Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. For March, we celebrate the birthday (and the decades-long filmography) of one of America’s most pioneering Black filmmakers, Spike Lee. Read the rest of our coverage here.
On the hottest day on record in the nearly all-Black neighborhood of Bedford–Stuyvesant, Brooklyn is the backdrop for Spike Lee’s provocative and classic film Do the Right Thing. In it, the charged and confrontational director over the course of a day, charts the intersecting tapestry of the area and its inhabitants, culminating in one of the most controversial endings in cinematic history.
He also stars as Mookie in the typical Lee archetype. He’s a cavalier pizza delivery guy behind on his responsibilities to his baby momma, Tina (Rosie Perez), and his toddler son, Hector (Travell Toulson). In and out of jobs, a gig at the pizzeria owned by Sal (Danny Aiello) is the only one he’s had that’s lasted over a month.
Living with his sister Jade (Joie Lee, the director’s real-life sibling), he traverses across Bedford-Stuyvesant, intersecting with a swatch of characters. Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito), for one, is as off-kilter as they come while Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) can be counted on to be slinging a boombox with him. Then there’s intellectually disabled Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith) who’s as sweet as can be, a far cry away from Sal’s sons Vito (Richard Edson) and the racist Pino (John Turturro). The temperature rises and their tempers flare.
Nevertheless, the connective figure in Do the Right Thing isn’t Mookie. Instead, the rising heartbeat of the drama sounds from the narrative’s elders Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) and Mother Sister (Ruby Dee). Their importance is ironic considering the drama thrives as a vocalization of the young new Black generation of the ’80s. The mood of this youth culture reverberates in the drama’s opening sequence; former Soul Train dancer Rosie Perez in her first major film role jarringly gyrating to the beat and rhyme of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.”
Elvis was a hero to most /Public Enemy, “Fight the Power”
But he never meant shit to me, you see /
Straight up racist that sucker was /
Simple and plain”
The song’s lyrics boldly explain white pop culture’s propensity to deify white celebrities while ignoring African-American heroes. The frustration African-Americans feel toward this cycle justifies the narrative’s later conflict and still resonates today.
However, as Mookie passes through his day, walking down the street as cinematographer Ernest Dickerson’s camera evocatively tracks him, he sees the disc jockey Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson) broadcasting live. He greets both Da Mayor (the neighborhood drunkard) and Mother Sister (the wise matriarch). Both offer the drama’s key advice, “Don’t work too hard today… I’ll be watching ya son,” from the matriarch and, “Always do the right thing,” from the patriarch.
The former asks the younger character to turn to his elders in his time of need. The latter reminds Mookie to think of others, to grow as a man, and to take care of his child and girlfriend. Mookie heeds their warnings and is the only person who keeps his head when all is falling apart. Moreover, barring the middle-aged trio of Black men—Sweet Dick Willie (Robin Harris), ML (Paul Benjamin), and Coconut Sid (Frankie Faison)—that languish in front of a Korean-owned convenience store, Da Mayor and Mother Sister are the only elderly Black figures in Do the Right Thing.
Their age is given greater importance considering Smiley spends much of his day selling small black and white photos of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X shaking hands. The implicit message shows how Black communities have few venerable voices left to offer guidance—because they’ve all been taken away. For this reason, as two pillars of Black Hollywood revered just in time for the Black cinematic renaissance led by Lee, Davis and Dee’s real-life symbolism as survivors of a pioneering generation hits with greater depth.
Their characters, like King and Malcolm, are in opposition—though the two civil rights leaders were never the enemies many assumed—with Mother Sister disliking the Mayor’s drunkenness. However, both Mother Sister and Da Mayor look over the younger inhabitants of the neighborhood with the same level of care. (The latter saves a kid from being hit by a car and even protects Sal and his sons during the climax’s destructive riot.) And like King and Malcolm, as the narrative progresses, the two elders grow closer together—their burgeoning relationship made more poignant and soulful considering Davis and Dee were real-life husband and wife.
Nevertheless, even with their eventual truce, most of Do the Right Thing revolves around division. Pino hates Blacks and Mookie; the African-American inhabitants dislike the Korean store owners and vice versa. Moreover, Buggin’ Out conjures a boycott of Sal’s because there are no Black faces on the pizzeria’s wall of fame while the Latinos and Sal are fed up with Radio Raheem’s boisterous boombox. Adding to all of that is Smiley’s disdain for Vino after the latter accosts him for selling his photos outside the restaurant.
But the worst is how the neighborhood devolves between methods to stay cool and simmering attitudes. When Ahmad (Steve White), Cee (Martin Lawrence), Punchy (Leonard L. Thomas), and Ella (Christa Rivers) open a fire hydrant, the NYPD shut it off and threaten the Black residents. When the four see the Da Mayor, Ahmad angrily denounces the former’s drunkard ways. Later, when an ice truck arrives, a boy is nearly hit by a car. And even shaved ice can’t lower the people’s rising mood.
Their tensions become too much when Radio Raheem, Smiley, and Buggin’ Out storm the pizzeria to demand a photo of a Black celebrity be put upon Sal’s wall. Raheem attacks Sal after the latter destroys his boombox and calls him the n-word. Their fight spills out into the street and the police arrive to quell the violence only to kill Raheem, which causes the tenuous environment to erupt and the crowd to turn on Sal and his sons.
In the drama’s most controversial moment, Mookie throws a garbage can through the pizzeria’s window and the residents of Bedford–Stuyvesant burn the joint down. Tellingly, it’s Mother Sister who screams to destroy the restaurant, but it’s Da Mayor who pleads for peace. Like King and Malcolm, the difference between calm and violence resonate as the two’s main difference.
Moreover, Raheem’s death is emblematic of the short lifespan of Black male figures like Malcolm and King. Raheem goes from revered in the neighborhood because of his boombox—blaring the proud message of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” at full volume to the rebellious Black residents of Bedford–Stuyvesant—to slain by the police in a “Michael Stewart” chokehold—mirroring the historically long line of Black deaths at the hands of the NYPD—after his boombox and its message is smashed by Sal’s Louisville Slugger.
Even so, the central question of Do the Right Thing remains: Did Mookie do the right thing? Often white critics debate the point but, as Lee once explained in his DVD commentary for the Criterion release of the film, Black audiences have rarely reproached Mookie’s actions. Through throwing the garbage can, the character diverts the crowd from harming Sal and his sons to destroying their property. He opens a valve for the Black residents to exercise their warranted anger toward Raheem’s death. Mookie is a hero.
Conversely, Mookie, who has spent much of the film not as a father figure and barely in his son’s life, rejoins his family with his paycheck in hand to support them by the film’s end. He reestablishes the family unit: a Black father not absent from his loved one’s lives (as the cliché goes). Nevertheless, if one fault can be found in Do the Right Thing, like She’s Gotta Have It, it resides in Lee’s portrayal of women. Tina exists solely as an ingenue, or sexual eye candy for Mookie, and the stereotypical loudmouth Latina.
In the narrative, only Mother Sister possesses any sort of depth—though, like Da Mayor, she’s an archetype of the Black urban community. Her presence, along with his, reinforces Do the Right Thing as not just a vocalization of a new young generation. But instead, it’s as much about the importance of venerable figures in the Black milieu, a love note to their sage words.