Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing hit U.S. theaters on July 21, 1989 with bold and candid commentary about race in America. The film’s narrative takes place on a hot summer day, but its events are a culmination of constant racial tensions in a predominately Black neighborhood. In the wake of a number Black people being killed by police in 2020, Do the Right Thing reminds us of how little has changed in over 30 years.
The Boiling Tension
The film’s main character is Mookie: a young, Black pizza delivery guy working for Sal Frangione, an Italian-American business owner in his neighborhood; Sal’s sons Pino and Vito also work at the restaurant. The dynamic between Mookie and the family is interesting because of how the film filters white supremacy through the three Italian men.
Pino overtly shows his bias by using racial slurs, profiling, and aggressive behavior towards the shop’s Black patrons. Mookie often pushes back at Pino’s racism but constrains himself to protect his job. He realizes that he’s ultimately the outsider in this family-operated restaurant.
Sal seems like a good man on the surface. His business is a staple in the neighborhood. He treats neighborhood resident Da Mayor, who has an issue with alcoholism, with respect. Sal even allows a wayward Mookie to slack off with his job. But Sal’s underlying racism reveals itself throughout the film.
The veil starts to fall when Sal interacts with people who aren’t so-called respectable or vulnerable. For example, Sal becomes upset when Mookie’s outspoken buddy Buggin’ Out asks about the pizzeria’s Wall of Fame; Buggin’ Out points out that Sal’s business is built on Black dollars yet his wall of celebrity photographs only has famous white faces. Sal responds that it’s his restaurant and he will not change his Wall of Fame. Mookie tries to keep peace between the two in hopes of not losing his job.
Sal also takes issue with Radio Raheem blasting Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” calling it “jungle music.” His tenuous relationship with Buggin’ Out and Radio Raheem speaks volumes about non-Black businesses in Black neighborhoods. Many will come into Black neighborhoods while harboring problematic views about Black people as a collective.
Sal sees Mookie as different from his “homeboys,” and likewise places Mookie’s sister Jade, Da Mayor, and Smiley into the “good” category. Sal is okay with Black dollars but he does not want any Black culture, even music, seeping its way into his establishment.
Sal is aware of Pino’s overt racism but is mostly indifferent towards his actions. He allows him to talk to Mookie and residents in a derogatory way. At one point, Pino tells his father that Black people are animals. Instead of calling his son out, Sal focuses on Pino’s issue with his friends laughing at him over the business.
Sal’s other son Vito is even more indifferent about confronting his brother and chooses to remain apolitical about the tensions. Though he doesn’t exhibit any racist behavior, he also doesn’t really confront his family about their words and actions.
Art Reflecting Life
Things get even more contentious when Buggin’ Out, Radio Raheem, and Smiley stage a restaurant protest. They get into a screaming match before Sal escalates the situation, drops the N-word, and beats Raheem’s radio with a bat. It’s a pivotal moment that moves from words to action and leads to tragedy.
The boombox is more than an accessory; it’s an extension of Radio Raheem’s identity. It represents a key part of how he expresses himself. So it is no surprise that Sal and Radio Raheem get into a physical fight. Things spill onto the streets and the entire block sees the action.
The police arrive and several officers restrain Radio Raheem. The same officer seen earlier threatening kids over an open hydrant gets aggressive. He puts Raheem in chokehold with his baton. He ignores his fellow officer and residents, choking him to death in front of everyone before tossing his lifeless body into the back of a car.
The scene takes from Michael Stewart‘s real-life death in 1983. The graffiti artist died after officers used a nightstick to put him in a chokehold. An all-white jury found the officers not guilty. Years later, Eric Garner and George Floyd are reminders that things haven’t changed much. The advancement of technology with body cameras and cell phone video still isn’t enough to deter these heinous acts.
If Do the Right Thing‘s events were real-life, the news would have painted Radio Raheem in a negative light. The reports would focus more on calling him an instigator, aggressive, or digging up his criminal history (if it exists) than focusing on the fact that he died for no just cause.
News reports of Trayvon Martin’s school suspension and George Floyd’s criminal record made headlines despite having nothing to do with their deaths. It insinuates that a Black person who doesn’t fit into a respectability box is somehow responsible for their own demise. It also suggests that being a “respectable” Black person will shield you from dying at the hands of police.
The automatic reaction from too many is, “Well, what did they do?”, de-prioritizing the issue of police using aggressive and deadly force against a person. Radio Raheem, Buggin’ Out, and their counterparts are rowdy, annoying, at times mischievous, and outspoken. These are the tenets of youth and trying to find their place—and power—in the world. None of them are just cause for a death sentence. A Black person doesn’t have to be an angel to be worthy of dignity, respect, and to be mourned if their lives are taken away.
Raheem’s death causes a wave of frustration, anger, and pain. Mookie sparks a rebellion by throwing a trash can into Sal’s window. The place is eventually set on fire by a heartbroken Smiley. Painful and striking images of people standing face to face with shielded officers, being pinned down, and crying aloud for justice mirror the intense protests around the world today.
Do the Right Thing sends the same message that some people refuse to hear: rebellion is the language of the unheard.
A Woman’s Space
Any conversation about police violence and systemic racism cannot be complete without examining how Black women fit into it all. Black women are often agents of change in our communities and beyond. We are on the front lines of protests, advocating for marginalized people and calling for institutions to be accountable. We do this while fearing for and sometimes losing our children, partners, friends, and family members.
Yet when we are victims of violence, our names don’t resonate quite as loudly as those of our Black male counterparts. George Floyd’s death sparks worldwide protests while Breonna Taylor‘s is somehow meme fodder. There is a lot of conversation about wanting to protect Black sons but the same energy doesn’t exist towards Black daughters. We have to create our own movements like #SayHerName and remind people to fight for us too.
Do the Right Thing specifically says the name of Eleanor Bumpurs. NYPD police shot and killed Bumpurs during a 1984 apartment eviction. Yet the film misses an opportunity to give its female characters depth and an individual purpose. Their roles center on supporting and guiding the men in their world.
Jade, Mookie’s sister, spends most of her time being his calm and gentle moral guide. Mother Sister, the unofficial neighborhood watchwoman, sees all and scolds Da Mayor for being a bum. Then there is Tina, Mookie’s girlfriend and mother of his child. Her sole purpose is to provide the stereotypical “hot Latina” sex appeal.
In fact, Tina’s most prominent scene features Mookie rubbing ice all over her naked body. The sexual moment doesn’t fit within the context of the film at all. Actress Rosie Perez later admitted that the scene made her uncomfortable.
The final prominent female presence is Ella. She hangs out with a group of guys who frequent Sal’s place. Ella typically nods in sassy agreement with her pack. The only time she really shows up as an individual when she cries for the Sal vs. Raheem fight to stop. Ella also gives Da Mayor a look of sympathy after one of her friends is cruel to him. It would have been a great opportunity for her to sit down and have an in depth conversation. But she simply stops for a second before running off with her friends.
We learn nothing about their motivations or life to give them any nuance. Meanwhile, secondary male characters like Da Mayor, Sweet Dick Willie, Coconut Sid, and others all have some nuance. The women’s actions don’t drive the plot forward in any way. The few scenes of women interacting with each other are either screaming matches or tidbits that beg for more.
Mother Sister and Jade sit on a stoop together and share an intimate moment wherein Jade combs her elder’s hair. There’s a hint that they are close to each other but they aren’t given the space to flesh anything out. It would have been amazing to hear more about what Mother Sister has seen and experienced in this neighborhood. Why was she in favor of rebelling against Sal’s restaurant? They could have made observations about what is going on around them, or perhaps explore more about the positive changes that Jade wishes for her community.
The film never gives us insight into Tina’s thoughts. It’s not even clear if she’s even aware of what happened to Radio Raheem. A conversation between Tina and Mookie the next morning could have been a chance to see how she, a Latina woman, understands the situation. Instead, she continues to argue with Mookie the next morning. Do the Right Thing packs so much power in other areas, so it’s disheartening to see these fictional women sidelined like we are too often in real-life.
This quintessential Spike Lee joint continues to resonate with audiences as more names and tragic stories are added to a long list of injustice. But it will truly be a great day if this movie becomes a snapshot and reminder of the past instead of a reflection of the present.
Featured Image: Universal Pictures