I did not see Spike Lee’s widely acclaimed but profoundly controversial film, “Do the Right Thing,” when it first came out, in the summer of 1989. I finally did get around to seeing it, on a Netflix DVD, about two months ago. I then kicked myself for my neglect and watched it again the very next night.
By the time I had finished viewing the two-hour movie for the second time, I realized that no film, no book, no article, popular or scholarly, has offered me such visceral insight into the explosively complex texture of race relations in America.
Though billed by some as an “American comedy-drama,” I view “Do the Right Thing” as a tragic anatomy lesson about our nation’s race relations gone sour.
The story takes place on a single street in the rundown Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, and unfolds during a period of roughly 24 hours on what is said to be the hottest day of the New York summer of 1988.
Spike Lee wrote the screenplay in just two weeks, “inspired” by an ugly racial incident in Howard Beach, New York, in December 1986, resulting in the death of a 23-year-old Black man and the brutal beating of two of his friends.
Lee went on to produce and direct the film. And, as if that were not enough, he chose to take on the role of Mookie, one of the leading characters in the screenplay.
In a movie awash with over-the-top personalities, Lee focuses on the relationship between Sal, an Italian-American who has operated his neighborhood pizzeria for 25 years, and Mookie, a 25-year-old man who lives down the street and delivers the pizza; he is irresponsible, but nevertheless shows promise.
Though Mookie is Black, like just about everyone else in the neighborhood, Sal treats him like his third son, along with Pino and Vito, his biological sons who work with their father in the pizzeria. Though at times Sal and Mookie seem to display genuine affection for each other, neither is able to give voice to the racial tensions that simmer just below the surface of their relationship.
Shortly before the climactic scene, in which a neighborhood mob burns down the pizzeria, Sal demonstrates that, even after 25 years working in the neighborhood, he remains deaf to the sounds of racial animosity all around him.
In the still boiling heat of late evening, after the store has been shut down for the day, some of Mookie’s friends, shouting loudly, bang on the door and the front window, demanding to be let in. Thinking that this is yet another variation of neighborhood business as usual, Sal casually says to Pino, Vito and Mookie, “All right, let them in …. Let them in. They love my pizza.”
Though those in “the hood” may love Sal’s pizza, they harbor an unarticulated hatred for what they perceive to be Sal’s sense of white privilege – a sense of privilege that Sal is incapable of seeing in himself.
He has served his “famous” pizza to children on the street who have now grown into adulthood. It is not possible for Sal to imagine that the same person who loves his pizza can also demand that the names of some Black folks be put on the pizzeria’s Wall of Fame, which until that very night had been reserved for Italian big names.
“Let them in …. Let them in. They love my pizza.”
But there is no taste for pizza on this night … but instead, payback for years of pent-up rage and frustration .…
“Do the Right Thing” takes its title from a seemingly off-hand comment that the neighborhood “friendly drunk” Da Mayor makes to Mookie early on in the developing story.
This comment leads to unanswered – indeed, unanswerable – questions: Does Mookie do the right thing when he hurls a garbage can through the plate-glass window of Sal’s pizzeria, an act that leads to the total destruction of Sal’s business, which has served the neighborhood for two- and-a-half decades? Or could it be that Mookie’s blatant vandalism saved the lives of Sal and his two sons by diverting the mob’s blind rage from these three Italian men, whom the mob mindlessly blames for a rogue policeman putting a fatal chokehold on Radio Raheem?
We can never know. We cannot run the story backward and then move it forward again to explore alternative possibilities.
Thirty years later, we still routinely witness the death of young Black men at the hands of (mostly) white policemen. Eric Garner: Staten Island, New York. Michael Brown: Ferguson, Missouri. George Floyd: Minneapolis. And 30 years later we are still asking the same unanswerable questions.
Spike Lee chose to conclude his film inconclusively. Just before the closing credits, he quotes the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who insists upon non-violence at all costs, and he quotes Malcolm X, who advocated “armed self-defense in response to oppression.”
You be the judge. Do the right thing!
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is a rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.