Do the Right Thing is a film that uses racism as a jumping off point and uses it as a way to resolve everything that happens, but for most of the time it’s playing, racism doesn’t factor in. Sure, characters will spout racial insults at one another and some of their actions will be driven by race, but it’s more about the characters and their general personalities rather than how they feel about a certain race.
Our main character is Mookie (Spike Lee, who also wrote and directed the film), although you could get into an argument about who the lead truly is. In my mind, he’s the one facilitating a lot of the action, and also probably gets to be on-screen the most frequently, so he’s the protagonist for me. He’s a young man who has a job working for the Italian pizzeria of the neighborhood. Alongside him, working mostly in the kitchen, is Sal (Danny Aiello), the owner, as well as Vito and Pino (Richard Edson and John Turturro respectively).
Now, this pizzeria is situated in a primarily African American neighborhood. The first conflict of the story comes from a man named Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) wondering why the only people on the “Wall of Fame” are American Italians. He does so in a fairly rude way, and then decides that it would be fun to boycott the restaurant as well as try to convince all of his friends to boycott it as well. Granted, it is inconsiderate for Sal not to appeal to his target demographic, but it is his pizzeria, and he can do what he wants.
Meanwhile, a man named Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) is constantly wandering around the neighborhood, lusting after a woman named Mother Sister (Ruby Dee), while also talking to whoever he comes across. There are more characters too, like the towering presence of Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), who is always carrying a radio with him, as well as some police officers who seem to be designated to this specific community, despite glaring at the local population. They assume it’s because of racism, although we’re not so sure. Samuel L. Jackson also appears as the local radio DJ.
Do the Right Thing only shows us one day in the lives of these people, although the assumption is that their lives haven’t been going swimmingly before we jump into the action. Tensions seem to have been rising for a while, and while events of the film also show this to us, they come to a boiling point once we get to meet these characters. The interactions begin to get heated, hatred spills over into their speech, and a lot of the characters seem to stop caring whether or not they’ll offend the person that they’re conversing with.
This is essentially a life film, with no major plot to speak of. Characters go about their daily lives, and while major events eventually do happen, most of the film is spent getting to know everyone involved, all while tension begins to mount. Most of the things happen below the surface, all until the final half hour, when things really get testy. The climax initially felt out of place to me, but looking back, I realized how it was built up, and how it was really the only logical way that Do the Right Thing could end.
However, the central theme and the racial tensions end up being largely forgotten about. That’s not a big problem, as these are well developed characters, but if the film was going to say something about racism, it missed the mark. It seems like it’s going to go that route, and some of the moments in the film lead me to believe that Spike Lee wanted to make a statement, but in the end, it’s more about character interactions that are driven by a great deal of things — not just what color their skin is or where they’re from.
This leaves me feeling both appreciative and disappointed at the same time. I enjoyed this decision, as it means that the characters are deeper and have more motivating factors than simple racism, but I also disliked it as it means that a primary opportunity to say something was passed up. It’s a decision that improves the film as a whole, I think, but in terms or leaving a long-lasting impression on the audience, or in acting as morality tale, it falters.
I can’t say that Do the Right Thing is a fun or easy watch, because I don’t believe it is. This is especially true in its ending, which is violent and will likely shock you. It’s very different from the rest of the film, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because, like I said earlier, it’s quietly built up to a point in which it makes sense. The earlier portions of the film aren’t fun to watch because they’re full of verbal abuse and unlikable people. But they’re characters that are well-developed, and while you may not like them, you’ll understand where they’re coming from when they act.
Do the Right Thing is a very good film about how people interacted with one another in Brooklyn, 1989. It doesn’t necessarily focus on racism for most of its duration, instead, it lumps it in with all of the other issues that people have with other individuals. In some ways, this makes it a better film than if it focused solely on racism. In others, it makes it less memorable and gives it less to take away from it. Regardless, it’s a powerful drama with deep characters that slowly builds up to a climax that makes perfect sense. It is definitely worth your time, so do the right thing and give it a watch.