Do the Right Thing
1989, 120 minutes, Criterion Collection Blu-ray (2019)
Toward the end of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, just before the block of Bedford-Stuyvesant it depicts goes up in flames, the owner of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria reflects on what a good day it’s been. It’s closing time, at the end of the hottest day of the summer, and Sal (Danny Aiello) is in an upbeat mood. He tells his sons, Vito and Pino, of his intention to rename his restaurant Sal and Sons, acknowledging their contributions to a family business he has built up over 25 years. He tells Mookie (Lee), Sal’s sole black employee in this corner of majority-black Brooklyn, that he will always have a job at his restaurant. “We did good business today,” Sal says, shrugging off the day’s earlier tensions—and then two final customers walk in, and a dispute over a boombox turns into an exchange of racial slurs, an outbreak of fisticuffs, a fatal police chokehold, and a neighborhood in flames.
Even before making the movie, Lee predicted how this climatic conflagration would define its reception: “The studios might not want to touch this film,” he wrote in his director’s notebook, reproduced in the Criterion Collection release. “I know I’ll come up against some static from the white press. They’ll say I’m trying to incite a race riot.” Lee was prescient on every count. Paramount Pictures got cold feet on financing the film, passing after Lee refused to change the ending. When the film did come out in 1989, to general acclaim, several critics dissented indignantly. “In this long hot summer,” asked Jack Kroll of Newsweek, “how will young urban audiences . . . react to the film’s climatic explosion of interracial violence?” Lee was “playing with dynamite,” chided David Denby. That it was Mookie, the character played by the director himself, who finally hurls a trash can through the restaurant window particularly galled such critics. “If black kids act on what they see,” speculated Joe Klein of New York Magazine, “Lee may have destroyed his career in that moment.”
Re-watching Do the Right Thing today, this fretting now seems a combination of condescension and moral panic. The film inspired no such rioting, of course, and the movie cemented Lee’s reputation instead of destroying it. It was based on real incidents of racial violence and unrest in New York—a case of art imitating life, not the other way around. More to the point, the scolds profoundly misread the meaning of Lee’s film, twisting it into either an endorsement of rioting or a despairing shrug about its inevitability. In truth, the film is neither of those things: It’s a study of how violence erupts when it needn’t have, thanks not to a single villain but to mutually escalating pressures and prejudices, and a series of characters who fail, for reasons that vary in defensibility, to do the right thing.
“The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons,” goes a famous line from Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game. It’s an aphorism that applies just as aptly to Do the Right Thing, a film whose wisdom is worth heeding amid our own summer of strife.
The tragic climax of Do the Right Thing tends to overshadow that for much of its runtime it’s a portrait of social order functioning, however imperfectly. For all its faults, Lee’s Bed-Stuy is an organic community, built on real human connections and populated by residents who know each other and their neighbors.
There is Mother Sister (Ruby Dee), the elderly sage who observes the street’s goings-on from the stoop of her brownstone, dispensing wisdom as she monitors the block (Jane Jacobs would approve). There is Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), the local drunk, who draws his share of scorn from his neighbors but who is a force of watchful order in his own right, diving into the street at one point to save an oblivious kid from an oncoming car. There are three wisecracking layabouts, anchored by Sweet Dick Willie (Robin Harris), who are frowned on by the local police (“what a waste,” they mouth on a drive-by) but are friendly fixtures of the neighborhood nonetheless. Above them all is Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson), the local radio DJ who broadcasts the block’s goings-on live from his brownstone studio, functioning as a one-man Greek chorus.
Mookie, meanwhile, crisscrosses the neighborhood on his pizza delivery routes, weaving among this cast of eccentrics. In Robert Putnam’s terms, Mookie might be the film’s embodiment of “bridging” social capital, someone whose connections in several communities allow him to move gracefully between them.
He has a foot in the Hispanic community, thanks to a son born of a Puerto Rican neighbor, Tina (Rosie Perez), who is constantly demanding he spend more time with her outside of the bedroom. At home, he’s the protective older brother of Jade (played by Joie Lee, Spike’s own sister). At work, he’s a buddy of Vito (Richard Edson), Sal’s friendly son, and a sparring partner of Pino (John Turturro), Sal’s hostile and openly racist one. But Mookie is also a peacemaker of sorts between Sal and the neighborhood’s more agitated black personalities, like Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito), who threatens a boycott for the lack of “brothers” on Sal’s all-Italian-American photo wall, and Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), who touts a boombox blasting Public Enemy all day long.
One of the things that makes Do the Right Thing such a credible portrait of community life is its honest attention to in-group/out-group dynamics. It’s not just Sal who draws resentment for running his (white) business in a black neighborhood; so, too, do the Korean grocers across the street, who receive mockery from black customers for their fractured English, and complaints about being business owners just “a year off the motherf**king boat.” Lee is no multicultural utopian; he understands that vilification of out-groups can be a powerful bonding tool for in-groups (or different out-groups), and that prejudice does not always go in one direction. In one of the film’s most famous scenes, Lee interrupts the main action for a colorful montage of racial insults, as Mookie rattles off Italian stereotypes, Pino spouts invective against blacks, a Puerto Rican complains about “slanty-eyed” Koreans, and so on. It’s a round robin of racial resentment, ended only by DJ ex machina, as Samuel L. Jackson’s radio host screams at all participants to “cool that shit out.”
The point of this montage is not that everyone is fundamentally racist, or equally a victim of racism. Lee would no doubt agree that African-Americans have a far greater claim to racial persecution than any other group, given the singular history of black slavery and segregation in this country. But he also understands how prejudice can be redirected from one out-group to another as a coping mechanism in a diverse, multiethnic society. Against today’s progressive fashions, which imagine “people of color” broadly arrayed against a white majority, Lee suggests how interethnic tensions persist and feed off of each other, and can flourish in the absence of a morally legitimate authority yelling “stop.” By the film’s end, there will be no such moral authority, as the simmering resentments finally reach boiling point.
Yet before that point, it’s remarkable how much empathy Lee extends to everyone involved. In a lesser film, Sal might have served as an easy villain, the racist white businessman who gets his just deserts. Lee is too nuanced for that. Sal is a working-class Italian-American, proud of having eked out a livelihood with a business he can call his own, even in a neighborhood that he cannot. He is impatient with Mookie but also indulgent of his lax work habits (“You’ve always been like a son to me,” he tells Mookie, awkwardly but sincerely). Sal is perhaps too indulgent of his real son, Pino, who unlike his father regularly spouts racist invective. But Sal also mounts to Pino a sincere defense of the community and his role in it:
I never had no trouble with these people. I sat in this window. I watched these little kids get old. And I seen the old people get older. Yeah, sure, some of them don’t like us, but most of them do. I mean, for Christ’s sake, Pino, they grew up on my food. On my food. And I’m very proud of that.
Many of us may know people like this, plainspoken men or women who operate their humble enterprises with pride, try to treat every customer equally, yet harbor attitudes that would today be discounted as microaggressions or worse. It’s a tribute to Lee’s sensitivity as a writer that he can fashion one so accurately.
Indeed, no one in Do the Right Thing is a caricature. The cops who at film’s end choke an unarmed black man to death are earlier seen reacting leniently to some petty mischief involving fire hydrants, blowing off a white driver’s demand that they respond more harshly (no broken windows policing here). The film’s most endearing black characters, conversely, sometimes behave badly, taking offense in the most escalatory way possible (like Buggin’ Out’s outrage over the lack of black photos on the pizzeria wall). Mookie himself, one of the most likable characters, is a deadbeat dad, more concerned with getting paid than anything else. In short, no character is allowed to be just Good or Bad; this is the crooked timber of humanity, just waiting for a fuse.
When it comes, it feels inevitable, but it really isn’t. Radio Raheem and Buggin’ Out storm in to the pizzeria, boombox blaring, and refuse Sal’s demands to turn it off (they could have). Sal responds in a fury, dropping an n-word and smashing the radio with a baseball bat (he needn’t have). Radio Raheem pulls Sal across the counter, starting a fight that the other characters quickly join (a further escalation). Then the fighting spills into the streets, a cop gets Radio Raheem into a chokehold with a baton, and refuses to let go even as the crowd screams “You’re killing him” and the other cop implores him to stop.
And then, after the police speed away, Mookie throws a trash can through the pizzeria window, and the crowd rushes in to destroy it. Even Mother Sister joins in the frenzy: “Burn it down!” she cries, a voice of responsible moral authority endorsing the passions of the mob.
Over the years, Spike Lee has claimed that many white viewers, but no black ones, have approached him to ask why Mookie initiated the looting of Sal’s, and whether he “did the right thing.” He has also scoffed at the comforting theory that Mookie only threw the trash can to redirect the mob’s anger from Sal’s person to his property—as a rational choice, a minimizing of harm. In truth, the Occam’s Razor explanation remains the most compelling: Mookie threw the trash can, quite obviously, because he was furious at seeing his friend killed by the police. Rage has a reason all its own.
Watching Do the Right Thing in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, it struck me both how much and how little has changed. The climax might have happened yesterday, down to the details: a black man who can’t breathe, a community forcefully saying the names of those who have suffered similar fates (Michael Stewart and Eleanor Bumpurs then, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor today). Yet the discourse has shifted since 1989, in ways that are outwardly progressive but arguably represent an overcorrection.
Where the social critics of 1989 demanded Lee denounce the rioting, ignoring the police killing that prompted it and seeking a tidy moral resolution, today’s opinion-makers might seek moral clarity in the other direction—interpreting the film as a righteous endorsement of the rioting. People are more important than property, and all else is irrelevant: Such, in any case, is the attitude of those circulating treatises “In Defense of Looting,” more likely to be shared by the white armchair radicals of a now-gentrified Brooklyn than the black communities they claim to represent. Spike Lee, so often caricatured as the Angry Black Man of modern Hollywood, now seems moderate by comparison, with his unfashionable warning against “defund the police” rhetoric.
Lee’s film seeks to understand, not to defend. The film famously ends in dialectical fashion with two quotations, one from Martin Luther King, Jr. condemning violence as both “impractical and immoral,” the other from Malcolm X equivocating on the subject (“you and I have to preserve the right to do what is necessary . . . it doesn’t mean that I advocate violence, but at the same time I am not against using violence in self-defense”). The great virtue of Do the Right Thing is that it refuses to fully confirm either faction, while providing evidence to make us understand both. The film shows both how riots can arise from justified anger and how they create “bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers,” to quote King.
That last reality is underscored in the morning-after scene, when Mookie approaches Sal to demand his week’s earnings on the stoop of his burnt-out pizzeria. Any human ties between these two men have hardened into bitter transactionalism, with Sal tossing crumpled up bills at Mookie’s face and Mookie shrugging at Sal’s despair over his business, saying he’ll make up the losses through insurance anyway. Their tempers cool by scene’s end, but it remains a bitter exchange, denying the audience’s natural desire for easy reconciliation (Lee initially had a more conciliatory ending in mind).
As Mookie walks away, there are signs of the street coming back to healthy life: pedestrians walking the sidewalk, the wind sweeping away detritus, a kid dribbling a basketball on the street, while the radio host announces a mayor-led commission to investigate the previous night’s disturbances. Yet these signs of nascent rejuvenation could also be read as the neighborhood’s resignation, its quick snap-back to normality after one more death, one more riot, followed by one more blue-ribbon investigation that will leave their underlying concerns unaddressed.
Lee’s film is ultimately an angry one, then, angry primarily at the violence meted out to African-Americans who have lived this story too many times before. (Lee has always chided those viewers who weep more for a pizzeria than a human life.) But what saves it from mere radical chic is its generous empathy toward everyone in the film, its sad observation of how legitimate grievances can spiral out of control, and its grown-up refusal to deny any of its characters moral agency. It’s a film that understands the urge to “fight the power,” even as it laments what happens when there is no responsible authority to “cool that shit out.”
In today’s discourse, to our loss, this properly balanced empathy seems in short supply. From the White House comes a voice plainly more interested in stoking passions than calming them, a man who can invoke George Floyd’s memory one moment and then smear him the next, while fantasizing about a 75-year-old Catholic pacifist being an Antifa provocateur. From the progressive left comes a well-meaning empathy that can nonetheless shade into an abdication of moral reasoning, a refusal to decry looting as if condemning a lesser ill meant condoning a greater one, or “erasing” the voices of black activists. Some of our fighting now plays out through Twitter flame wars rather than on city blocks, a welcome enough development, but one that only makes it easier to demonize one’s enemies from afar, to spread outrage, or to justify the damage done to neighborhoods that one will only ever experience through a phone screen.
In this fractious environment, where the stakes encompass not one block of Brooklyn but the cohesion of a nation, we could do worse than revisit Lee’s masterpiece. And we might reflect on the film’s most famous scene, a duel between Love and Hate imagined as two opposing pairs of brass knuckles. Do the Right Thing understands that Love and Hate are not the sole property of one faction, race, or party, but choices available to each of us. From the streets of Minneapolis to the photo-op at Lafayette Park, Left Hand has been winning in America this year. Let’s hope Right Hand can make a comeback.
Do the Right Thing is available on Blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection.