Do The Right Thing focuses on a Brooklyn neighborhood on one of the hottest days of the year. This neighborhood, despite the racial diversity, is a tight-knit unit. The peripheral characters in Lee’s film are what give it its pulse. The three old men drinking beer trying to stay cool, the mentally handicapped street person, the wise old maid (Ruby Dee) observing the goings on from her window, the wise old drunk (Ossie Davis) wanting nothing more than serenity and happiness, the young punks, the Korean grocer; all of these characters come in and out of scenes, ebbing and flowing with the rhythm of the story. They appear in the background of scenes, in the foreground of others. They live and breathe these Brooklyn sidewalks. They give the picture the feeling of being a living, breathing thing, seemingly narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, a DJ who observes these streets from a picture window like an omniscient, thought-provoking narrator. And all these characters orbit Sal’s Pizzeria.
Sal, played to perfection by Danny Aiello, is a neighborhood Italian whose pizza has “fed these people for twenty-seven years.” Sal is not a hateful man, and not necessarily a racist, until he is pushed. He runs the pizzeria with his two sons, Vito (Richard Edson), a nice enough kid with no real beef with anyone, and Pino (John Turturro), a staunch racist who carries a deep-seeded hatred and mistrust for the blacks who fill the seats of the pizzeria every day.
The other half of the story’s focus is Mookie, a delivery boy for Sal’s played by Lee himself. Pino doesn’t much like Mookie, for no real reason other than he is black, but he tolerates him as best he can. The problem comes in the form of a character named Buggin’ Out, played by Giancarlo Esposito (Breaking Bad). Buggin’ stirs up some shit one day when he chastises Sal for not having any black celebrities on his “Wall of Fame.” There is John Travolta, Joe DiMaggio, Al Pacino, but no famous black people. The argument is innocent enough at first – Sal tells Buggin’ he can open his own place and put whomever he likes on his wall – but Buggin’ won’t let the argument die. He implores the neighborhood to boycott, but the idea falls flat on everyone. Everyone, that is, but Radio Raheem.
Raheem, played by the imposing Bill Nunn, is another neighborhood player, carrying his boom box with him at all times, blasting Public Enemy’s Fight the Power from its speakers. Raheem has a pesky beef with Sal who forbade him to rattle the walls of the pizzeria with his “rap music.” The two kids decide to confront Sal and his sons, and things quickly escalate until Raheem is dead, inciting a riot that ends with Sal’s pizzeria burnt to the ground.
So this is the plot of Do The Right Thing, simple enough. But not so fast. Lee’s film is one of the most brilliantly paced pictures, beginning as a lighthearted look at a summer day in Brooklyn, alive with people and places and splashed with vibrant hues of fluorescent and reds and blues, all the colors of the late 80s and early 90s. But as the day goes, the sun rises, the heat intensifies, so do the pacing, the dialogue, the angles and the mood of the narrative until things boil over. Lee accomplishes this escalating tension by using canted angles, close-ups, lowered and elevated shots, all at the perfect time. The dialogue here is anchored in realism, but it almost sounds like an urban classical dialect, if you will. These are the things these people would say, but they are written and delivered in such a way that they have the slight tinge of stylization. Just enough to add weight to each and every word.
And Lee breaks the fourth wall on occasion, a daring move for any director, but a move with great payoff here. There is the sequence early in the film where a representative from each race in the story spits out every racist thing they can think of about another ethnic group. Then there is Radio Raheem’s imagined boxing match where he shows us his brass knuckles, one reading “hate,” the other “love.” Love wins the fight, an indicator that Radio Raheem is a lot of tough talk, but a good person inside. This scene begins as a talk between Mookie and Raheem, but Lee rotates the camera in such a way that we take over the point of view of Mookie, and Raheem is narrating to us, the viewer. These are some bold strokes by Lee that pull us into the story and make us feel like participants rather than observers.
I could break the film down scene by scene, but what about the larger themes in Do The Right Thing? What about the murder of Raheem at the hands of the racist white police? And what about Mookie being the one to start the destruction of Sal’s place by throwing a trash can through the window? And this right after Sal told Mookie he was like a son to him. The police go after Raheem immediately when the fight between he and Sal breaks out, choking him to death, never thinking that Sal could have provoked the fight. But Raheem provoked Sal to provoke the fight, and Buggin’ Out provoked Raheem. And Sal provoked Buggin’ Out during the petty argument earlier. And the circle keeps moving around and around. There are perhaps a few theories as to why Mookie started the riot, but I would argue he did this because it had to be done. Raheem was killed, so now it’s Sal’s turn to pay for his side of argument. So rather than taking his life, Mookie distracts the angry mob from attacking Sal and points them in the direction of his pizzeria. Mookie and Sal both know this has to be done, and this is evident by a nice scene the two share the next morning, and what is unsaid is more important than what the two say to each other.
The brilliance in Do The Right Thing is in its neutrality. Many blindly indict this movie as a “black movie,” or a movie about hatred for “the (white) man,” but it is anything but. If there are sides taken here, it is every side. You understand Sal, you empathize with Mookie; you see every side and every angle and every plight. The answer at the end of the film, emphasized by a “non-violent” quote from Martin Luther King followed by a “violent” quote from Malcolm X, is that there are no answers. Racism runs deep inside all of us, no matter how much we don’t want it to be there, and we mustn’t allow it to cloud our lives with suspicion and hate, and that is the point of Do The Right Thing. At least, that’s the way I see it.