Written by: Spike Lee
Starring: Spike Lee, Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Richard Edson, Giancarlo Esposito
No matter how hard new generations try, some things in society always remain the same. Racism gets the specific focus in Do the Right Thing where a specific Brooklyn neighborhood faces a reckoning of the brewing relations of the people, all before involving the police. A complete and unrelenting message through the eyes of its brilliant director, this film proves to be unfortunately relevant in the 21st century with no signs of stopping any time soon.
Mookie (Spike Lee) works as a pizza delivery guy for Sal (Danny Aiello) and his family-owned shop. With a heat wave making people extra, certain feelings kept tempered for a long time begin to explode while Mookie tries to play peacekeeper for as long as he can.
Many words can be used to describe Do the Right Thing, but safe certainly would never be one of them, as it serves as a perfect reminder of how little progress has been made in this country, but also in the radical form of its filmmaking. Beginning with the credits displaying Rosie Perez dancing to “Fight the Power,” the mood gets set for a type of film people in 1989 were not ready to experience. With Spike Lee coming off of his first two films in School Daze and She’s Gotta Have It, I find it hard to believe anyone thought he would create a timeless masterpiece so soon, which is what he delivers with this film.
As with many of Lee’s films, New York City serves as the setting for the story and it plays a major part in displaying the diverse set of people occupying this environment. Even with the Bedford–Stuyvesant neighborhood having a dense African-American population, people of many backgrounds call it home and have businesses in this area. The central location for much of the tension comes from Sal’s pizza shop where Mookie works. Sal and his sons Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson) have operated from this neighborhood for decades and Pino has been begging his father to leave this neighborhood because of how he feels about African-Americans. Sal does not particularly care but Pino has no qualms in displaying his unbridled racism towards Mookie and many of the patrons in the shop.
The density of Do the Right Thing allows for a deep dive on nearly every single character but looking at Pino really exemplifies the hypocrisy of his racist viewpoints. He thinks of Black people as inferior to him but he respects Black celebrities and athletes for the entertainment they provide. This particular conversation he has with Mookie speaks volumes about the way of thinking he and other racists have towards other groups. Pino does not look upon those celebrities and athletes as Black because they’re successful, which begs the question of what he means by those who he does consider Black. It does not have to be spelled out here with such a clear answer being quite obvious.
As the temperature rises in this film so does the tension building between the characters. It begins with Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) suggesting Sal should have pictures of Black celebrities on the Wall of Fame located in the pizza shop to which Sal responds with the suggestion of the young man purchasing his own shop if he wants to see his request granted. Buggin’ Out certainly does not take it well, which begins his boycott of the shop. This certainly puts Mookie in a tough place because he needs the money working at this shop but must also contend with his own friends boycotting the establishment. This middle ground is where Mookie finds himself for the majority of the film and the moment where he finally gets directly involved makes for an impactful moment in the story.
Following Mookie in his delivery routes brings life as the different members of this community get some screen time and it shows two things: the protagonist we follow is not very good at his job and the vibrant nature of this neighborhood. Whether it’s hearing the commanding voice of Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson) over the radio or the different conversations with people like Mother Sister (Ruby Dee), this community has such a rich history and people who have made it their home for generations. On these delivery routes, it shows Spike Lee’s admiration for this city and the people who live in it, from the old men sitting and talking smack all day to the petty conversations held between friends. No other place in the world matches the personality of a New York neighborhood and Lee ensures to display it just as things truly ramp up and tragedy strikes.
For all the love felt within those in the neighborhood, Do the Right Thing undoubtedly has plenty of anger running through it. This aggravation spews in the way vitriol spikes with people like Sal and Buggin’ Out. There’s plenty of seething with the characters, but also overall as shown in the closing credits to who Lee dedicates the movie to. The treatment of Black people in this country has been unjust since they were shipped here to be slaves and racism and prejudice continue into the 20th century in one of the most diverse places in the world. If this amount of anger and hate can occur in a city like New York, then it surely gets much worse elsewhere. Spike uses this film to channel this anger as he allows all of the feelings to bubble up until the pressure valve of civility can no longer contain the pain, which brings the ending of the film. An ending where each time I watch it, I hope it changes because of the agony that comes with it.
A scintillating masterpiece through the complete vision of a director who cares not if the subject material makes others uncomfortable. If anything, it serves as a wake-up call and the idea this film still remains just as, if not more, relevant speaks volumes of the unrest sitting right below the layer of the American way of life. The hatred people of this film espouse to each other remains there but only some feel emboldened to act upon it. As one of the greatest American films ever made, Do the Right Thing refuses to make anything digestible or wrapped up in a nice bow, instead it shows the reality of this issue being a fiery mess.