On Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing.

by Jennifer Valencia


Do The Right Thing is almost 25 years old. Through analysis of social problem in film, racism, film style, and classical narrative, critics keep exposing new views on it to this day. It was a seminal film approaching race relations and racism in its time and continues to do so.

It takes place on one of the hottest days of the year along a street in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. The film follows various characters in this primary African American community. Mookie (Spike Lee), is an African American who works as a delivery boy for Sal (Danny Aiello), the Italian owner of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, along with his two sons Pino (John Torturro) and Vito (Richard Edson). At first we think we are watching an amusing film about a community going about its business and coping with the heat but we are quickly made aware of the tensions that exist bubbling just under the surface. The heat only enhances the tension that has been growing to the point of where it erupts into a very dramatic and disturbing climax. The film does not follow a conventional narrative or plot structure because Lee does not want tell a story per say. His motive is to expose the viewer to the reality of racism and race relations in America. There are various other characters outside of the central characters that help drive the story while fulfilling a second of Lee’s intentions; they provide various perspectives to the questions Lee is proposing around racism. Mookie’s interactions with his diverse characters offer up the contrasting perspectives on the issues displayed in the film.

Even though Mookie is the main character his importance is primarily to bring together the disjointed scenes in the film together, which is why Lee’s acting in the film is very understated. Mookie moves the narrative forward through his function; to get through the work day, finish the day, and get paid. His travels back and forth from the pizzeria while on deliveries, and all the his interactions in between link together the many characters and events taking place in the film. Apart from Lee’s flat performance this assemble cast come together to give the viewer a very real and often raw sense of the tensions growing between the inhabitants of the community. It is often hard to watch but equally hard to ignore.

Lee’s main focus may be racism in America but he also brings up the idea of community. The community portrayed in the film is not exactly what we know a community to be. It is a society that has not been able to come together fully. The tension that lies just underneath keeps them from this. It has all the makings of a community proper but it is the tensions among the different ethnicity that keeps them apart. We see at the beginning and very ending of the film the various ethnic groups greeting each other, being friendly towards each other, and even coming together in the riot scene to fight against a common threat, but there are bits and pieces throughout the film that give the audience the idea of racism within the community itself. The problem lies in the fact that these different ethnicities are unable to completely set aside their cultural differences and live together. There is friction and hate in plain sight, even among the niceties. Half way through the film there is a scene where each of them spew out racial slurs at the camera about an opposite ethnicity. Pino on African Americans, Mookie on Italians, a Latino character about Koreans, etc… They are not saying these things directly at each other but the audience gets the sense that this is how the characters really feel. However, this is not how a community should function. It is a sign that they have not come together. It all seems nice when they greet each other on the street with a friendly handshake, but somewhere along the line they forget that they are a community, thus it ends up as an us vs them mentality either way. They are able be genial to each other on the outside, but this does not mean that they are willing to understand each other. It is only through the common hate of the powers that be that they are able to truly come together.

The main question about racism, race relations, and even community that is posed in the film is what is the right thing? How should we handle these issues? We are constantly given the choices of love and hate, violence and non-violence. Lee provides characters that portray either side. Buggin Out shows the more violent side. Jade, Mookie’s sister, symbolizes love and non-violence. She tells Buggin Out that he should turn his energy in a more effective and positive way. There are even those who don’t pick a side. They are just trying to get by despite the strained relations that exist. It is only when they are forced to pick a side that they do so. To Mookie, racism is a part of every day life. It is only when a friend, Radio Raheem, is a real victim of it that he chooses a side. The greatest thing about this film is that it does not necessarily dictate who’s right and who’s wrong. The use of a variety of personalities provides the audience with a diversification of the views. The film presents us with a question and possible answers, leaving it up to the viewer to decide how they will individually solve the problem. The ending is open for that one reason. Will Sal reopen his Pizzeria? Was violence really the answer? The film finishes the way it began. At the end, we see everyone starting their day and greeting each other while the explosive violence from the night before is all but forgotten. What is the right thing to do? There is no way a film could answer these questions. It is not as easy as love or hate, violence or non-violence. One would hope that love would prevail but the reality is the answer is not that cut and dry. In all the years that have passed since this film was made the question still stands, and is yet to be fully answered.

jenn  AFI’s 100 in Movies

One Reply to “On Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing.”

  1. […] discussing Lee’s presence as an actor, but struggled to find anything substantial. One piece briefly discussed Lee’s acting, but focused on Lee’s role as a director. The language […]

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