Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Film Analysis: Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989)

Above photos: the top photo is the official movie poster, showing Spike Lee as Mookie and Danny Aiello as Sal. The second picture shows Radio Raheem and his love and hate jewelry. The two emotions are juxtaposed in the film which had themes of love versus hate, racial tension and whether or not violence is justified, and under what circumstances.

Often times Spike Lee is not mentioned as a top American filmmaker, but he deserves to be. Way back in 1989 he made what many consider to be his best work, Do the Right Thing. It was nominated for 2 Oscars, one for Lee’s writing and one for Danny Aiello, best supporting actor. He has directed 50 films, dating back to 1977. His commercially released films previous to Do the Right Thing included She’s Gotta Have It and School Daze. His other works include; Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, Summer of Sam, Bamboozled and so many more.

Writer, producer, director... Spike Lee
Mookie... Spike Lee
Sal... Danny Aiello
“Da Mayor”... Ossie Davis
Mother Sister... Ruby Dee
Radio Raheem... Bill Nunn
Jade... Joie Lee
Pino... John Tuturro
Buggin’ Out... Giancarlo Esposito
Tina... Rosie Perez
Mister Senor Love Daddy... Samuel L. Jackson
Cee... Martin Lawrence

A prominent song in the soundtrack is Fight the Power by the popular 1980s rap group, Public Enemy. This is no coincidence. The opening credits show Rosie Perez dancing to this song, at times wearing boxing gloves. A major theme of the film is the distrust of authority, especially the police. The film also has an underlying racial tension that builds up to a violent crescendo. It deals with conflict in the Brooklyn area of Bedford-Stuyvesant between blacks, whites, Puerto Ricans and Asians. It's the hottest day of the year in Bed-Stuy. The temperature is on the rise and so is conflict.

Mister Senor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson), is kind of like the narrator for the film, as he surveys the neighborhood from his radio studio. He is the DJ for “We Love Radio”, last on your dial but first in your heart. One of his many catchphrases is “That’s the truth, Ruth”.

Lee plays Mookie, a pizza delivery guy for Sal’s Famous Pizzeria. In his Jackie Robinson Brooklyn Dodgers jersey, he delivers pizza to all in the neighborhood. The pizza parlor is owned by Sal (Danny Aiello). One day a friend of Mookie’s, called Buggin’ Out, notices the Wall of Fame in the pizza parlor. Sal has photos of all of his Italian American idols such as Frank Sinatra, Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro and more. Buggin’ Out asks why there are no “brothers” on the wall. Sal says that it is his business and he can have pictures of whoever he wants on the wall. Buggin’ Out is outraged and demands that people boycott Sal’s pizza until he gets photos of blacks on the wall. Sal has a son who is racist but Sal reminds him that the people in the neighborhood have been their customers for years, allowing the business to survive.

The late 1980s was a period of popularity for boom boxes, portable stereos that would blast radio, cassettes and CDs. One of the guys in the ‘hood is Radio Raheem, who blasts Public Enemy’s Fight the Power at full volume as he walks the streets. He gets mad at the Korean owner of the corner store when he does not understand the request to buy new batteries. He tells him to learn how to speak English. Sal gets angry with Radio Raheem when he blasts the music in his pizzeria.

Smiley is a character in the neighborhood who stutters severely and sells photos of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Mookie buys a photo from him when he gets his paycheck. Late in the film, Smiley has a key scene.

Buggin’ Out and Radio Raheem come into Sal’s with Public Enemy blasting and demanding that Sal put pictures of “brothers” on the wall. Sal refuses and smashes Radio Raheem’s boom box with a bat. Radio Raheem jumps the counter and attacks Sal. The fight escalades and goes outside onto the sidewalk. The cops show up and put Radio Raheem into a stranglehold, until he stops breathing. They throw him in the back of a cop car and take off. Mookie decides to get involved and he throws a trash can through the plate glass window at Sal’s. People begin looting the pizzeria, tearing it apart. Smiley sets it on fire and people run out. The Korean grocer across the street is afraid that his business will be destroyed. He swings a push broom at the crowd and says “I, you, the same!”

Smiley goes into the pizzeria as it burns and puts a picture on the wall of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. The only criticism I have of this film is that it should have neded with that shot. It did not, it showed the aftermath of the fire, the next day as Mookie walked to the pizzeria to get his paycheck from Sal.

Before the credits roll, there are 2 quotes that appear on screen. One is from Martin Luther King Jr. The essence of it is the quote “Violence is impractical and immoral”. Then a quote from Malcolm X is shown that in part says, “I don’t call it violence when it is self defense, I call it intelligence.” Which leaves us to ponder, when is violence justified? I think that this film is a landmark in the career in Spike Lee, and it addresses important questions about race and violence in America.

*Some information from

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