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Connection: actor (Danny Aiello)
Do The Right Thing (1989)
Directed by Spike Lee
Written by Spike Lee
Starring Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Richard Edson, Giancarlo Esposito, Bill Nunn, John Turturro, and Spike Lee
120 minutes, rated R
I was in high school when I saw this film for the first time. I cannot, for various reasons, pinpoint the actual time that it occurred, but context clues of the memory suggest that it was at some point during my sophomore year. I had been invited to the event where they showed this film by a friend named Robb Warfield, and I did not become truly close with him until the end of my freshman year. He had graduated by the end of my sophomore year. I also remember impressing some of the other teenagers at the event by playing “Everything I Do (I Do It for You)” on the piano. That song was part of the soundtrack to Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, which had been the big hit of the summer just before my sophomore year. The problem, in my memory, of this event taking place when I am certain that it did is that my friend Steve Sample was also there with his girlfriend Kathleen, and I would swear to you on a stack of King James Version Holy Bibles that he and Kathleen had broken up by our sophomore year. Ah well, that’s neither here nor there and hardly the point of this story.
The event in question was hosted by a church in Rantoul, Illinois. It was an overnight gathering for teenagers. The purpose of the gathering was fellowship and conversation. The theme was “Depictions of Race in America”. In order to get the old ball rolling on these discussions, we watched several movies and then had mediated-by-an-adult discussion about what had happened in the movie and how it related to present-day race relations. I don’t remember exactly how many movies we watched, but the ones that stick out in my mind are Glory (which I had already seen), Mississippi Burning (which I barely remember), and Do The Right Thing.
There were 40 to 50 teenagers at this event. Most of them were African-American. Including myself and my three friends from Gibson City Junior/Senior High, there might have only been 8 to 10 caucasian students in attendance. Discussions about these films was, for this reason, intimidating. What right do I have voicing opinions about racism and its impact on society in a room full of people who have spent their entire lives experiencing real racism? And I actually recall that most of my opinions on these movies and contributions to the discussions were about the movies themselves. I felt qualified to speak on screenplay merits or film-making technique (I was the worst sort of film nerd even then), but I didn’t– and still don’t– feel qualified to comment on how something racist might make a minority feel.
Suffice it to say that the discussion that was had after this first viewing of Do the Right Thing is one of the more interesting film discussions I have ever participated in. If you have not already seen this movie, then I urge you to go and watch it before reading this entry. This is, essentially, a SPOILER WARNING. It’s a relatively plot-less film, so there isn’t much by way of story to spoil, but the film does hit you with quite an emotional wallop, and I think it’s best for viewers to not know that it’s happened until after they’ve picked themselves up off of the floor. Do The Right Thing is one of those movies, a movie that I would categorize not only as good but as important. If the whole world watched this movie, it might be a better place.
I have to back up a minute before I get too deeply into this and explain that as a teenager I was a little more enlightened about such topics than other white peers my age, but only by proximity. My sister’s boyfriend (a man who is now her husband and the father of her three children) was black, and he and I frequently had eye-opening discussions about how certain actions or things I said were racist, if even unintentionally. We are not as close as we once were, but, in that era, he was very inspirational and educational for me. I learned a lot from him about matters of race and perceptions of racist tendency, and I had adapted a lot of my behaviors accordingly because of his mentorship. Unfortunately, and, in retrospect, to my shame, I was unable to call out my peers on such tendencies, though. I was a teenager and still had to fit in, you know?
Okay . . . proceeding . . . slightly more enlightened (which helped in understanding that my contributions to this particular conversation may not be welcomed), but still, at the heart of it, probably just as racist (if even by default) as the teenage white kid next to me who had probably told a racist a week ago that I had laughed at, I was shaken to my very core by the events depicted in this film. I couldn’t have put it into words at the time, but I was mad at Spike Lee for “tricking me.” This is a film that seems light-hearted at first. You laugh– a lot– at the dialogue and characters. You get settled in with them and comfortable. But then, something terrible happens. And it just gets worse. And even worse. And then even worse still. By the end, I was numb, shocked at the events of the film and completely taken aback that I seemed to be the only person in the room that was having such a visceral reaction to the film. I had many, many questions and could not wait to view this movie with my sister’s boyfriend because I felt most comfortable getting those answers from him. I felt somewhat that the main gist of what I was understanding about this film was disrespectful to the film’s intent and, more importantly at the time, disrespectful to the tribulations and struggles of the group of people I was watching it with. I’ll come back to that . . .
As soon as the movie ended, discussion about the film was very lively. It is an R rated film, so most of us in the room had not seen it before, not being of an age yet that might have been allowed to view it. But it seemed unanimous to every one present that this was a really, really good film. There was a lot of talk initially about how entertaining it was, how surprisingly funny, with little mention of how outright uncomfortable the final thirty minutes are. I was especially enamored of Ernest Dickerson’s cinematography and there was much discussion about the look of the film and how effectively the camerawork evoked mood and atmosphere. There was some discussion about the soundtrack and Lee’s mix of contemporary militant hip-hop with atmospheric beebop jazz. I recall a discussion about whether or not Rosie Perez’s character is annoying or not (she is, in my opinion). But then, the mediator abruptly halted the ongoing discussion by asking, “Whose fault was it?”
Discussion of the film’s merits very quickly devolved into an argument about the film’s content. And I do mean, an Argument. With a capital A. No one in this room could come to a consensus about what had happened in this film. I was witness to black teenagers actually yelling at each other over what had happened.
“If Mookie hadn’t thrown the garage can . . .”
“The cops had already killed Radio Raheem before Mookie got involved!”
“Yeah, but the riot didn’t start until after that happened.”
“What’s your definition of a riot? Sure looked like chaos before the cops got involved to me.”
“That was just a fight. That wasn’t a riot. That’s why the cops were involved!”
“There wouldn’t have been a fight if Radio Raheem had turned off the boombox!”
“What? A black man can’t turn on a radio when he wants to?”
This argument went on for a good, long while. It seemed that the teenagers in attendance were working through the film backwards, plot-point by plot-point, to pin a tail on the Precise Moment Donkey where everything on a narrative level was doomed to go to shit. Everybody in this film seems to have contributed to the eventual terrifying end. If it wasn’t the actions of one person, it was the actions of the friends who encouraged them and egged them on. If it wasn’t the racist thoughts and words of one person, it was those close to them that didn’t correct them or chastise them. If it wasn’t what somebody did, then it could easily be directed toward something that somebody didn’t do. It was all very confusing, and our inability to lay blame, to point a finger, to say “All Sal had to do was put a picture of a black man on the wall and this wouldn’t have happened” was making the entire room tense and angry.
And then someone said, “It’s nobody’s fault. Everyone’s to blame” and the entire room got quiet. This sentiment, this idea that blame lie in every direction, square in the lap of every character in the film, was what had earlier occurred to me, the idea that I was certain was disrespectful to the gathered group of people who had experienced real racism in their lives. This was the question that I had for my brother-in-law, the question I was scared to ask in the moment: Is it possible that Spike Lee is saying that there are so many questions because there are no easy answers? Is it possible that there are too many answers to pinpoint a question? Is it possible that Lee is suggesting that racism, as a national struggle, is everyone’s problem to solve? Is it possible that no one can solve it because everyone is contributing to the lack of solution?
To break this down with an example from the film: Sal’s Pizzeria is owned by Sal (played by Danny Aiello), a white Italian-American. He’s owned the restaurant for 25+ years. He has chosen to decorate the walls with the photos of famous Italian-Americans as a recognizable symbol of his familial heritage. His restaurant, however, is in a predominantly-black neighborhood. Buggin’ Out (played brilliantly by Giancarlo Esposito) believes that, for this reason, the pizzeria should reflect an atmosphere more representative of the clientele. As he says in the film: “We spend much money here.” Is he wrong? Probably not. It’s easy to imagine that he might be uncomfortable having no choice but to patronize a restaurant that values the owner’s heritage over its customers. But it is Sal’s restaurant, and he has the right to decorate in any way that he wants. As the owner, he has the right to tell Buggin’ Out to not eat here if he doesn’t like it. But then, from there, we come to the logistics of Buggin’ Out patronizing any other establishment when Sal’s Pizzeria is the only restaurant in the neighborhood. An Italian-American restaurant in a black neighborhood. All Sal has to do to solve the problem is put “one brother” on the wall and the problem is solved. But he shouldn’t have to do that. Why? It’s his restaurant. The same dilemma that Buggin’ Out sees as racial is for Sal a First Amendment issue. Or is it? The film shows clearly that Sal is not above using the “n-word” when angry. Okay, so Sal is a racist and Buggin’ Out should boycott an establishment that clearly doesn’t want him there. The film also reveals, however, that Sal offers work to ‘Da Mayor (played by Ossie Davis) in exchange for money. It also reveals that he has romantic notions toward Jade (played by Joie Lee) and is prone to cutting breaks to Mookie (played by Spike Lee) because he is a hard worker and a good friend. So maybe Sal isn’t so racist, but Buggin’ Out is just a troublemaker. Except that Buggin’ Out isn’t wrong to feel the way he does.
The film is filled to the brim with dilemmas like this that have no easy answers. Does Pino (played by John Turturro) not like Mookie because he’s black, or because he thinks that Mookie is useless and a poor worker? Maybe he believes that Mookie is useless and a poor worker because he is black. Is it possible, in fact, that Sal does many of the things that he does for the black community because he wants to be perceived as not racist? He does good things for some, but not for others. Does Sal have a distinction in his mind between “good blacks” and “bad blacks”? Does every action have an ulterior motive to keep his restaurant alive?
Written by, directed by, and starring a young Spike Lee, this is a very complicated film. Most people spend an entire career never making a movie this legitimately powerful. Few movies before (or since) have been so brazen about the tensions between races. What separates this film from other films with the same subject matter has already been discussed: this one doesn’t point fingers or lay blame. Its black characters are just as racist as the white characters, who are just as racist as the Hispanic characters, who are just as racist as the Koreans that own the corner grocery.
I am a straight, white, male. I am relatively young at that. I don’t feel eligible to comment on racism, homophobia, sexism, or ageism. I don’t have the right to tell my minority friends that they shouldn’t feel the way that they do about certain things in society that have affected them. But what I can do is listen to them when they talk. What I can do is adapt my behavior to include them so that I can empathize with them. What I can do is teach others to do the same.
I learned that from this movie, a film that builds a solid case for listening instead of talking when it comes to tolerating the differences in others. This message is one that may be even more profound and important in 2020 than it was when the film was first released in 1989. More than any other movie about this particular topic, I am recommending this one to those who haven’t seen it. It’s an immediate game-changer about racial cause and effect. It is a brilliantly-realized reminder that all of us can do nothing, do something, or do the right thing.