Spike Lee’s magnum opus Do the Right Thing is an endearing, thoughtful cinematic achievement that succeeds in every facet. With a gorgeous, high-impact aesthetic, inventive cinematography and an unconventional, meticulous narrative structure consisting of vignettes for character study of a plethora of strong yet empathetic personalities before coming full circle with an unrestrained, thoroughly memorable climax. These things all working together to convey the timeless message that prejudice and discrimination is still a major issue, and perhaps always will be.
The story takes place on a hot day in Brooklyn, and as the blood of a predominantly black neighbourhood boils, racial tension comes to the surface. A young man called Buggin’ Out “wants some brothers” on the wall of fame in the local Italian pizzeria titled Sal’s Pizzeria, that features solely famous Italians. The character interactions throughout the day lead to a group of Buggin’ Out’s friends including Radio Raheem confronting the pizzeria owner Sal, leading to a fight between Sal and Radio Raheem, the police then arrive and choke Radio Raheem to death. Upon witnessing his friend die, Mookie, Sal’s lazy delivery man, responds by initiating a riot by throwing a bin at the window of Sal’s Pizzeria, accumulating in the establishment’s destruction.
Each character is a variation on the film’s themes, and how the film conveys this. I’ll be looking specifically at Mookie, Sal, Buggin’ Out, Radio Raheem, Smiley, Pino, and Da Mayor. Each person thinks their cause is for the right thing, but they take a counterproductive approach due to their personality flaws. It’s understandable where everyone is coming from and how they view themselves as the victim. The only real villains are the police, and even then, it’s made clear that not all of them are awful, one of the officers tries to free Radio Raheem from the headlock. Tilted camera angles are utilized frequently when arguments and disruptions arise, indicating the misunderstandings brought on by a lack of communication on both ends.
Mookie, portrayed by Lee himself, clearly means well, desiring to be a good person with a happy, simple life, but lacks the drive to do more than the bare minimum, he doesn’t even seem to accept the responsibilities of being a father. Most scenes heavily feature the colours red, yellow, and orange, doubling as a reflection of the anger circulating among the individuals and the searing heat they’re subjected to, but cooler colours green and purple often take prominence in the scenes in Mookie’s apartment with his partner Tina, suggesting he’s most comfortable with her. Despite this, he’s oblivious to how trapped she feels by their relationship, emphasised by one scene where the camera pans behind the air conditioner, making Tina look like she’s in a cage. Mookie makes attempts throughout the film to stray from his relatively passive persona, though it isn’t until the climax that he truly goes out of his way to do what he considers the right thing when he can’t bring himself to just walk away from a cold-blooded murder.
Despite some disagreements, Sal views Mookie as being “like a son to him”, appreciates Mookie’s friendship with his son Vito, and has been running Sal’s Pizzeria for the last twenty-five years. With time, his clientele has gradually transformed into a predominantly black community, and unlike his son Pino, Sal is perfectly happy with this fact, he’s enjoyed watching the neighbourhood grow up while eating his pizza. Sal wants us to “eat pizza, and raise our families, and run our businesses, and work at our jobs, and not let racism colonise our minds with suspicion”, but unfortunately his short temper ruins this vision. When residents Buggin’ Out and Radio Raheem obnoxiously express their views, Sal threatens Buggin’ Out with a bat and shouts at Radio Raheem until he complies. During the final confrontation, an irate Sal instinctively blurts out the n-word, alienating the bystanders that were initially on his side, and destroys Radio Raheem’s boombox, provoking a devastated Radio Raheem to get physical with him. I don’t think Sal meant what he said, but it does make me think of how some people deep down are racist to an extent, like how a man can be adamantly against homophobia, but still feel uncomfortable when their son comes out.
When Clifton, a white man, accidentally leaves a scuff mark on Buggin Out’s shoes, he assumes it was a hate act, prompting him to berate the perpetrator with his friends loudly backing him up, barely allowing Clifton to get a word in. Buggin’ Out encapsulates the kind of mind plagued by suspicion that Sal describes, I respect how passionately he cares about black representation and racial equality, but his paranoia and bitterness makes him aggressive, a trait that’s rarely constructive, and his apparent generalisation of non-blacks being racist towards blacks ironically makes him unknowingly racist. It makes sense to have only portraits of Italians on the walls of an Italian restaurant, so I think Buggin’ Out overreacted, taking it far too personally. Granted, Buggin’ Out has valid points when he rudely criticises Sal’s wall of fame, such as how Sal is only still in business because of black people, and I’m sympathetic to his uneasy feelings on the absence of black-owned business due to the financial victimisation of black people that was systematised in the States long before the eighties.
Radio Raheem likes to crank his boombox up to eleven whilst parading around the neighbourhood, provoking unfavourable remarks from more than just Sal, he’s immature, entitled, and ignorant, but he certainly didn’t deserve the horrible fate that he received. Radio Raheem wanted to “fight the power” and be treated fairly, and who doesn’t want that? The problem is that Radio Raheem’s notion of fairness is childish, skewed towards his preferences over anyone else’s. He’s evidently in agreement with Buggin’ Out’s views on discrimination against black people, yet he’s disrespectful to the Korean couple that run the grocery store on the street, mocking their English-speaking skills, and he’s not the only resident that fails to recognise the hypocrisy, as amidst the chaotic finale, some rioters contemplate burning down the grocery store as well.
Smiley is a mentally impaired man who attempts to sell photographs of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. One of Mookie’s attempts at breaking away from his passive nature is when he purchases one of Smiley’s photographs despite shrugging him off earlier that day, and Smiley shows his gratitude by saying “thank you, black man”. Mookie knows that Smiley meant no ill will with that statement, but I’m not sure Buggin’ Out would concur. Smiley is a mouthpiece for the unnecessary conflict brought on by a lack of understanding of another person’s thoughts or, in Smiley’s case, disability, such as when Pino shoos Smiley away from the pizzeria for bothering him, to Sal’s dismay.
Pino is the only character aware of his racism, he’s unhappy with there being virtually no Italian-Americans in the neighbourhood, however, interestingly his favourite celebrities include Magic Johnson and Eddie Murphy, whom he doesn’t consider black. Pino want to move to a place where he is not a minority and run a pizzeria there, and his anger is fuelled by his black “friends” ridiculing him. The pizzeria is always in the shot when Pino and his family are on screen, up until they’re forced to leave it, generating a sense of claustrophobia. The saddest part is that his disdain for the neighbourhood is only further justified in his head when Buggin’ Out, Radio Raheem and others march into the pizzeria at closing time and subsequently destroy it. Pino serves as a reflection of Buggin’ Out’s mindset of another ethnicity generally being prejudiced towards his own, and much like Buggin’ Out, I can understand Pino’s rationalism.
Da Mayor is an ambiguously alcoholic elderly black man and the one to urge Mookie to “always do the right thing”. He’s the only character that achieves one of his goals in the end, which was to win the affection of fellow elderly Mother Sister. Although he fails to succeed in persuading the youth of his Nietzsche-esque opinions on postmodernism. He asks a boy how much what he needs from the grocery store will cost him, the boy doesn’t know, paralleling how we don’t know how much of what we want, which in many cases is our idea of doing the right thing, is going to cost us. Da Mayor strains to get this message across to the people following the killing, and Mookie’s proceeding actions likely weren’t what Da Mayor had in mind.
Returning to Mookie’s decision to throw the bin. The primary source of debate concerning the film is whether Mookie did the right thing. Some have debated that Mookie through the bin to divert attention of the rioters from Sal and his family, ensuring that only property was damaged, which Mookie acknowledges the following day that Sal’s insurance will cover it. But since then, Lee has confirmed that Mookie did it in a fit of rage after watching the police slaughter his friend. Lee also claims that only white people ever ask him why Mookie did what he did, suggesting a black life has been devalued when it’s certainly not comparable to property damage.
In an iconic scene, Radio Raheem elaborates on the meaning behind his knuckle-dusters; he believes that the battle between “love and hate” is “static”, if one wins, the victory is only temporary. According to Ted Kulczycky, the camera is mostly positioned in a way that Radio Raheem directly addresses the audience during his monologue, “fuelling their involvement”. This isn’t the only instance of this in the film, in fact, there is little use of shot reverse shot throughout the film, instead it isn’t uncommon for the camera to be in front of the characters as they converse, especially when Buggin’ Out or Radio Raheem have their friends behind them, creating a sense of community, and the feeling of direct address emphasizes to the viewers that this is the world that they live in.
After Radio Raheem’s death, Mookie announces that he’s going to fight back with “hate”, and that night, hate won the battle, with Smiley placing a photograph of two famous black men on the wall of fame with a smile on his face as the furniture burns around him. But the following morning, Da Mayor’s philosophy of doing the right thing coming at a cost rings true, as does Radio Raheem’s concept of victory having an expiry date. Mookie has lost the job that he desperately needed to provide for his partner and son, Sal’s reputation is ruined, Pino’s disgust with the neighbourhood is as strong as ever, Radio Raheem is still dead, and the police have gone unpunished. Has anything really been resolved? Mookie seems to think so, showing no remorse for his act.
While I can’t condone vandalism, I don’t blame Mookie for reacting the way that he did, but maybe there are times when your best course of action is to just walk away, despite how hard that may be. On the other hand, maybe taking a stand for what you believe is right can be worth losing your occupation over. I don’t believe that whether Mookie did the right thing is important, I don’t think it’s the central message that we should be taking from the film, rather the core moral is that we should take time to understand one another’s point of view and try our best to keep our negative, unhelpful emotions at bay. The primary conflict of the film could’ve been avoided if Sal had been calmer and more collected; it likely wouldn’t have happened either if Buggin’ Out hadn’t chosen to instruct Sal on how to run his business in such an uncivilized manner at closing time. We could always use more friendships like the one between Mookie and Vito in the world.
The film concludes with two contradictory quotations, the former from Martin Luther King, Jr. in support of non-violence, and the latter from Malcolm X, advocating that violence should be considered a resort if necessary. Lee chose to conclude with Malcolm X because that was the one he agreed with most “at the time”. When watching the film, a third quotation from Nelson Mandela sprung to mind: “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite”. I agree with most of his statement, I’m only uncertain of my stance on the last part.
Words by Matthew Robinson