One hot summer day, a neighbourhood showcases the racial tensions within its boundaries through violence and humour in Do the Right Thing.
The first film from director Spike Lee (which he also starred in), Do the Right Thing is set in the Bedford Stuyvesant neighbourhood of New York City, focusing on one neighbourhood, the residents and how they deal with each other.
Spike Lee plays Mookie who lives with his sister Jade, and works as a pizza delivery guy, meanwhile supporting his girlfriend Tina (Rosie Perez) and their son Hector. Mookie acts as an observer of the tensions of his neighbourhood.
Sal’s Famous Pizza is owned by Sal (Danny Aiello) whose son Pino (John Turturro) hates Mookie, but who other son Vito (Richard Edson) is Mookie’s buddy. Pino tries to convince his Father to move the pizza place, but Sal is rooted to its location, as its been there for 25 years.
The neighbourhood has many characters, including Smiley, DJ Mister Senor Love Daddy, Da Mayor, the Corner Men and Buggin’ Out.
The conflict arises over Sal refusing to add any Black celebrities to his Italian wall of fame in the pizza place, when patron Buggin’ Out asks – and finds support from another friend, Radio Raheem, who protest the lack of Black celebs. Meanwhile the soundtrack of the neighbourhood is “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy.
As the hottest day of the summer hits the neighbourhood, the issue of Italians versus Blacks comes to a head, with Sal ending up in a fight with Radio Raheem, soon joined by his sons, Smiley and Buggin’ Out. The fight ends up on the street, Mookie destroys part of Sal’s Famous Pizza, the police arrive and things go from bad to worse with the death of Radio Raheem.
Released in 1989, many reviewers believed the film would incite the Black population to riot, to rise up against their white oppressors. No riots ever happened – and Lee criticized the white critics for assuming the Black population’s response to seeing a fictional movie was to riot.
The film’s storyline also created controversy, especially the role of Mookie, as he moves from observer to some believe is the lynchpin of the violence. Lee was nominated for his work on the screenplay with a Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards, while Danny Aiello was nominated for Best Supporting Actor.
I remember hearing all the controversy and seeing the film – understanding the racial tensions, knowing the reality of judgement purely based on appearance and once again putting another piece in my view on New York City.
Voted one of the 25 most controversial films of all time, Do the Right Thing is an edgy snapshot into urban America in 1989.