Movie Review: Do The Right Thing (1989, directed by Spike Lee)

Note: There are spoilers throughout the review. This review assumes you’ve seen the movie and do not need a basic review of the plot.

I had no idea what I was getting into when I watched this movie. I was charmed by the opening credits, which might just be the best I’ve ever seen, by the way — but by the end of it, I was stunned, and like “Cabaret,” I couldn’t get it out of my head for days afterwards.

In my quest to watch all of the movies on AFI’s Top 100 Movies list, I had “Do The Right Thing” on my to-watch. I had never seen it before, but I was vaguely familiar with it — I knew about “Fight the Power,” Spike Lee, Danny Aiello, that it was set on a hot day in Brooklyn. That was about it.

After having some time to think about it, I think this movie really hinges on Radio Raheem (played by Bill Nunn). While Spike Lee and Danny Aiello are the main stars, and main characters, it is Radio Raheem who provides the thematic thrust of the film and is the character with the biggest impact.

When I got to that scene, I could not believe what I was seeing. When the police officers were choking Raheem to death, all I could think of was Eric Garner and “I can’t breathe” — and of the innumerable black men and women killed by police brutality over the years — Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Amadou Diallo, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, and on and on and on and on.

The movie came out almost 30 years ago, and we’re still having this conversation? We’re still dealing with these issues? When Barack Obama was elected president, and there was talk about a “post-racial society,” I’m pretty sure sensible people didn’t buy that for a hot second, but I did hope that there would be at least some progress. Not a lot, but, y’know, at least an incremental step forward. Just for things to be a little bit better. Like not-worrying-if-this-traffic-stop-is-going-to-kill-a-man better. Or maybe-we-don’t-choke-a-dude-to-death-for-selling-cigarettes better. I didn’t think that was asking for very much, but apparently it is.

The sad truth is that Spike Lee’s film is just as relevant today as it was when it was released.

Let me pause my own review here real quick to point you to a review by Film Crit Hulk, which stands as the definitive review of “Do The Right Thing” (clicky here to go to new window). That review is insightful and profound, and even Spike Lee himself thinks it’s the best one out there. So, go read it. Seriously, I’ll wait.

My own contributions are much more modest. I wanted to explore Radio Raheem’s Love/Hate monologue. It is, obviously, a fantastic reference to a similar monologue from “The Night of the Hunter”:

And here is Raheem’s version:

Radio Raheem says that Love will ultimately win out against Hate, but “Do The Right Thing” seems ambivalent about that. It has been argued by some that Love wins at the end, but I don’t think that’s really the case.

Yes, it is Mookie (Spike Lee) who shouts, “Hate!” when he hurls that garbage can through Sal’s (Danny Aiello) pizzeria, setting off the destruction of that shop. But it’s not Mookie who is filled with Hate — it is Sal. Although Mookie and Sal come to something of an understanding in the ruins of the pizzeria the next morning, it sure doesn’t feel like Love winning to me. For example, if Sal’s son Pino (played by John Turturro) was at that scene the next morning, it would have gone very differently.

Pino had been overtly hostile towards Mookie throughout the movie, to say nothing of their customers and the people on the street. If Pino was there when Mookie asked for his money, there would have been another explosion of Hate. Pino would have only seen Mookie as the guy who threw the trashcan at their shop and destroyed their livelihoods, and nothing more. Pino, frankly, doesn’t have the mental capacity to understand the series of events that led to that confrontation, and thus, represents the outwardly racist segment of the American population. In a way, it’s easier to deal with Pino’s overt hostility than it is Sal’s own complicity.

But let’s back up for a second. In the course of reading reviews and reaction pieces to this movie, I realized that there was a lot of discussion about why Mookie threw the trashcan through the window.

Why did Mookie throw that trashcan? I’m a white person, and I was raised in a white suburban neighborhood in a fairly conservative part of New Jersey, so I get why white people ask that question. And just to be clear, I asked that question, myself, when thinking about this movie.

After all, Sal had just told Mookie that he was like a son to him. Sal cares about Mookie, doesn’t he? But, as we’ll see, Sal didn’t truly Love Mookie as much as he thought he did. I have no doubt that Sal liked Mookie in his own way, but Sal was engaging in a little bit of self-deception about how he really felt about being a pizzeria owner in a black neighborhood, and thus his relationship with Mookie is colored through that lens.

In large part, this “why did Mookie throw the trashcan” reaction from white audiences is compounded by the fact that Sal’s Pizzeria feels like a character — if Mookie had thrown that trashcan at Sal himself instead of his store window, it would have felt just as assaulting. But asking why he threw the trashcan means not asking “why” to a million other little things that came beforehand.

Why didn’t Sal just put up a picture of a black person on his Wall of Fame? That would have cost him literally nothing (well, maybe $2). Smiley (played by Roger Guenveur Smith) was right there — all Sal had to do was say, “Hey, lemme buy one of those photos of yours” and put it up.

Would putting up one of Smiley’s pictures have satisfied Buggin’ Out (played by Giancarlo Esposito)? Probably not, but it would have gone a long way towards defusing the situation. Instead, Sal flew off the handle, calling Raheem, Buggin’ Out, and Smiley n-words and destroying Raheem’s radio.

Other “Why” questions include, but are not limited to: Why didn’t Sal rein in Pino (more on that in a bit)? Why did Sal immediately go for the baseball bat when Radio Raheem came into the restaurant? Why was Sal so threatened by Raheem? Why didn’t Buggin’ Out ask a little more politely? Why did that one cop not let go of Radio Raheem, when everyone else was telling him that he was killing him? Why are we asking why Mookie threw a trashcan instead of asking why the cops killed Radio Raheem?

Sal’s portrayal is an excellent one, and shows the problem of white relations with the black community in America. Sal seems like a nice guy, but look at Sal’s inability to integrate with his neighborhood. He spoke of the black community as “them”:

I never had no trouble with these people. I sat in this window. I watched these little kids get old. And I seen the old people get older. Yeah, sure, some of them don’t like us, but most of them do. I mean, for Christ’s sake, Pino, they grew up on my food. On my food. And I’m very proud of that.

Note how he doesn’t say “us” or “we” but “these people.”

It would have cost him literally nothing to hang up a photo of Martin Luther King Jr or Malcolm X or any of the people Mister Senor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson) mentioned during his radio roll call (73 different artists, unless I counted wrong). It would have cost him literally nothing to listen –really listen — to Buggin’ Out and Radio Raheem and Smiley when they came to make their request.

Instead of reining in his son Pino, who is openly hostile and racist towards their customers, their employees, and their community, Sal half-heartedly tells him to shut up. If he really felt like he was part of that community, he wouldn’t have put up with Pino’s antagonistic behavior.

It’s not the murder of Radio Raheem, or Mookie throwing the trashcan, that started the riot at the pizza shop. The throwing of the trashcan was the culmination of a series of infractions, large and small, that created the tensions between Sal’s Pizza and the neighborhood.

The pizza shop was doomed from the start, but everyone had been living in denial about it. They papered over the Hate: Pino’s overt racism, Sal’s buried racism, the way Sal and Pino alienated themselves from their customers. Once Sal used the n-word, it was game over. Instead of Love, Sal turned to Hate. There would have been no coming back from that. His true feelings towards his customers was exposed at that moment.

Am I disappointed with Mookie for doing what he did? Yeah, I am. But would I have done differently in his position? I honestly don’t know. He just saw someone kill one of his friends, in his neighborhood, and because it was a cop who did the killing, he knows from black experience that there will be zero repercussions for the murder. Think about that for a second. A guy kills another guy in front of 30+ people and will get away with it. If that sounds insane, then you haven’t been reading the news.

Of course Mookie is going to feel angry, and helpless, and afraid. Who wouldn’t be? What was he supposed to do? Throw his hands up and say, “Well, I guess them’s the breaks, huh?”

And remember, it was Sal who initiated the violence by destroying Raheem’s radio.

The title of the movie, I realized, is ironic. How can a person “Do The Right Thing” when nobody has any idea what the hell that’s supposed to be? Further, how can Mookie be expected to do the right thing when just about everyone else, up to that point in the movie (including, it must be said, Mookie himself), has been doing the wrong thing?

The fact that it doesn’t end neatly, where people Learn Lessons, shows the movie’s commitment to how people really react, how they really behave. The two quotes by King and Malcolm X at the end of the movie are, as many reviewers have said, both true. They both co-exist within a person. It’s contradictory, and it’s messy, because real life is messy. There are no easy answers; the right hand of light and the left hand of darkness might be dishing out damage, but at the end of the day, when you’re getting punched in the face repeatedly, does it make any difference if it’s the right hand or the left hand hitting you, when all you feel is pain? Love can defeat Hate, but that’s exactly the point — Sal never truly Loved Mookie or the community he lived in. Had he done so, he would still have a pizzeria. He would have reacted to Buggin’ Out’s request very differently. He would have had black portraits on that wall. And Radio Raheem would still be alive.

Hate only won in “Do The Right Thing” not because it was stronger than Love, but because there was an absence of Love.

And that’s the truth, Ruth.