lee’s, Do the Right Thing (1989) hit theaters. I was a lot more naïve and free-thinking back then than I am now. For me, there was no question that racism existed and that many African Americans had a reason to be “angry”. Now, as I have aged and experienced the world, I still think African Americans still have reasons to be “angry”, but not for the same reasons that I thought back in 1989. When I watch Do the Right Thing now I get a little aggravated at the mixed message that Lee delivers. There’s no doubt that this is a powerful film, but now nearing the age of 25, its message has not aged well.
The story takes place in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn on one exceedingly hot summer day. Mookie (Lee himself) is a pizza delivery man for Sal’s Pizzeria. He lives with his sister (Lee’s real-life sister Joie Lee), but has a girlfriend (Rosie Perez) and baby whom he doesn’t really support. He has an odd relationship with Sal (Danny Aiello) and his two sons, Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson). Pino despises African Americans, while Sal and Vito are more friendly toward the African Americans who frequent the pizzeria. The neighborhood is full of caricatures—a drunk old man (Ossie Davis), a window-watching elderly stateswoman (Ruby Dee), a boom-box toting giant (Bill Nunn), a stuttering mentally challenged young man (Roger Guenveur Smith), a Black Power agitator aptly named Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito), and three chair holder downs (Robin Harris, Frankie Faison, and Paul Benjamin).
The film is a study in how African Americans, Hispanics, Koreans, and whites get along with one another in this racially diverse borough. Stereotypes abound, and at one point in the film Lee has a member of each race spew as many racially charged descriptions about another race as they can think of. In this, at least, there is a very balanced take on how some races view their counterparts. Yet, after this, I find the film unbalanced in its analysis of race.
The film hinges on Sal’s right to hang pictures of Italian Americans on his restaurant’s wall and to refuse to allow Radio Raheem (Nunn) to play his boom-box in his restaurant. There are many arguments on both sides, but the fact remains that if you respect all people’s rights and not only what you perceive to be yours, then you know that if someone owns a business they can run it however they want—it is your right not to patronize it if you don’t agree with the owner. For me, that is doing the right thing. So, when Sal busts Raheem’s boom-box with a bat and Raheem proceeds to attempt to choke Sal to death for it while only his sons appear to be trying to help Sal, I wasn’t offended when the police tried to restrain Raheem. Did they go too far when they choked him to death? Yes—but whose to say that Raheem wouldn’t have done the same thing to Sal if the police hadn’t come? This is one very important sticking point that is NEVER mentioned in discussion of this film.
But the thing that aggravates me the most about Do the Right Thing is when Mookie throws a trash can through Sal’s window and the entire neighborhood proceeds to destroy and loot it—and then one idiot burns it down. In 2001, we had a week-long study in stupidity when African Americans rioted when a black teenager was fatally shot by the police. Businesses were looted (mostly ones frequented by African Americans) and many African American entertainers cancelled bookings in the city in protest. As a result, an even more antagonistic relationship developed between the African American community and the police—so much so that the police responded exceedingly slow whenever they were called to an emergency. In the three months after the riots, 77 people were shot in Cincinnati—76 of those were African Americans. For me, destroying your community to make a point is NOT doing the right thing.
As such, when I watch Do the Right Thing I get frustrated that Spike Lee does not clearly make this point. Running two quotes at the end of your film, one by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and one by Malcolm X, that contradict one another about whether it is right to use violence to achieve and maintain your rights, is a cop-out. Also, the audacity the Mookie shows to “get paid” the day after the riot is just ridiculous. You throw a trash can through your boss’s window and incite a disturbance that unquestioningly destroyed said business that employees you, and you still want to get paid? My God, are you trying to bolster the racial stereotype of African Americans with their hands out asking for money when they don’t deserve it?
As for the overall production value of Do the Right Thing, Lee was smart to frame his story within a 24-hour period. This allows for no real meandering and keeps the plot moving steadily. He was also smart with his casting decisions, as he mostly chose actors who fit their characters perfectly. Ossie Davis as the philosophical borough drunk was interesting to watch, as well as Robin Harris, Frankie Faison, and Paul Benjamin as the would-be Greek chorus of the story. Hands down, however, the most riveting performances come from Aiello and Turturro. Aiello earned an a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his conflicted portrayal of a man who wants to continue on in a neighborhood that has dramatically shifted in racial dynamics over the years. And, Turturro is phenomenal (as usual), as a pathologically racist who is surrounded by the races that he loathes so much.
Overall, Do the Right Thing is a polarizing film. There are some who find it right on point and thought-provoking regarding the race discussion in America. For me, however, I think the movie is ambiguous and doesn’t make a clear statement on race. The story is powerful, but its ending is troubling and delivers a contradictory message.