Do the Right Thing
Directed by Spike Lee
Starring (Here we go…): Spike Lee, Danny Aiello, John Tuturro, Bill Nunn, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Giancarlo Esposito, Rosie Perez, Martin Lawrence, and Samuel L. Jackson
An immediate cultural flashpoint upon its release, Do the Right Thing catapulted Spike Lee to the status of celebrity director. Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel put it on their Best Films of the 1980’s list, an accolade with which time has agreed. The film boasts a 93/100 on Metacritic, a 92% on Rotten Tomatoes, and an 8/10 on IMDb.
Do the Right Thing is equally obligatory, however, for the recognition it didn’t receive. Nominated only for a Supporting Actor Academy Award (for a role played by a white guy), Spike Lee’s third feature was also completely shut out of Cannes Film Festival, a decision so egregious Roger Ebert threatened to boycott the proceedings that year. Seperately, various theater owners considered censoring the climax of the film because they were worried the scene would cause Black viewers to riot.
Of course, no one did. Three years later, however, the Rodney King riots occurred in Los Angeles, sparked by an eerily similar real-life replay of Do the Right Thing‘s climax. Most chilling for today’s viewers, however, are cries of “he can’t breathe” uttered by the block residents, a near perfect mimicry of George Floyd’s death in 2020.
Do the Right Thing is obligatory because, 33 years later, it’s still shamefully relevant.
Because I had been trying to watch it for almost four months now, yet a ludicrous obstacle stood in my way every time that I tried.
In January, I was going to include the movie in–
Sight & Sound’s
–but it made a better fit for February’s theme of–
I had to take a break in February, so I thought I’d post about it first thing in April since this month’s theme is–
April NOT in Paris
–and Do the Right Thing never leaves Brooklyn. So, April, I went over to my friend’s house to watch it because I knew it’d be free to watch with Amazon Prime. As of April 1st, however, the movie left the streaming service. Sooooo I took a raincheck, pushing this review back AGAIN until I broke down and rented it for $3 on Vudu. Next time, I won’t procrastinate, do the right thing, and just save myself the hassle… probably.
Mookie is a 25-year-old pizza-delivery guy who’s not exactly motivated to do his job well. Firstly, it’s hot–like 100 degrees. Secondly, while his boss, Sal, seems nice enough, Sal’s son is repellently racist and makes Mookie aware of it every other minute. Thirdly, Mookie’s a friendly dude; he knows everyone on the block. Therefore, everyone stops him to say “hi,” delaying his route even further.
As the day goes on, the audience becomes friends with all of these people and gets to know their stories and their perspectives. The viewers truly feel like they’re from the block by the time the sun goes down.
Nighttime, however, is when things get heated in a different way…
It’s a masterpiece.
But seriously, If I wasn’t on the Spike Lee train already (better late than never, right?), I would’ve punched my ticket after watching this. Each citizen, no matter how brief their time upon screen, feels fully realized. Much like he does in Malcolm X, Lee presents societal issues and holds important discussions through his flawed, messy characters.
One scene in particular, involving three old Black men, stood out to me. In it, they complain about a Korean family who was able to open a convenience store despite not living in America for long and having strong accents. One then questions when they’ll build a business for themselves. Another bemoans the challenges they would face because of their skin color. The entrepreneurial one admonishes the other two, tired of that line of thinking, asking them if they really would open a business were everything fair. The two agree they won’t and probably never will. This example illuminates truly real problems these people are discussing, but filters them through the characters’ histories and biases. The results are sometimes intense, funny, or tragic–yet always finely crafted.
The only scene I found odd from a contemporary point of view was a lingering gaze on Tina’s, Mookie’s girlfriend, breasts. The sensual scene was cute, quirky, and revealed the reason for Tina’s attraction to the guy, but the nudity here felt out of place. Nowhere else is Do the Right Thing overtly sexual, and the shot could’ve been removed without affecting the scene. It was, pardon the pun, empty titillation for the audience.
In the decades since, Rosie Perez, the actress who played Tina, has expressed regret over the scene and claims that she felt pressured to do it. This, sadly, falls in line with many early criticisms of Lee’s representation of women on screen. Unlike many other incidents of this nature, however, Spike Lee has both publicly and privately apologized to Perez, a fact she proudly shared earlier this year, claiming that she has more respect for the man because he sincerely made amends.
So, beyond that one flaw, Do the Right Thing, unlike its main character, wastes no time in its delivery–and just like Brooklyn pizza, it’s an American classic.
Kinda doesn’t matter here. If you see one film about the Black American experience, Do the Right Thing‘s pretty much the essential choice. (Side note: Please see more than one piece of media about the Black American experience. Here’s a recent option.)
For those who haven’t seen the film, Sal’s Pizzeria, where Mookie works, is closing up for the night when Radio Raheem, an obnoxious youth comes in, blasting his boombox at full volume. Sal, frustrated after one hell of a day, beats the radio to pieces and calls Raheem a horrible slur.
The racist son, meanwhile, has called the cops, who escalate the situation upon their arrival. One cop chokes out Radio Raheem, killing him. Upon seeing such brutality, the block revolts and begins threatening Sal’s family. Amid the chaos, Mookie tosses a trash can through the front window, causing the block’s residents to torch the business to the ground.
The next morning, Mookie goes to confront Sal, asking to be paid. Sal overpays him to never see him again, and Mookie begrudgingly agrees.
I don’t think that I breathed once during Radio Raheem’s death scene. Check out my contact info on my portfolio page, and I think you’ll understand why I keep connecting Do the Right Thing‘s climax to the murder of George Floyd. The only difference between the real-life event and the fictional one 30 YEARS PRIOR was that the cop in the movie choked upwards.
In my opinion, the Black residents in Floyd’s neighborhood were less destructive than portrayed in Do the Right Thing. Yes, looting and burning in Minneapolis happened on a scale second only to the Rodney King riots, but, once the dust settled, the state government discovered that daytime protests were overwhelmingly peaceful while unrest and looting happened at night. Even more unsettling, nearly all legitimate arrests were of criminals with affiliations with either White-supremacist groups or non-Black gangs.
The only destruction I personally witnessed was a truck of looters waving a Confederate flag on the way to my side of town. Thankfully, State Troopers caught them before they made it to my neighborhood, and the looters confessed that they were part of a rural militia out of Wisconsin. They’d heard about the riots and were excited to agitate the chaos. I do have friends, however, who were hesitant to leave their homes because a building was on fire two blocks away.
The most heartbreaking moment of the looting for me, however, was a local-news segment of a Black woman in a wheelchair. Her apartment complex, specifically designed to house people of color with disabilities, had been destroyed. Through tears, she asked, “How? How does this help George Floyd? You’re only hurting your neighbors. Stop it, this instant. Please!” Of course, I now know her home likely wasn’t destroyed because of the protests, but rather by criminals looking to cause as much pain as possible.
Therefore, I believe Mookie broke Sal’s window in order to direct the crowd’s anger towards Sal’s restaurant and away from Sal’s family and the cops–outcomes which would have likely claimed more lives. I believe Mookie did the most right thing he could think of in that moment, and I think Sal sees that in the movie’s final scene. Sal’s angry, of course, but he doesn’t have Mookie arrested and, instead, overpays him for his work.
Ugh… just do the right thing and watch this movie already! (Please note that I’m also referring to my past self who procrastinated on this review.)