Bill Nunn as Radio Raheem in Do the Right Thing (1989) (IMDB)

Double Take: Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989)

Double Take looks back at Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, a film that celebrated its 25th anniversary during another summer of strikingly similar violence.

1989-07-21 (General)

Perhaps doing the right thing is figuring out how to go on
after things that happened that weren’t right at all.

Steve Leftridge: Well, Steve, it’s quite timely that the ol’ randomizer landed on Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, as 2014 was not only the Year of Ferguson but also the 25th anniversary of the Do the Right Thing. When Lee’s film, about a day in the life of Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood and a subsequent race riot, was released in the summer of 1989, it was met with a storm of controversy and hand-wringing, primarily by members of the press who feared that the film would set off explosions of racial tension.

While the film enjoyed widespread critical acclaim for the director’s unique storytelling, the great performances from the large cast, the cinematography, the modernist filmic flourishes, and the complex issues the film raises, its artistic achievements were, at the time, overshadowed by what some in the press considered dubious racial motivations. Such concerns likely cost the film and its director Academy Award nominations. Fortunately, time has been more kind to
Do the Right Thing; it’s now widely regarded as a modern classic, currently landing, for instance, at number 96 on the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest American Films of All Time.

The fact that the 25th anniversary of
Do the Right Thing coincided with Ferguson is a sad reminder and an illuminating concurrence. The parallels between Lee’s screenplay depicting events in 1989 Brooklyn and the 2014 episodes in the St. Louis suburbs are striking. Most obviously, both tales deal with unarmed black teenagers killed by white police officers and the subsequent rioting and destruction of property by black citizens. In addition, conflicting perspectives surrounding both Do the Right Thing and the Grand Jury’s decision not to indict Darin Wilson draw further similarities. So before we further investigate specific similarities to current events, Steve, how well do you think Do the Right Thing is executed as a movie, regardless of what we’ve seen unfold in St. Louis recently?

Steve Pick: Just one quick note regarding current events, so I don’t forget. I was more chillingly reminded of the killing of Eric Garner by New York police, since Radio Raheem was choked to death in a similar fashion. But we’ll get back to that subject, I’m sure.

I was already a Spike Lee fan when this film came out, though it was strictly from his debut She’s Gotta Have It. I don’t know why I missed School Daze, but I saw Do the Right Thing pretty much as soon as it was out. Now, over 25 years later, I am even more impressed with the achievement of this movie. Unity of form, unity of function, complexity of character, motivation, and theme. Throwing people and ideas into dialectic mixers, Lee creates entertainment out of argument, and in almost all cases, we are able to see truth in wildly divergent opinions. (The exception is in the character played by John Turturro, whose racism is too raw, whose bullying tendencies too overblown, to be forgiven for his statements. That being said, my gosh, Turturro bravely commits to every wince-inducing word he says.)

The first sound we hear, before there is even a single visual, is the stately African-American national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, which is suddenly replaced by Public Enemy’s aggressive “Fight the Power”. The last thing we see before the credits are conflicting and rarely quoted statements on violence from Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Nothing in this film is simple and plain — motherfuck anybody, even John Wayne.

All the action takes place in just a couple of blocks in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood, and an all-star cast offers up a smorgasbord of personality and opinions. (All-star especially from our current point of view, since Turturro, Rosie Perez, Samuel L. Jackson, Giancarlo Esposito, a young Martin Lawrence, and Frankie Faison were not household names or faces in 1989.) On a very, very hot day, tensions are ready to boil over at any moment, whether between brother and sister, customer and clerk, lover and lover, or African-American and Italian. Lee himself moves through it all as Mookie, the pizza-delivery guy who coasts through life playing everyone against each other, antagonizing everyone yet remaining lovable enough that he gets away with every small sin he wants to do.

The small incidents of daily life depicted throughout the film are almost all especially well done. After watching Da Mayor display such kindness, after seeing Mookie and Rosie Perez make each other laugh, after enjoying the banter of the three older men on the corner, after seeing the pride Sal takes in his small place in people’s lives, the tragic ending of the film becomes even more powerful and jarring. Because Lee created a world we wanted to experience in all its pleasures, the sudden disastrous ending over such proudly stubborn disagreements is all the more wrenching. I forget now what I knew or didn’t know going into the theater back when this was new. I must have been aware of the controversy to some degree, but even now, knowing how it ends, I was still shocked at the sudden turn to chaos. You?

Leftridge: I saw Do the Right Thing in a theater in Kansas City when it came out. I was the only white person in the place, and when the film was over, I felt like jumping up like the Korean grocer in the film and yelling, “You, me — same!” I remember also that I had never seen a movie like Do the Right Thing. Regardless of any racial issues, it’s certainly one of the films that prompted me to look at cinema in a new way.

The overwhelming number of creative directorial choices in the film remains a marvel, and we could catalogue them all day. Lee just doesn’t know how to create a boring shot: just look at all those swoops and extreme close-ups and overhead shots and long takes and Dutch angles and slow tracking shots. Public Enemy blasting from Radio Raheem’s big box serves as a sort continuous soundtrack, as does the jazz soundtrack by Bill Lee (Spike’s dad), which includes languid backdrops during the more tender scenes but which builds to frenetic bop-chaos as the hostility in the film heightens.

Lee’s meticulous use of color is beautiful: look to the way the light pinks of the early morning turn into the harsh reds of midday and how Sal’s restaurant is divided in half by racial lines painted green and yellow, to give a few examples. When I revisited this for Double Take, I was again mesmerized by how cool it looks and sounds and by the accumulation of hugely entertaining scenes from this big cast.

As for the ending, I’ve always been troubled by what happens in the final act and have asked the question that seems to linger after those final credits: “Why did Mookie throw the trashcan?” I always figured that Lee, as a scholar of the Italian Neorealists and the French New Wavers, liked the idea of eschewing the typical Hollywood ending, favoring instead a film that lacks a neat resolve that forces audiences to carry these complex issues and ambiguities home for further discussion. Lee, however, has said that the question about Mookie throwing the trashcan through Sal’s window is one that only white people have asked him. So, White Man, what do you make of Mookie’s decision to break Sal’s window at that moment?

Pick: I don’t think there’s a completely rational explanation for smashing the window, but I think in the heat of the moment Mookie realizes the status quo wasn’t working. Raheem was killed because Sal was proud of being Italian, because Esposito’s character was proud of being black, and because neither one wanted to back down about the symbolism of pictures on a wall. That, and because the Italian-American older man couldn’t stand the sound of Public Enemy. That, and the police overreacted. Mookie had always tried to get along with everybody; he may play them for their good graces, but he basically found a way to deal with the way things are in American society, which gives more privilege to those of us who were born with white skin.

Then suddenly, in a moment of clarity, he sees that privilege at its most naked and horrible point, with the death of a man who had convinced himself that love could triumph over hate. So Mookie calmly and deliberately crosses the street, removes the trash can lid, takes out the trash bag, and slowly walks back to throw it through the window of Sal’s restaurant. He is rejecting the middle path, even though clearly the action he takes leads to nothing but immediate chaos and pain for someone who has been basically decent to him prior to this moment. It’s not revenge; it’s rage combined with the taking of a side in what he perceives as an ongoing conflict.

Again, look to the quotes from Martin Luther King and Malcolm X at the end of the movie. To King, Mookie’s action and the (small scale to our sadly opened eyes) riot that follows are senseless and counterproductive. To Malcolm X, they constitute self-defense. Both statements are true, and that is the grand point of Lee’s film. Or, to go back to the music at the beginning, “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, Mookie’s actions come from wanting to show the world the glory of African-American culture, stand in brotherhood and decency, only to be made aware that you still have to “Fight the Power” with all the aggression that demands.

With the passage of 25 years, I had forgotten about the scenes that take place after the riot, when Mookie fights with Tina and goes to get his pay from Sal. That encounter between Mookie and Sal (the great Danny Aiello) is so beautifully done, as each tries to figure out some way to get through to each other that they understand their new position, and yet are too proud. What did you think of that scene, and how it leaves us at the beginning of a new day, in which can be anything in the world but the way it was before?

Leftridge: There are a few scenes here that I don’t think work as well as others, and the last scene is one of them. I just don’t buy Sal going from screaming “I built this place with my own fucking hands!” to his tender chitchat about the weather with Mookie. And if Sal is inconsistent in his attitude toward Mookie, Mookie shows no concern for Sal whatsoever, so I’m not sure the final scene accomplishes anything useful. Perhaps that’s okay, since much of the narrative energy in the film is based on confrontations — between blacks and Italians, yes, but also between men and women, young people and old people, cops and citizens, rap and salsa music, English speakers and non-English speakers, Lakers and Celtics, and MLK and Malcolm X. In most cases, however, Lee attempts to deal an even hand, furnishing these scenes with enough mutual frustrations and racial/cultural consciousness that easy answers or obvious side-taking remain elusive.

However, what complicates the reading of the end of the film — Radio Raheem’s death and the subsequent rioting — are the characterizations that Lee, as the screenwriter, builds during the first three-quarters of the movie. Sal, based on everything we see leading up to the explosive climax, is a pretty nice guy. He’s kind and generous to the poorest, most marginalized black characters (Smiley, Da Mayor), and he has fondness for his black customers whom he has served for 25 years (“These people grew up on my pizza, and I’m very proud of that”). He’s good to Mookie, despite the fact that Mookie is an often truant employee (“Mookie, there will always be a place for you here… because you’ve always been like a son to me”).

On the other hand, Buggin’ Out and Radio Raheem especially epitomize impolite, bullying behavior throughout the film. That’s how Lee wrote Do the Right Thing: Radio Raheem intimidates other teenagers on the street with his large physique and surly swagger. He antagonistically accosts Sal earlier in the day by entering the pizzeria with the music at full volume and barking, “Two slices! Yo, put some extra mozzarella on that motherfucker and shit!”. He crudely yells at the Korean grocers when attempting to buy batteries: “20 fucking D batteries! D, motherfucker, D! Count the shits again!” Furthermore, Buggin’ Out and Radio Raheem burst into Sal’s clearly spoiling for a fight (which Sal wants no part of), and after Sal smashes Radio Raheem’s boombox with a baseball bat, Radio Raheem forces Sal to the ground with his hands around Sal’s throat, choking him and yelling, “I’ll kill you!”

It’s obvious that if police had not arrived to intervene, Radio Raheem would have likely carried through with his threat. So my question is, why does Lee paint Sal as sympathetic and Radio Raheem as mean? Don’t those characterizations muddle his message?

Pick: Muddled the way life is muddled, I guess. Raheem is a symbol, of course: the image whites have of African-American youth as angry, surly, inconsiderate, scary, and mean. These are the stereotypes, and Lee is playing with that image by showing us how he is seen by those who don’t get to know him as an individual.

And yet, there is that wonderful scene between Raheem and Mookie, with that mock battle between the hand of love and the hand of hate, and the belief that love will overcome hate. This is probably the only scene in which Raheem comes alive as anything other than an image of antagonism. I may be giving Lee (and Raheem) the benefit of the doubt, but I don’t think the character is meant to be as aggressive as he is portrayed. That said, he is clearly capable of killing Sal in that fight. Sal overreacts to his surliness, but Raheem takes it to a whole new level. It’s one thing to kill a radio; it’s another to try to kill a man. I’m reminded of the immediate aftermath of Michael Brown’s killing, when one New York newspaper used the phrase “He was no angel”, as if that could ever be a justification for the whole thing.

I think Lee wanted to make things complicated; he wanted it to be clear that every escalation in the tension between African-Americans and whites could lead to further unintended consequences. But I also think he wanted to show the connections that remain between people in the same physical community who are not of the same background. To that extent, we see that Mookie and Tina have stayed together, that Da Mayor and Mother Sister are connecting despite their differences, and, most importantly, that Mookie and Sal have to find a way to communicate after that experience. You may not buy that the scene is convincing; I may be giving Lee the benefit of the doubt. But I think the film turns on the fact that conflict is everywhere, but the results of escalation are neither redemptive nor completely destructive. Perhaps doing the right thing is figuring out how to go on after things that weren’t right at all.