Film Screening: “Do The Right Thing”

In this lesson we are going to examine Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. This lesson will be followed by a short quiz to test your knowledge of the film and its production. If you have not seen the film we instruct you to view it before proceeding to the lesson. If you have already seen the film, this may be a good time to revisit it.

On the hottest day of the year on a street in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, everyone’s hate and bigotry smolders and builds until it explodes into violence. IMDB.

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Director: Spike Lee
Writer: Spike Lee
CinematographerErnest R. Dickerson
Film Editing by: Barry Alexander Brown
Produced by: Jon Kilik, Spike Lee, Monty Ross

Do the Right Thing is a 1989 American comedy-drama film produced, written, and directed bySpike Lee, who is also a featured actor in the film. Other members of the cast include Danny Aiello,Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Richard Edson, Giancarlo Esposito, Bill Nunn, and John Turturro. It is also notably the feature film debut of Martin Lawrence and Rosie Perez. The movie tells the story of a neighborhood’s simmering racial tension, which comes to a head and culminates in tragedy on the hottest day of the summer.

The film was a commercial success and received numerous accolades and awards, including anAcademy Award nomination for Lee for Best Original Screenplay and one for Best Supporting Actorfor Aiello’s portrayal of Sal the pizzeria owner. It is often listed among the greatest films of all time. In 1999, it was deemed to be “culturally significant” by the U.S. Library of Congress, and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry, one of just five films to have this honor in their first year of eligibility.

Plot

Mookie (Lee) is a young black man living in a black neighborhood in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklynwith his sister, Jade (Joie Lee), who wants him out of her apartment. He works delivering pizzas for a local pizzeria, but he lacks ambition and he works to support his girlfriend Tina (Perez) and their son Hector.

Salvatore “Sal” Frangione (Aiello), the pizzeria’s Italian-American owner, has owned the restaurant and been in the neighborhood for twenty-five years. His older son, Giuseppe, better known as Pino (Turturro), “detests the place like a sickness”, holds racial contempt for the neighborhood blacks and attempts to make Mookie’s life miserable. Sal’s younger son, Vito (Edson), is friends with Mookie.

The street corner is filled with distinct personalities, most of whom are just trying to find a way to deal with the intense heat on what is the hottest day in years and go about their regular day-to-day activities. A drunk called Da Mayor (Davis) is constantly trying to win both the approval and affection of the neighborhood matron, Mother Sister (Dee), who watches the neighborhood’s activity from her brownstone. A young man named Radio Raheem (Nunn) lives for nothing else but to blast Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” on his boombox wherever he goes. He wears “love” and “hate” four-fingered rings (brass knuckles) on either hand, which he explains in one scene symbolize the struggle between the two forces. (The speech is a nearly word-for-word retelling of a speech given by Reverend Harry Powell in the film The Night of the Hunter.)

A mentally disabled man named Smiley (Smith) meanders around the neighborhood, holding up hand-colored pictures of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. The local radio disc jockey, “Mister Señor Love Daddy” (Samuel L. Jackson) rounds out the neighborhood. Three men (Harris, Benjamin, Faison), known as “the Corner Men,” act as a sort of Greek chorus, commenting on the neighborhood and the day’s events. Four teenagers – Cee, Punchy, Ahmad and Ella – deal with the heat outside as well.

While eating a slice at Sal’s, Buggin’ Out (Esposito) questions Sal about the “Wall of Fame” and demands he put up some pictures of black celebrities on the wall, since, he explains, Sal’s pizzeria is in a black neighborhood and sells pizza to black people. Sal replies that it is his store; he is proud of his Italian heritage and he doesn’t have to feature anyone but Italians on his wall. Buggin’ Out starts an argument with Sal, during which Sal threatens to “bash his head” with a baseball bat. Buggin’ Out attempts to start a protest over the “Wall of Fame,” but no one will support his protest except Radio Raheem and Smiley.

Over the course of the day tensions rise around the neighborhood. Teenagers open a fire hydrant for respite from the heat, flooding a passer-by’s car and police officers intervene. Radio Raheem “argues” with some Puerto Rican men simply by playing their radios loudly at each other. Buggin’ Out instigates a fight with a white man, Clifton (John Savage) who accidentally steps on his Air Jordan shoes, and Da Mayor saves a boy from being run over by a car. Sal argues with Radio Raheem for blasting his boombox in the pizzeria. Mookie and Pino begin arguing over which race is better, blacks or Italians, which leads to a series of scenes in which the characters, addressing the camera, spew a variety of racial insults.

In the afternoon, Pino and Sal talk about the neighborhood, Pino expressing his hatred and Sal insisting that, whether Pino likes it or not, his pizzeria, and his pizza, is part of the neighborhood there, and he isn’t leaving. Then Sal watches, embarrassed, as Pino yells at Smiley outside. Mookie almosts gets fired by Sal, but Jade comes to Sal’s shop, cooling Sal’s anger. Outside, Mookie confronts her for being too close to Sal. As they’re cleaning to close the restaurant Mookie demands his weekly pay from Sal. Buggin’ Out convinces Radio Raheem and Smiley to join his protest and they begin insulting and threatening the yelling neighbors.

That night, four teenagers arrive and Sal lets them in. After serving them, he closes. Suddenly, Radio Raheem, Smiley and Buggin’ Out march into Sal’s and demand that Sal change the pictures on the wall. Radio Raheem’s boombox is blaring at the highest volume, and Sal demands that they turn the radio down or leave the shop, but the two men refuse to do so. They yell at each other, threatening, until Sal, in a fit of frustration and anger, calls Radio Raheem a “nigger,” then snaps and destroys Radio Raheem’s boombox with a baseball bat. Radio Raheem attacks Sal, starting a fight with all the teenage boys, Sal and his sons, which spills out onto the street, attracting a crowd of spectators. As Radio Raheem is strangling Sal to death, Da Mayor yells at them to stop the fight.

The police arrive at the scene, break up the fight and begin to apprehend Radio Raheem and Buggin’ Out. Buggin’ Out is arrested while Radio Raheem is placed in a chokehold by one officer, killing him. The police officers begin yelling at an already dead Radio Raheem “to quit faking” and they kick him. The police officers, realizing they have killed a black man in front of an angry crowd, take Radio Raheem’s body back to the squad car, while in another squad car, a police officer beats Buggin’ Out. The angry crowd chases the police, who leave the scene with Radio Raheem’s body, and leave Sal, Vito and Pino alone with the angry crowd.

Afterward, the large crowd of onlookers are enraged about Radio Raheem’s death and blame Sal and his sons. A tense moment ensues when the crowd contemplates violence against Sal, Vito, and Pino. Da Mayor intervenes telling the crowd to go home, because someone will get hurt, and the crowd threatens Da Mayor. Mookie grabs a trash can and throws it through the window of Sal’s restaurant, yelling “hate” which turns the collective anger towards the property and away from the owners. Da Mayor pulls Sal out of the mob’s way. Vito, Pino and Sal watch in horror as the restaurant gets destroyed.

The angry crowd becomes a riotous mob, rushes into the restaurant and destroys everything, while Smiley sets the restaurant on fire. From there, the mob begins to head for the Korean market. Sonny, the owner, tries to fight them off with a broom, yelling that he is one of them: “I no white! I black! You, me, same! We same!” causing the mob to spare his store. Firefighters arrive and begin spraying Sal’s building while the crowd yells Howard Beach as they are held back by riot patrol. The firefighters, after several warnings to the crowd, turn their hoses on the mob, further enraging them.

Police officers begin struggling with the mob and some people are arrested. The mob attacks some of the firemen as they try to spray Sal’s building. Da Mayor gets in the middle of the ensuing chaos and pulls a screaming Mother Sister out of the scene as Mookie and his sister watch the horror around them. Meanwhile, Smiley wanders back into the smoldering restaurant, past Radio Raheem’s burning boombox, and as “Fight the Power” plays, he hangs a picture of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. on what’s left of Sal’s “Wall of Fame.”

The next day, Radio Love Daddy discusses what transpired the previous night, asking, “are we ever going to live together?” After having an argument with Tina over what it is to be a man, Mookie returns to Sal, who feels betrayed by Mookie for destroying the restaurant. They get into an argument but then Mookie and Sal cautiously reconcile. He demands his weekly pay he had earlier been demanding to receive in advance, which he gets.

Production

Spike Lee wrote the screenplay in two weeks. The original script of Do the Right Thing ends with a stronger reconciliation between Mookie and Sal. Sal’s comments to Mookie mirror Da Mayor’s earlier comments in the film and hint at some common ground and perhaps Sal’s understanding of why Mookie was motivated to destroy his restaurant. It is unclear why Lee changed the ending.

The film was shot entirely on Stuyvesant Avenue between Quincy Street and Lexington Avenue in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. The street’s color scheme was heavily altered by the production designer, who used a great deal of red and orange paint in order to help convey the sense of a heatwave.

Spike Lee campaigned for Robert De Niro as Sal the pizzeria owner, but De Niro had to decline due to prior commitments. The character of Smiley was not in the original script; he was created by Roger Guenveur Smith, who was pestering Spike Lee for a role in the film. Four of the cast members were stand-up comedians – Martin Lawrence, Steve Park, Steve White and Robin Harris.

Controversies

The film was released to protests from many reviewers, and it was openly stated in several newspapers that the film could incite black audiences to riot. No such riots occurred, and Lee criticized white reviewers for implying that black audiences were incapable of restraining themselves while watching a fictional motion picture.

One of many questions at the end of the film is whether Mookie “does the right thing” when he throws the garbage can through the window, thus inciting the riot that destroys Sal’s pizzeria. Critics have seen Mookie’s action both as an action that saves Sal’s life, by redirecting the crowd’s anger away from Sal to his property, and as an “irresponsible encouragement to enact violence”. The question is directly raised by the contradictory quotations that end the film, one advocating non-violence, the other advocating violent self-defense in response to oppression.

Spike Lee has remarked that he himself has only ever been asked by white viewers whether Mookie did the right thing; black viewers do not ask the question. Lee believes the key point is that Mookie was angry at the death of Radio Raheem, and that viewers who question the riot’s justification are implicitly valuing white property over the life of a black man.

In June 2006, Entertainment Weekly magazine placed Do the Right Thing at No. 22 on its list of The 25 Most Controversial Movies Ever.

Critical reception

The film holds a 96% “Certified Fresh” rating on the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes. On Metacritic, the film has an average of 91/100, placing it as one of the top-rated films on the site.

Both Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert ranked the film as the best of 1989 and later ranked it as one of the top 10 films of the decade (Siskel No. 6, Ebert #4).


Quizzes

"Do the Right Thing" Quiz