Clocking in at #96 on the AFI list is Spike Lee’s 1989 classic Do The Right Thing. Set in New York in the summer of 1989 in chronicles the tale of one neighborhood’s struggle with racial issues. Clocking in at two hours, it is an average length dramatic film.
New York is in the middle of a crushing heat wave (the “hot summer” plot device is one that Lee likes a lot and uses again in his later film “Summer of Sam”). Mookie (played by Lee himself) is a young, struggling father who delivers pizza for Sal’s pizza, the neighborhood shop. The early scenes give us character intros – Mookie going to work, Sal opening up the shop with his two sons Pino and Vito, a group of older black men talking about Mike Tyson and global warming.
A older, alcoholic character we know only as “Da Mayor” offers to sweep the front sidewalk at Sal’s. Sal gives him a dollar and he quickly goes to buy a beer.
We meet Radio Raheem, who always is carrying a boom box with him.
A character that we are introduced to only as “Buggin’ Out” comes into Sal’s and is complaining about the prices and then about how Sal’s “Wall of Fame” doesn’t include any black faces. Sal says his wall is reserved for Italian Americans. Bugging’ Out starts an argument with Sal and is eventually kicked out.
The next scene is people playing in an open fire hydrant. A white driver in a convertible approaches and warns the guys playing that they better not get his car wet, as it is a classic. As he pulls through, they aim the spray and him, soaking him. The cops arrive on the scene, but he is unable to tell them anything about the guys who soaked him.
As the cops roll out, the white cops and the old black men sitting on the corner share a look of mutual disgust. After they pass, the old men remark that a Korean family that just arrived in the US a year ago already owns a store. One of them remarks that either Koreans are geniuses or black men are dumb as they own a store and men that have lived there their whole lives do not. This leads to a debate about racism versus ambition.
Pino slings some racial insults and Mookie pulls him aside. They start to talk but wind up trading racial slurs, leading to a montage of different characters reciting a list of slurs against blacks, Italians, Jews, Chinese and many other groups.
Pino and Sal have a conversation where Pino tries to convince Sal to leave the neighborhood because he “doesn’t want to be around those animals”. Sal says that he has been on that street corner for 25 years and “I’ve never had no trouble with those people.”
A lot more charecter-revealing scenes happen – Mookie’s sister Jade comes to the pizzeria and Mookie gets mad at Sal because he thinks Jade is hitting on her, Da Mayor saves a young boy who was about to be hit by a car, the mother of Mookie’s son, Tina, order a pizza just to see him. Vito and Pino fight over whether black people can be trusted. Radio Raheem and Sal get into it when Radio doesn’t want to turn off his boom box in Sal’s restaurant.
The pizza joint closes for the day. Sal tells Mookie that he has been like a son to him. Just then, some neighborhood kids knock on the door and Sal agrees to reopen because “they love my pizza!” Behind them, Bugging’ Out and Radio Raheem come in, boom box blaring, demanding black faces on his wall of fame. An argument ensues that ultimately leads to Sal flinging racial epitaphs and taking a bat to Radio’s boom box. This spawns a brawl that spills out of the pizza pace. The cops arrive and attempt to arrest Buggin’ and Radio but wind up choking Radio to death.
Da Mayor tries to diffuse the angry crowd, but just as they are starting to disperse, Mookie throws a trash can through the window of Sal’s shop. A riot ensues, burning the pizzeria to the ground. The cops arrive and spray the rioters with high pressure water.
The next day, Mookie goes to find Sal sitting on the stoop of his burned down pizza shop. He asks him for his weekly pay, $250. Sal gives him $500 and yells at him that he is now a rich man. They have a back and forth and Mookie eventually leaves with the $500, after trying to return the $250 he is not owed.
The closing of the film is two dueling quotes, one from Martin Luther King Jr. advocating non-violence in pursuit of social justice, the other from Malcolm X, advocating that violence is necessary in the pursuit of social justice, followed by a picture of them together.
This film is powerful, well-written, well-acted and amazingly relevant 30 years later. I was completely captivated throughout the film, heart-wretched by the apex of the film and saddened by how little has changed about the issues addressed in the past 30 years. The moral ambiguity and imperfection of the characters and their actions is both moving and thought-provoking. Honestly, there was very little that I didn’t like about the film, other than the slightly dated feel of the opening credits and the under use of Samuel L Jackson and Rosie Perez, who were fantastic but had very bit roles.
We are only 5 films into a 100 film list, but this is far and away the best film I’ve seen on this project so far.
Production Quality 7/10
Rewatch Value 9/10
Overall Score 35/40