Spike Lee’s Do The Right The Thing is a look at life on a scorching Sunday in the Bedford-Stuyvesant district in Brooklyn, New York. Sal (Danny Aiello) has been opening his pizza parlour at the same time for twenty-five years and has seen the neighbourhood change. Made up of mostly Blacks and Hispanics, Sal’s son Pino (John Turturro) hates it there and wants to take their pizza parlour to their own neighbourhood. For Sal, it’s not just a restaurant. It’s part of the community. When Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) complains that there “ain’t no brothas” on the wall but only famous Italian-Americans when most of the customers are black, hostility begins to simmer. Push comes to shove (literally) and brutal violence ensues which brings out the worst in everybody.
This film shows what people can do when they’re at the end of their tether. Its plot takes us on a journey through America’s racial politics but also how the nature of racism doesn’t really change from location to location. It’s still hostile, whether that be through verbal or non-verbal address. Do the Right Thing is an artistically good look at the ethics of violence and racial prejudice. Those feelings are reciprocated from black to white and vice versa. And it says, “in order to do the right thing, wouldn’t one need to know what the right thing is to begin with?” What is the right thing? And that question is never given a black or white answer, leaving the audience to decide what it is.
I like what Spike Lee has done there. Too many films spoon-feed audiences and he’s made the audience work (use their brains). The film points to a more important question. Which version of right is right? Sal’s or Buggin’s? There’s good, the bad and the ambivalent. The personalities from the different cultures depicted in this film form the relationships that drive the plot, and ideological conflict is at the centre of everything. And by the end a fire has started, both in a physical and metaphorical sense. And whilst the weather tests patience and Buggin complains about the wall, Frankie Faison (Luke Cage’s Pops) as Sid and his two friends sit and complain about the world.
With Mookie (Spike Lee) as the lead character, we follow him around. From his job at Sal’s to his conversations with Pino to his “responsibility” to his child. Despite having a job, he struck me as very happy go lucky and lazy (bunking work at will). This is echoed again in the scene pictured below. People who blame the environment (or an external factor) for the lack of opportunities when their own laziness may be a contributing factor in finding employment or making money. In addition, Sid and his crew talk a big game about what they want to do but they never actually act on those words. If you want something to happen, and it’s in your power to do so, you make it happen.
Spike Lee has put together a great cast, many of whom have gone onto to become big names, including Samuel L. Jackson (Django Unchained), John Turturro (Barton Fink) and Giancarlo Esposito (Breaking Bad). There’s also Spike Lee himself in the lead and smaller stars like Ossie Davis. These personalities converge at the end. They may be from the same neighbourhood but their walks of life are different. This is the film’s cornerstone. It’s valuable to the film, as it’s a nonlinear plot and relies on the events in the neighbourhood to build the characters. But in a way, the neighbourhood is part of the community. It’s alive in the same way the characters are.
Do the Right Thing has heart, and is filled with a lot of joy amongst the angst and anxiety from the racial tension. There’s also a lot of anger. The narrations (kind of) from Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson) set the scene. From the start, we see that the different cultures can get along but some people just don’t want to. It’s just too hard to cooperate. It’s not what we’re comfortable with. Beneath the surface, with the snide comments and whatnot, we see that people are more unaccommodating than what we first believe. Sid and his crew object to the successful, Korean-run grocery store but others just believe that they’re good businesspersons, whilst Sal is a good man with a short fuse.
Radio Rahim (Bill Nunn) walks in with his speakers blurting out Public Enemy. You can see why Sal gets annoyed. That’s another match. Well-shot, well-acted and exhibiting a brilliant soundtrack, Do the Right Thing is a social commentary of America’s racial politics. And even nearly thirty years later it’s still as relevant as ever.