When a black man sends a garbage can crashing through his white employer’s plate-glass window during the galvanizing climax of Do the Right Thing, all howling hell breaks loose. And maybe not just onscreen. Producer-writer-director-actor Spike Lee thinks that his movie, which culminates in a race riot, might get him wrongly accused in the white press of stirring insurrection. Before Universal put up the $6.5 million budget, Lee says, Paramount had passed on the project for fear “that black people will come out of theaters wanting to burn shit down.”
Do the Right Thing seems more likely to provoke debate than destruction. The movie isn’t dangerous, though the festering racial hatred it depicts assuredly is. Lee’s two previous films — She’s Gotta Have It and School Daze — made some piercing stabs at social commentary. But neither prepared us for the purge of raw emotion that detonates this powder keg.
Lee invests his film with the hot-damn urgency of a man long spoiling to be heard. In his eagerness, Lee sometimes muddles his points by getting preachy. But the feeling persists that this is the movie that Lee, now thirty-one, had to make. What’s held him back? The Atlanta-born, Brooklyn-bred alumnus of New York University’s film school first needed to prove he was bankable. Only the box-office success of his first two films earned Lee the power to swim in the mainstream, where he could reach the greatest numbers. With Do the Right Thing, Lee’s best and boldest film, he exploits that power to the fullest and gives audiences the most vigorous shake-up they’ve had in years.
Though the movie pulses with humor, movement, sexuality and music (the score is by Spike’s dad, Bill Lee), anger is the dominant emotion. The action is set during one twenty-four-hour period on one block in the black Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. The gifted cameraman Ernest Dickerson makes the mounting heat and tension palpable.
Mookie, the character Lee portrays, begins the hottest day of the year being berated as unmotivated and unreliable by his sister, Jade, sharply acted by Joie Lee (Spike’s real sister). Jade has a point. Mookie dodges his responsibility to the infant son he’s fathered by a Puerto Rican teenager (Rosie Perez). His job is pure dead-end: He makes deliveries for Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, a joint run by an Italian family that commutes from Bensonhurst.
Sal (Danny Aiello) and his sons, Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson), are the first major white characters to appear in a Spike Lee film. The exceptional work by all three actors helps keep these archetypes of ingrained bigotry from slipping into stereotypes. Sal treats his black customers with respect as long as they play by his rules. Sal keeps a baseball bat handy if anyone wants to argue. No one has yet. Today someone will.
The pizzeria and the bat are just two of the references Lee makes to Howard Beach. In December 1986, three black men were attacked near a pizzeria in Howard Beach, a neighborhood of Queens, New York, by a mob of white youths wielding tree limbs and a baseball bat. One black man was killed by a passing car, another severely beaten. Convictions were brought for manslaughter, not murder; misdemeanors, not felonies. For many, the Howard Beach verdict symbolizes growing black unrest over racial injustice. Or, as Lee has put it, “Black folks are tired of being killed.”
Lee has made an overtly political film in a Hollywood where those blacks who can (Eddie Murphy, Bill Cosby) don’t, and those who can’t but want to are forced to address the issues indirectly, through comedy (Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle, Keenan Ivory Wyans’s I’m Gonna Git You Sucka). These alternatives seem preferable to the insufferably noble approach of most white filmmakers. In Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning and Chris Menges’s World Apart it’s hard to find a black person who’s not in church out singing spirituals or gathered in groups that rob them of their human diversity.
Lee prudently avoids these deck-stacking traps. His black-underclass characters may be poor, unruly, uneducated and underemployed, but they are not without wit, dignity and their own slant on what it means to do the right thing. The senior generation, splendidly represented by Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, knows how tough it is to fight the crush of racism. Three street-corner know-it-alls (Paul Benjamin, Frankie Faison and Robin Harris) sit back and sass those who try. But some persist Buggin’ Out, played by Giancarlo Esposito, is fed up with the photos of celebrated Italians, from Sinatra to Stallone, that decorate Sal’s. He and his pals want to see some brothers on that wall of fame. Sal does not.
When Radio Raheem, played by the superb Bill Nunn, enters Sal’s with his boom box blaring Public Enemy’s rap anthem “Fight the Power,” tempers are way past the flare point. Sal’s bat smashes the radio that is Raheem’s pride. A fight follows. Police are called. White police. Raheem, choked by a cop’s stick, falls.
Raheem’s senseless killing releases all Mookie’s pent-up frustration and fury. It is Mookie who hurls the garbage can through Sal’s window, inciting the crowd to shout, “Howard Beach!” A series of violent actions, exacerbated by the heat, escalate into a riot. Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, now a symbol of white oppression, is torched, with the entire Bed-Stuy community participating or cheering on. Fire-fighters turn on their hoses to disperse the crowd. The scene, evoking harrowing memories of Birmingham and Montgomery, freezes the blood.
The next morning Sal and Mookie meet in the ruins of the pizzeria. Mookie is regretful but will not budge; he wants his wages. Sal is bitter, but he’s come to recognize Mookie’s rights and how far he’ll go to claim them. Lee ends on a mixed message. Two quotations flash onscreen: one from Martin Luther King decrying violence as an “impractical and immoral” method of achieving racial justice; the other from Malcolm X, who said, “I don’t even call it violence when it’s self-defense, I call it intelligence.”
Lee will probably be trounced for not taking a clear-cut stand. But how could he? The black community has been struggling for years to reconcile those two philosophies. It would be presumptuous of Lee, not to mention disastrous for the film, to do the thinking for an audience. Lee offers no reassurance, no uplift, no call for all races to join hands and spout liberal platitudes. What he does offer is a devastating portrait of black America pushed to the limit, with the outcome still to be written. There’s only one way to do the wrong thing about Do the Right Thing: that would be to ignore it.