Do The Right Thing is one of the truly great films of the 1980s and speaks directly to what’s happening in America today.
And this classic film from the mind and pen of Spike Lee seems more relevant than ever as America and the world struggles to come to terms with the police brutality that ended the life of George Floyd and left Jacob Blake paralysed after being shot in the back, while his children watched in horror.
We’ve all felt the growing frustration from the pernicious pangs of this pandemic. Whether it’s the loss of a loved one or rising uncertainty about the future.
But have you ever in a moment of madness, wanted to hurl something heavy through the window of your own opportunity – to expose what’s wrong with the world?
Spike Lee’s magnum opus is ripe for a re-watch and is an ideal springboard for that difficult conversation you may feel the need to have with a particular family member or friend, who just can’t fathom the significance of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Set in New York, Spike slices his Bedford Stuyvesant block up into many ages and races. It’s a predominantly black area, anchored by a Korean-owned deli and Sal’s Famous Pizzeria on the corner. This is the subject of an angry speech by black elders as to why the black community aren’t able to run businesses in their own neighbourhood?
Sal, a self-made businessman, seems trapped by his clay oven, but takes pride in the fact that he has helped raise his mostly black customers, by feeding them long after the other Italian Americans moved out.
Mookie (played by Spike) is a local hero. Working for Sal, he slings fresh pies to his hungry neighbours, but struggles to meet the responsibility of his newborn son.
Capturing the melting pot of racial tension in Brooklyn, the whole movie takes place over one blazing hot day, with the summer haze rising and warping the air on screen.
Lee’s cinematographer Ernest Dickerson deserves a special mention here, carefully bleeding any cooling blue hues out of frame, in favour of a burning red and overripe orange palette.
Local activist Buggin’ Out makes the valid point over a piece of pizza – that all the pictures on Sal’s Wall of Fame are of white Italians like Sinatra, De Niro and Pacino, and seeing as though most of his customers are black… “why can’t we have some brothers on the wall?”
When things flare up, Mookie buys the peace for the sake of his job, also enduring the racist taunts of his employer’s son Pino, played deftly by a young John Turturro.
Tensions continue to rise until closing time, when Radio Raheem and Buggin’ Out confront Sal again, demanding an end to the black celebrity censorship.
The argument sparks an eruption of racist fury from the previously diplomatic Sal and he silences Radio Raheem’s boombox with a baseball bat, before the orgy of violence spills onto the street.
Police arrive and pounce straight on the two black men. Raheem, who is shot from below throughout the film, to emphasise his size and stature, is suddenly lifted from his feet and strangled by the NYPD.
To cut the murderous tension, Mookie sparks a looting riot on the pizza parlour. There are many arresting examples of self-destruction in movies, from Johnny Boy in Mean Streets to Randle in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.
But Mookie’s act of violence is one of the most poignant and also most elusive in modern cinema. What does it mean when he shouts ‘hate’ and hurls the trash can through the window of his workplace?
An emotionally draining epilogue shows that while the black community are trying to process the meaningless death of Raheem, the politicians focus on the property damage, with a radio broadcast stating the mayor will visit the scene.
A chorus line reels off a list of victims of similar violence before the end credits, which could be easily updated for 2020. It’s impossible to watch Radio Raheem’s death without thinking of Eric Garner and George Floyd.
As Mister Love Daddy (an early role for Samuel L.Jackson) calls on his Love FM listeners to ‘register to vote…’ we see polarising quotes about how to tackle racism from Martin Luther King and Malcolm X scroll up the screen.
We are left with an open invitation to discover for ourselves what it means to Do The Right Thing? What we do next is up to us.
If you’d like to watch a physical copy of Do The Right Thing while you boycott Sal’s – you can rent it now from The VideOdyssey video shop at Toxteth TV, the store BBC Radio 4 dubbed ‘the UK’s last video shop’.
Be kind rewind.