Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) begins with slow, slightly jazzy, bittersweet music then jolts into the opening credits with Rosie Perez’s violent dancing to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” It ends with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. condemning violence, followed by one from Malcolm X allowing for the use of force. Bookending his film with two juxtapositions of seeming black and white, in between Lee creates the greatest movie ever made about America and all the grays in the middle.
Do the Right Thing, about the hottest day of the summer on one block of the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, New York, is a film that can be easily understood but never figured out. It does not take sides but reveals sides. It is not interested in creating a problem then solving it; it is interested only in bringing attention to the labyrinthine problem that already exists. It’s not meant to be a message film; it doesn’t provide answers. It provides empathy. There is no mastering Do the Right Thing, the way one can get to the bottom of all the mysteries of Last Year at Marienbad (1961) or The Double Life of Veronique (1991). To master this movie would be to fix the race issue in America. And if there’s someone out there who can do that, I’d like to meet them.
Consider the central plot point in the film. Sal (Danny Aiello) who owns a pizzeria on the block is being hassled by one of his many black customers, Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito). Buggin’ Out is upset that Sal’s “Wall of Fame” is filled with Italian-Americans and wants to know why there aren’t any black people on the wall. Sal, correctly, tells Buggin’ that it’s his place and that he can put whatever he wants on the wall and he wants Italians only. Buggin’ responds, just as correctly, that the great majority of Sal’s customers are black and that this “Wall of Fame” should reflect that. Black people buy the pizza and it’s doubtful that Wall of Famer Frank Sinatra has ever stepped foot into Sal’s place. They’re both right so who’s wrong? You could say that Buggin’ Out should drop it (and when he tries to organize a boycott most of his friends do tell him just that), but shouldn’t the business reflect its customers? But Sal has the right to honor who he wants to honor, doesn’t he? It’s a free country (this phrase is used twice in Do the Right Thing and both times the person who says it is roundly mocked for his naivete). Sal shouldn’t have to change his place and Buggin’ Out shouldn’t have to stand for it. This is the territory in which Do The Right Thing resides.
The movies stars Lee, who also wrote the screenplay, as Mookie, who delivers pizzas for Sal. Sal’s Pizzeria has been in Bed-Stuy for twenty-five years and Sal boasts that the people of the block grew up on his pies. Sal’s son Pino (John Turturro), who makes his disdain for the neighborhood and its inhabitants known, wants him to move the store to their neighborhood in Bensonhurst. Two cops, one white, one of Latino descent, ask him what he’s still doing in the rundown district where Sal can’t even get the air-conditioning repairman to come to him “without a police escort.” Sal likes it here. He feels he’s part of a community. And what a community it is. This block in Bed-Stuy feels as real as any place in the movies (it was shot on a real Brooklyn block). People work here, they live here, they gossip and walk around here. It’s filled with characters like Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), the old, drunk, vizier of the neighborhood. There’s the three middle-aged street cornermen, acting like a Greek chorus, except instead of commenting on the plot, they shoot the breeze, complain about the heat, and threaten to beat up Mike Tyson. There’s the quartet of young black people, out to have fun and get into trouble. There’s a group of Latinos, the matriarch of the block Mother Sister (Ruby Dee), and Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), whose ever-present boom box blasts Public Enemy while he wears brass knuckles with the words “Love” and “Hate” on them a la Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter (1955). Then there’s Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith), who is mentally disabled, and sells pictures of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. All of this is presided over by Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson), the radio DJ at We Love Radio, which seems to broadcast exclusively to and about this block.
Characters will walk together, but in the background we’ll see Da Mayor or Smiley, or we’ll hear one of the cornermen talking about the Koreans across the street. Lee creates on his soundtrack and he and his cinematographer Ernest Dickenson create in their compositions a tapestry of familiar characters, some of whom are seen before they are introduced, so that by the time we do meet them we feel like we know them.
Watching this film again it reminds me how much stronger and more complete it is than Paul Haggis’s more acclaimed Crash (2005), a film that also had race at its center. The people in Do the Right Thing are real, they make decisions based on their personalities and their circumstances, they are flawed, they aren’t types making choices to make a point or to create a plot twist. Nothing in Do the Right Thing seems contrived; all of the action occurs naturally, and every piece fits. That’s the power of it. It’s easy to watch it and feel remorse for some of the decisions that are made, but it’s impossible to suggest an alternative action. Comparatively, Crash depends on coincidence and its characters rely on stereotypes to be profound. It wants to make a statement because there’s a black guy in it who likes country music. The ideas in Do The Right Thing are a little more complicated than that. Lee’s film does not preach the way Haggis’s does. Do the Right Thing is not a sanctimonious pillar of great moral art. It is a fun movie. For all its misery and sadness, there are just as many moments of humor and joy. It’s about real, messy life.
The “Wall of Fame” story line dominates my memory of the plot, and I’d forgotten just how rich it is with other details. So accustomed are we to movies that barrel through their stories, it’s jarring to watch a movie that takes its time and doesn’t mind veering from the main plot to create a richer image. Mookie and his girlfriend Tina (Perez) share a bittersweet love scene late in the movie that sums up their relationship. Tina, who is the mother of Mookie’s son, orders a pizza just so she can see her man. It’s been a week since the two have been together and we are made to understand that Mookie is not a very eager participant in the young life of his child. We don’t like that about him and neither does Tina, but he charms her by rubbing ice cubes all over her body (“Thank God for lips. Thank God for necks. Thank God for kneecaps”). She, and we, are reminded why we like Mookie in the first place: He’s funny, and sweet, and has a good heart. But then he leaves.
Another subplot involves the best visual sequence of the film. Mookie’s sister Jade (Joie Lee) visits the pizzeria to the obvious joy of Sal. Sal chats her up. The words are innocent but the tone suggests something else, and while Sal talks we are presented a slow-motion shot of Mookie and then Sal’s angry son Pino sizing up what they both dread. The relationship between Jade and Sal is never fully looked into and it doesn’t need to be. It reveals a little about Sal, reinforces what we know about Pino and shows us a lot about Mookie.
The heartbreaking end of the film begins with Sal closing the shop up. It’s been a good day. Some kids want more pizza and even though it’s after hours and his employees don’t want to, Sal lets them in. Soon after, like the very beginning of the film, the tranquility is broken up by the sound of Public Enemy. Radio Raheem, recruited by Buggin’ Out, bursts into Sal’s declaring the boycott. An argument starts. It escalates. And escalates. It escalates until Sal has destroyed the radio with a baseball bat. A fight breaks out, Radio Raheem lies dead at the hands of the police, Mookie throws a trash can through Sal’s window, a riot commences, and Sal’s Pizzeria is burns down. The devastating power of the scene is derived by the work Lee has done to get us to know these characters, to understand why they are doing what they are doing, and why there’s nothing they can do but destroy everything around them. There is no justice and in its vacuum there is anger. There is no blame because no one is blameless. It is the way it could only have happened. During the riot the police hose down the rioters in both a chilling reminder of both the 1960s Civil Rights struggles and a jarring juxtaposition to the scene earlier when some of these same people sprayed themselves with an open fire hydrant to cool themselves down. In the rubble, Smiley pins one of his pictures of Dr. King and Malcolm X to the charred “Wall of Fame.” There is no progress without pain.
What’s the message? That we are all doomed to the curse of racism? That we’ll never figure it out? I’m not sure. I don’t feel that way at the end of film, though I certainly don’t feel hopeful. I don’t see a message and I don’t miss one. Lee is showing, not telling. He wants us to consider our own thoughts on race. This is a film so well-made, so vibrant and rich that it may be the most ripe for discussion of any ever made. What it does is so subtle, yet it hits with the force of a bomb. Lee allows you to come to realizations that are powerful and moving. The loss of Sal’s Pizzeria is a tragedy, but it comes about because of the loss of a life. It’s remarkable how many people bemoan the former without taking the latter into consideration. Empathy is the main weapon the movie employs and it does so as well as any movie ever made. If you want a message look no further than the title. But Do the Right Thing spends its running time dealing with just how difficult and complicated that proposition really is.