Do the Right Thing, by Albert W. Vogt III

With a title like Do the Right Thing (1989), the American Film Institute’s (AFI) 96th greatest American film of all time, I am immediately interested.  I had no idea about this movie before seeing it.  I am aware of its director, Spike Lee, who also produced, wrote, and starred in it.  I have enjoyed his other work, like Malcolm X (1992) and Inside Man (2006). Lee’s films always have a racial component to them, but they are done in a manner meant to elevate the viewer to a better understanding of this complicated issue.  Do the Right Thing is no different, though I was left more shaken than usual by the end.  Read on to find out why.

Unfortunately, Do the Right Thing is one of those movies intentionally designed to annoy me.  I should hold back my bitterness.  I do not know Spike Lee.  He is not out to get me.  He just made a film in a style that is not my personal preference: a plotless one.  It is a snapshot of a single summer day in the Bedford-Stuyvesant (commonly known as Bed-Stuy) neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York.  Even more specifically, it focuses on one street in that area.  The person who works his way amongst the denizens is, perhaps, an obvious choice: the pizza delivery man, Mookie (Spike Lee).  He works for Sal (Danny Aiello), who owns and runs the pizzeria named after him with his two sons, Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson).  Mookie lives with his sister, Jade (Joie Lee), but has a girlfriend, Tina (Rosie Perez), with whom he has a son.  On the way to work that morning, he encounters the two elders of the block, the local drunk known as Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) and the matriarch Mother Sister (Ruby Dee).  There are two people providing the soundtrack for the events of the day.  The first is the disc-jockey (DJ) of the radio station, Mister Señor Love (Samuel L. Jackson), and the second is Raheem Radio (Bill Nunn).  The former of these is more of a passive observer, but the latter we will get to in a moment.  What I am trying to do here is introduce you to the myriad of characters that play some role in this movie, even if I am not able to fully explain the extent of it without being tedious.  The last person to discuss is Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito).  As this sweltering day progresses, it is evident that few people are happy with their neighbors.  Tina is mad at Mookie for never being there for their son.  Mother Sister is not fond of Da Mayor.  Pino does not seem to like anyone, especially the people who live in this predominantly African American section.  To him, the races should not mix.  Sal is often getting on Mookie’s case for his level of work, usually taking more time than Sal feels is necessary to bring customers their food.  The two people, though, that seem to be the focal point for the collective anger are Buggin’ Out and Raheem Radio.  At one point, Buggin’ Out goes to Sal’s for a slice of pizza.  After complaining about the price, he sits down and begins perusing the wall of pictures of Italian-American celebrities.  Before he can take a bite, he is demanding that there be African American representatives also displayed.  Sal counters that it is his wall and he can put whomever he wants on it.  It takes Mookie to get Buggin’ Out to leave.  Yet, so incensed is he by the experience that he begins to walk around the block trying to get people to boycott Sal’s place.  At another point, Raheem Radio also walks into Sal’s for some food.  As he does so, he continues to blare “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy on his trademark boombox.  Indeed, this seems to be his raison d’etre, to walk the streets with this song on repeat for literally everyone to hear.  Sal angrily demands that Raheem Radio turn off the music so that the order can be heard.  Raheem Radio reluctantly complies.  So, yeah, now you have the basics.  Most of the movie is a seemingly aimless wandering around a few locations in this one block radius where we witness discreet events that appear to have little to do with the plot.  Hence, I am not going to describe them.  Skipping ahead to the climactic moment, Buggin’ Out has not been successful in recruiting people to his cause, including Jade, on whom Sal is soft.  Most people think Buggin’ Out is crazy (look at the name), and simply want to eat pizza.  This is the case until Buggin’ Out finally meets Raheem Radio.  Together, they storm into Sal’s, “Fight the Power” once again being played at maximum volume and Buggin’ Out shouting for a picture of an African American on the wall.  It quickly becomes too much for Sal, who takes out a baseball bat and smashes the boombox.  For a moment there is stunned silence before Raheem Radio launches himself over the counter at Sal.  A brawl breaks out that spills into the streets, exacerbated by Pino’s antics.  It does not take long for the entire neighborhood to come to the scene.  This brings several police cars, and the officers tear Raheem Radio off Sal.  In their attempt to restrain the large man, they end up choking him to death.  The police take away Raheem Radio’s corpse and Buggin’ Out in handcuffs.  Yet, the crowd has still not dispersed in front of Sal’s place.  Next, Mookie takes a garbage can and throws it through the pizzeria’s window.  This incites the crowd into a frenzy, and they storm the restaurant, looting it and setting it on fire.  It takes firefighters and more cops in riot gear to calm things down, though the rioters interfere with the firefighters for a time.  In the wreckage of the next day, Mookie goes to a defeated Sal to get his pay.  Though angry, Sal gives Mookie double his wage and they depart.

What Do the Right Thing shows is a group of people doing the wrong thing.  I guess this is kind of the point.  I say this because at the end you have two quotes.  The first is from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and it reads, “Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends by destroying itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.”  The other is from Malcolm X, “I think there are plenty of good people in America, but there are also plenty of bad people in America and the bad ones are the ones who seem to have all the power and be in these positions to block things that you and I need. Because this is the situation, you and I have to preserve the right to do what is necessary to bring an end to that situation, and it doesn’t mean that I advocate violence, but at the same time I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don’t even call it violence when it’s self- defense, I call it intelligence.”  The two represent varying responses to racial oppression, but they mirror each other.  You can also find parallels to them in the Christian tradition.  The first by Dr. King is easy.  Jesus preached non-violence.  Being a minister himself, Dr. King followed the example God desires all of us to emulate.  Malcolm X’s approach is a little trickier.  While Jesus did not condone violence, there are times when he talked about such coming catastrophes and that He wished they had already occurred.  This is not the same as saying that He thinks people should kill one another, and I do not think He would agree with Malcolm X’s idea of self-defense.  It is hard, and has provided a stumbling block for many Christians.  That is why I appreciate Da Mayor.  He may be an alcoholic, but he is the only one pleading for sanity as the situation tilts towards chaos at the end.  I admire his approach, despite being fruitless.

In the climactic moment of Do the Right Thing, it takes a drunkard to do what the title suggests.  This is something that God often does in scripture, using the last person that one would expect to spread His message.  I may not have enjoyed this movie, but I can at least appreciate Da Mayor.  When the end comes, these are the kinds of things that will count in God’s eyes.


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