Do the Right Thing

United States, 1989

Directed by Spike Lee

With Spike Lee (Mookie), Danny Aiello (Sal), John Turturro (Pino), Richard Edson (Vito), Ossie Davies (Da Mayor), Ruby Dee (Mother-sister), Bill Nun (Radio Raheem), Giancarlo Esposito (Buggin’ Out), Joie Lee (Jade), Samuel L. Jackson (Señor Love Daddy, the DJ), Miguel Sandoval (Officer Ponte), Rick Aiello (Officer Long)

“Do the right thing!” This is the advice Da Mayor, the bum pacing up and down the vibrant street in the borough of Brooklyn where the story takes place, gives to Mookie, the lead character, and his stern looks show he is dead serious about it. But what could it mean for a young adult scraping along by delivering pizzas, still sleeping at his sister’s apartment and shirking his duties of lover and father most of the time? What could it mean in a neglected neighborhood that is both a home and a trap?

This street is an open-air theater, with a range of characters loitering on the sidewalk and at the windows, either commenting the daily life of this small section of the African American community, from the feisty disc jockey running the local FM radio to a trio of middle-aged and unemployed male grumblers, or trying to while time away with friends, music and even food. At the center of the stage lies a pizzeria, one of the few shops still around the corner and the only one managed by a European American, Sal, who is from Italian descent.

That dreary space between us: Spike Lee, at left, and Danny Aiello

Mookie has found there his job and tries to get along with Sal and his sons, Vito and Pino, even though the latter barely hides his contempt for his father’s Black customers. People tend to commingle in the small restaurant but it becomes a cause of conflict because Buggin’ Out vows to boycott a joint where no African Americans are on the wall of fame but only Italian Americans, because Radio Raheem can’t accept to turn off his boom box blasting his favorite hip hop songs when he wants to order and even because Mookie finds Sal is too kind with his sister Jade. As the hottest day of the year is ending tensions ran high until Sal loses his cool and picks up a fight that a police intervention would turn into a riot.

The film ends with a couple of quotes from two very different leaders of the African American community in the 1960s, Martin Luther King Junior and Malcolm X. They cope with violence and their divergence goes to the heart of the film’s tragedy. This violence may be useless and shocking and it could have been avoided; the fact is, it happened and went out of control because people were keen to vent their feelings that way. The film rigorously follows the events step by step, recording precisely how the things got wrong: how a man lost his life and another one his living. The bitter gap that separates Mookie from Sal the day after is perfectly conveyed by the composition and their gestures. This is the clash of two ideas about what is a man’s dignity that personal experience and social inequality have made unintelligible to each of the men.

Over the course of the film a lot of words and gestures are vividly and precisely captured, ranging the whole gamut of dissatisfaction and also of self-confidence. Below the mockery and the irony, there is always a keen and honest attention to the characters’ complex, contradictory and candid sentiments. The characters are no caricatures but stand as people who get by with what have. The touchy and tough questions raised by race are not eluded but put on the table quite naturally as the characters make their point. They even sing it: the most surprising and compelling moment in the vast discussion between opposite viewpoints that is the thrust of the flick occurs when a selection of the characters describe their prejudices and gripes as they just rap. Earlier, the movie’s titles had appeared over a musical-like overture featuring a young woman fiercely dancing over hip hop rhythm. And one of the characters is defined only by his love to this kind of music. The film, shot in vibrant colors, boldly claims the hip hop and rap culture as a powerful tool of expression and a definitive fixture of the African American life.

The most disturbing quarrel revolves around the blackness of the place; at one point a White biker is heckled because he bumped into Buggin’ Out and soiled his brand-new sneakers; things flirt with disaster as he defends his right to live on the street, part of a New York borough where he was born, to the dismay and disbelief of the young Blacks shouting at him. The grudge against the Korean-born grocer and Sal’s futile effort to convince Pino he is right to serve this community also illustrate, in their own different ways, the awkward situation of anyone who is not Black and the related vainglorious assertiveness of some young Blacks. Should the possibility to live together be given up and should instead a separatist and self-serving sense of racial identity shape the streets? The final violence suggests this debate has been settled for the worst, but is it for sure? The narrative may as open-ended as it is open-minded to all arguments.

A young filmmaker, Spike Lee has written and directed a bittersweet chronicle that surveys the race debate at street level with an informed view but without any intent to preach. It is no accident he also plays the lead role of Mookie, a nice and blunt person who is not easy to pigeonhole and is buffeted by the events and the impossibility to be the manly and mature person others expect him to become. Lee just takes stock of a difficult life and emphasizes how uneasy it is to find out what that right thing to do is all about. Race relations, it seems, have created such divergent feelings on things as basic as getting money or decorating a place that simply ending the day without a trouble sounds a miracle.

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