SPOILER ALERT: If you've never seen Do The Right Thing, please...PLEASE go see it before reading this review. There are few movie watching experiences I've had quite like the first time I saw Do The Right Thing. It is a powerful and important film. The movie does contain a great deal of difficult material and content. For an explanation of that, scroll to the bottom of this post. But if you would like to see the movie without prior knowledge of the plot (which I recommend), please see the movie before reading the rest of this review.
So often, I think we want our movies to give us answers. We want to find meaning that brings closure to ideas or situations that are difficult. But racism is different. There are no clean answers here. There are no convenient ways to bring closure. The only way to foster healing is incredibly difficult - we must have love for the perspective of others. We have to attempt to see things from the viewpoint of someone else.
That is, in my opinion, the power of Do The Right Thing. This is a film that takes many different groups of people, puts them in one place and attempts to give a platform for their various points of view. And it goes to painstaking lengths to be fair in that portrayal.
The movie takes place over the course of one day - the hottest day of the year - in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn. That depiction of heat is one of the more technically triumphant aspects of the film. The creators of this film (director Spike Lee and cinematographer Ernest Dickerson) used colors and effects such as placing bunsen burners beneath the camera to create the feeling of heat. I was sitting in a comfortable chair in my air-conditioned apartment when I watched this film, but I certainly felt the heat.
Mookie (played by director Spike Lee) is a pizza delivery man for a local pizzeria that has been a staple of this black and Puerto Rican neighborhood for years. The pizzeria - Sal's Famous - is owned and operated by Sal Frangione (Danny Aiello) along with his sons, Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson). Sal takes pride in the fact that so many in the neighboorhod "grew up on (his) food." His sons are polar opposites of each other. Vito is friends with Mookie and generally gets along with the people of the neighborhood who come in for a slice. Pino is a racist. He detests the neighborhood, comparing it to a "sickness." He wants his father to move the pizzeria out of the neighborhood.
We meet many other characters thoughout the film. Mookie lives with his sister, Jade (Joie Lee), and has a son named Hector with Tina (Rosie Perez) who lives down the street. We also meet Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), who is the local drunk. He's always trying to win the affection of Mother-Sister (Ruby Dee) - the matriarch of the block. We meet Buggin' Out, a fast-talking young black man who wants to boycott Sal's Famous because they have no photos of black celebrities on the wall. There's Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith), a disabled man who walks around selling pictures of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcom X. There's our narrator, Mister Senor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson), who is the local radio DJ. And finally, there's Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) who uses his loud boombox blasting Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" as a shield between him and society. He also wears a "Love" and "Hate" four-fingered ring on each hand, and his explanation of why he wears them is one of my favorite scenes in the film.
There are other characters, too. You get the sense that you are on a real street corner walking amid people who have lived here their whole lives. The film truly feels like a snapshot of this moment in time - this day in the life.
No one else will join Buggin' Out's protest of Sal's Famous, because they've eaten the food their whole lives. They love it. Buggin' Out feels that, since the main clientele of Sal's Famous are black people, there should be black people represented on the Wall of Fame. Sal, in honor of his Italian-American heritage, says it's his store and he can choose which pictures he wants on the wall. Finally, Radio Raheem agrees to join the boycott after he has an argument with Sal about the loudness of his music.
The flashpoint comes when Buggin' Out and Radio Raheem come into the pizzeria one night and demand that Sal put up new pictures. Radio Raheem is blaring his boombox. Sal snaps. He takes a baseball bat to the boombox and demands that they leave. Radio Raheem is heartbroken, and he attacks Sal. By the time the police arrive, the fight has spilled out into the street.
The police apprehend Buggin' Out and Radio Raheem. Buggin' Out is placed in the back of a police car. Radio Raheem is placed in a chokehold. He is killed.
Mookie sees what has happened to Radio Raheem, and he takes a trash can and throws it through the front window of Sal's Famous. This starts a riot that ends with Sal's Famous in flames. As the pizzeria is burning, Smiley puts his pictures up on the wall.
There are so many stark images and ideas that come out of this. This truly is a film that makes you stop and consider things. And that's powerful. One such sequence in the riot scene, for me, is when the firehoses and water are turned on the rioters. A fire is raging in front of them. While one hose is used to put out the flames, another is used to push back the rioters. The flames are raging, and yet one of the hoses is being pointed towards the crowd. I found it to be a compelling image of how race discussions tend to occur in our culture. The focus is put on pushing people away as opposed to dealing with the core of our differences.
After the riots, we see Mookie go back the next morning. He wants his paycheck. Sal is sitting outside his ruined business. His life's work is in ashes. We feel for Sal. We truly do. Yes, he smashed Radio Raheem's radio, but it came just moments after he opened the store after closing so that he could serve a few slices to neighborhood kids (including Martin Lawrence in his first film appearance). In a brilliant piece of acting, Danny Aiello as Sal gives Mookie his paycheck and some extra as he laments the burning of his store.
Maybe you question Mookie's decision to throw the garbage can. But here is where so much of the discussion I've seen in my initial research has been lacking, I think.
You'll notice that earlier in this review, I didn't linger on the moment of Radio Raheem's death. Spike Lee doesn't linger there either in the film. We see it in all its stark horror, but then he is carried away. The camera lingers far longer on the destruction of Sal's Famous. I think that is a choice.
Mookie had just seen his best friend get murdered. All of us have our breaking point, and this was his. How can any of us judge him for the decision? What would we do if our friend had been murdered in that way? The fact that the camera does not linger on Radio Raheem's death puts it on the audience to be fair in their conception of the riot scene. We have to come to the realization - which should be an easy one at which to arrive - that a pizzeria does not equal a life.
But we do still feel for Sal. He did work for this his entire life. And he does give back to the community in many ways. Yet even Sal shouted the "N-word" when he was pushed to his limits. I don't think Sal is a racist, but he certainly has prejudices that maybe even he doesn't realize. Throughout this film, there are tensions residing beneath the surface that aren't fully dealt with until the ending of the film.
The great David Mamet says that any good ending in dramatic writing will be both surprising and inevitable. Surprising, because a good writer will not let the audience beat them to the punch. But, inevitable, because there should be through-lines earlier in the story. The ending should reveal that these through-lines were there all along. Do The Right Thing pulls this off masterfully. It was always building to this flashpoint, even though we think we are just seeing mundane life throughout most of the early parts of the film.
Should Radio Raheem have been playing his music so loud? Should Buggin' Out have been pushing so hard for black representation on the Wall of Fame? Shouldn't Sal be able to choose how he decorates his own establishment?
The movie doesn't answer those questions, and it doesn't need to. Those questions inherently have one premise behind them - someone is to blame for this mess. No single person brings it about - it is the boiling over of tensions that had been building throughout.
This movie also does not ask us to be judge and jury of the actions depicted. Killing Radio Raheem was wrong. We know that inherently. It simply is wrong, no judgment must be made. Burning down Sal's Famous was also wrong. A building is certainly not worth as much as a life. But the pain on Sal's face the next day remains. Please understand me, I'm not equating the two. We should lament the loss of life far more than the loss of property. There is so much pain and suffering to go around in the ending of this film. It's not about equating things or categorizing or doling out punishment we deem satisfactory. When Smiley puts the images of Dr. King and Malcom X up on the wall, they burn down with the rest of the building. The argument that started the whole thing was emptiness in the end. All we're left to do is consider how things got here. For that, we must do a great deal of soul-searching.
One of the great feats of this film is its ability to present all sides of the story. We see the old black men sitting on the sidewalk who tell Buggin' Out not to pursue the boycott. They even tell Radio Raheem to turn down his music. We see numerous examples of Pino's racism and the prejudices that others may have. But we also see Sal's generosity and Da Mayor's tenderheartedness. There are even instances of prejudice towards other cultures as well - not just between white and black. There are Asians and Puerto-Ricans in the neighborhood, and the merging of the differing cultures is not always smooth. We hear everyone's point of view. The movie truly gives all viewpoints a fair shake.
There are two specific sequences that will undoubtedly stick with me for a long time. The first is when various characters of different races speak racial epithets directly into the camera. As a white male growing up in Midwestern America, I can't think of a time where I've had someone use those words toward me...ever. But there are others who hear them all the time. That scene attempts to put us in the shoes of someone who is being ridiculed with hurtful words centered on race. It is powerful.
The second sequence is when police officers drive past a group of black men sitting by the sidewalk. The look the police officers give them is chilling. But this isn't about police/minority relations for me. Let me be clear that I think the vast majority of police officers do a marvelous service to their country and communities, and I am forever grateful for their bravery each and every day. No, to me, this sequence is profound for reasons that go much deeper.
How do we look at our fellow brothers and sisters?
How do we look at humans we pass by on the street?
How do we look at other people?
What are we thinking when we look at them?
This movie does not incite violence, as some reviews of the original release despicably inferred. Spike Lee has correctly pointed out that reviewers wouldn't think to make the same assumption about an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie or one of the many other action films that depict violence. Instead, this movie presents us with a scenario that, unfortunately, is all too familiar. It asks us to stop and consider the events. It does not direct us in how to act going forward, simply consider.
The movie ends with two quotes - one from Martin Luther King, Jr. and one from Malcom X. The first quote describes how violence is a poor motivator and will only beget more violence. The second explains that, in situations of self-defense, violence is sometimes the only recourse. Again, there is no directive here - just a call to consider.
There's a reason I'm writing this review the day after seeing this film for the first time. I cannot think of another movie watching experience that impacted me in quite the same way as Do The Right Thing. It encouraged me to stop and think about racism in our culture in a new way. I haven't been able to get the film out of my head. It is a fantastic work of art. It is technically brilliant and aesthetically beautiful.
It is also harrowing and stark in moments. It forces us to consider our own actions. The only directive that can be gleaned from this movie comes directly from its title. In our own interactions with other races and other cultures, we must put ourselves in the shoes of another person. Attempt to see things from their perspective. In other words...
...do the right thing.
Note on content: This movie contains profanity throughout as well as harsh depictions of violence. Racial differences are obviously a key theme in the film, and this brings about many situations that are disturbing for those reasons. There is also one depiction of nudity in a scene with Mookie and Tina. It is brief, but it is graphic. Overall, this is a difficult film in many ways, but an important one. It may not be appropriate for younger viewers, but it is worthwhile for its ability to push us to confront difficult aspects of our various cultures and the ways we interact with one another. We must confront these differences if we are ever going to heal.