Essentially, the movie Do the Right Thing is another one of those films which tackles the topic of racial discrimination, racial prejudice or racism. Following the trend set by “Crash”, “The Power of One” and “Catch a Fire” among others, the movie attempts to present a realistic foretaste of the situation and the continuing disparity which exists between the African-American race as opposed to the other ethnic groups.
Apart from being acclaimed as “the best movie of the summer” (Dawsey, 1989), and it being an “accurate portrayal of life styles in black communities” (Dawsey, 1989), one more notable trivia attached to this movie is that “it was apparently the first film Michelle and Barack Obama saw together” (Criterion Contraption, 2010).
The plot is about a day in a Brooklyn neighborhood when temperatures rise to a record high.
Mookie, who is one of the film’s main characters, is a pizza delivery man of African-American descent, who is somehow caught up between his loyalty to his work, and his allegiance to his race and skin color.
Initially, the situation in the neighborhood is normal with the residents going about their usual day-to-day activities. However, as temperatures increase, so do the people’s tempers, as well as the tension between the recent but dominant occupants and the old-time “outsiders” who in someway get involved with and entangled in the local conflict.
“In general, they get along because they need each other but there is a lot of frustration on all sides” (Beliefnet, 2009) states one review on this film.
Mookie tries to be as neutral and as friendly as possible with his fellow blacks, employers and other local residents; “Mookie is mostly ‘Mr. Nice Guy’ ever ready to lend his calming influence to the storm of insults that fly between the local blacks, Italians, Koreans and white cops” (GA, 2010) and who wanted to please everybody but whose principles are later on challenged and transformed.
Near the movie’s end a riot breaks out; Radio Raheem, a black guy, dies while being arrested by American policemen; and Sal’s pizzeria is burned down as instigated by Mookie, who finally realizes that his commitment to his racial background was more important compared to his loyalty to his Italian employer, or any other race for that matter. The film depicted the life of the Black Americans from the point of view of a black person.
As such, common street scenes — like the three bums who wasted their time exchanging aimless banter, “Mother Sister” on the front steps of her Brooklyn apartment her hair being combed by a young lady, children playing on the streets, young men gathered together with friends drinking beer on the sidewalks, a peddler selling sweet flavored ice cones, a radio on top of a car being played on full-blast while some young Puerto Rican men swayed to the rhythm of the loud beat, among others – were presented in the film which typified the local environs in Brooklyn which are now popularly known to be “black territory”.
It showed a slice of the life of typical Black Americans without the unnecessary prejudice or bias usually associated with films done from a “white” perspective. The presentation of the film is done in the usual manner, from beginning to end, and there are no superfluous, decorative scenes or drama to provoke empathy or hatred for or against any type of race. The plot of the film slowly unfolds and transforms the neighborhood from a quiet peaceful locale to one that is hostile and belligerent.
The radio disc jockey as portrayed by Samuel Jackson, was one of the more important characters in the film as he gave some significant details and narration to create the film’s setting like the rising temperatures at the beginning, and an advice at film’s end for his listeners to “Chill” since the heatwave was not about to peter out. The film’s director, Spike Lee, who also plays the role of Mookie, was able to infuse a lot of substantial and rousing factors in the film denoting his pro-black stance.
From the opening part of the film where one of the film’s actors, Rosie Perez, was dancing to the tune of “Fight the Power! ” against a red backdrop, it was already evident that Lee was already trying to send an important message to the viewers. After the dance sequence, focus is made on an alarm clock, a microphone and lower portion of Samuel Jackson’s face asking the listeners of his radio program to “Wake up! ” which also figuratively connotes that the film is a wake-up call to his fellow Black Americans on the need to be more concerned with issues, especially those pertaining to racism and bigotry.
Another one of the characters named Smiley, an American, also a local resident who was sort of a retardate who stuttered when he spoke, constantly held pictures of Black men, the most significant of which showed Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. At the opening part of the film, Smiley is focused and he explains the two popular figures – “Now they are dead, but we still have to fight against apartheid”, once more against a brick building and a predominantly orange-tinted scene. At first glance, the viewer would merely regard this scene as one useless, isolated act of child-like nature.
However, it will be seen later on that Smiley will be one of those who will actively participate in the initiation of the riot, further implying that his adherence to the black cause is more than just skin deep. Smiley will be the one to set Sal’s pizzeria on fire, which will signify victory for the Black race. The inclusion of these scenes in the movie once again indicate the standpoint from which the film’s director comes from, making it apparent that Lee is trying to educate the viewer about these significant racial issues.
As mentioned earlier, the circumstances in Brooklyn were presented objectively with no added drama to emphasize their respective causes. Each of the characters thought that their own perspective was the right one, hence, there was no letting down especially in the confrontation scene between Sal, Radio Raheem and Buggin’ Out just before the riot erupted. “No characters think they’re racist, yet the racial divide defines the social currency of the film” (Seanax. , 2009) which is parallel to what takes place in society as each individual or entity sees things through his/her own perspective and never from the other’s.
Sal saw himself as one of the area’s old-timers after having been in the neighborhood for more than 20 years. Radio Raheem just wanted to play his music out loud while he walked the streets. Buggin’ Out on the other hand merely felt like he had to have some of his brothers’ pictures up on the “Wall of Fame” posted on Sal’s pizza store. Radio Raheem and Buggin’ Out considered Sal as racist because of his dislike for loud music and not wanting to put up pictures of Black celebrities on his wall.
Conversely, Sal thought that they (RR and BO) were being racist because they wanted to meddle with his business and play loud music in his place. Either way, the film did not side with anybody but the situation was presented — as is — in its nonplus and complicated form for the viewer to make his/her own analysis and conclusions. One remarkable thing about the movie is the prominent use of backdrops to emphasize the Brooklyn setting. Just like one movie review states, the film ”looks and feels more like a play than a movie” (Criterion Collection.
, 2010) because of the recurrent use of theatrical-like shots and backdrops. As mentioned earlier, the bright orange tint is unmistakable in most scenes which sought to highlight the scorching heat in the community, that is, the visual palette on which this film is based – in the literal sense. Figuratively though, the film intended to bring to fore the controversial issue of racial discrimination which has been extant since the early times. Red or bright orange is the figurative way of representing the zeal with which the director treated the issue, implying an ardent desire to be addressed at the soonest possible time.
Lighting in other scenes was also excellent with the indoor scenes still having that necessary brightness coming from the summer heat. It is notable that some of the shots made were like still photographs. One of these scenes is the close-up shot of Mookie and Tina kissing where an extreme close-up of their lips is shown. Shots of newspapers were also shown to underline the ravaging heat being felt in the district at that time. And then, the three men who were having their conversation under an umbrella against a bright red wall is also another such shot.
Some shots are also done from a skewed angle like the way Radio Raheem and Buggin’ Out were speaking to the camera, but the dialogue directed at Sal. Director Lee also made his characters to speak directly to the camera in some scenes, which made the audience somehow involved in the film. The theme of the movie is the racial prejudice which exists between the Black Americans and other ethnic minorities living in the US like Sal and his sons, who were of Italian origins, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Koreans and other nationalities. Each person can be termed as a “racist” depending on the circumstances, and at times, it can’t really be helped.
However, what the movie presents is an intricate interplay of emotions and racial biases which somehow come out naturally to each person, and that each action should not be interpreted as being for or against another group/race. The movie does not aim to widen the already broad chasm between races but rather “the film focused on racial differences just to point out human commonality” (Dawsey, 1989). The riot which occurred in front of Sal’s store was initially triggered by Radio Raheem and Buggin’ Out who wanted to assert themselves and their contentions to Sal.
Unfortunately, the manner with which they delivered their message to Sal was not really encouraging or positive, hence, the situation went from bad to worse, then later on worst when the pizza store was engulfed in flames. The characters in the film gave more credence to the movie which made it more comprehensible and realistic. Sal was credible as the pizza store owner who just wanted to make a living from his 2-decade business, which he intended to bequeath to his 2 sons later on.
The racist tendencies were unintentional on his part especially when he addressed Buggin’ Out to go find his own place to put up the faces of his brothers – that is, when questioned as to why he didn’t have the faces of Black celebrities on his Wall of Fame. He merely wanted to assert his ownership of the place and not be meddled with, which was misinterpreted as being a racist. Both Radio Raheem and Buggin’ Out were believable in their parts of being irate customers who just wanted to be treated as regular customers, or just like everybody else.
However, the manner by which they expressed themselves was not received well by Sal, who also reacted in rage for being challenged in his own place of business. Mookie was also portrayed well by Director Spike Lee as one who wanted to stay in the middle of the Blacks and the Italians, as represented by Sal and his sons. Just like Sal, he only wanted to earn a living, but circumstances went differently, hence, he also had to react in a distinct and instinctive manner. He was a peace-loving individual that was why he always tried to pacify things between Pino and Vito, and also between the two with Sal.
The similarity in behavior between Mookie and Sal is also seen in the way they both treat Smiley, reacting toward the latter with consideration, compassion and patience. It was just surprising that Mookie was the one who started the destruction of the pizzeria, but analyzing his actions, it was also expected in a way because the choice was now between the loss of his source of income and the anger from his Black American family, relatives and friends. The characters of ‘Da Mayor’ and ‘Mother Sister’ provided “the story with the dignity and the artistry–and the sense of historical perspective” (Champlin, 1989).
They also provided a means by which the situation could somehow cool down or be less intense or less violent. In a way, they gave the balance to the story, allowing the viewer to have a breather, especially in the escalating tension before the outbreak of the riot. They are like a douse of water to the heated arguments between the lead characters. The costumes used by the actors made the film more realistic and faithful to their characters. Sal, Pino and Vito alternately wore an apron as part of their work in the pizza store.
Mookie clad in a baseball shirt was the typical garb for teens and young adult males at that time. Da Mayor was dressed up in an obviously well-worn suit which had already become grubby and soiled with age, just like his character. Most of the actors were also shown sweating out because of the heat which also lent more accuracy to the scenes. The dominant mood was also one of tension building up, parallel to the increasing heat of the weather, which climaxed to a riot and the burning of the pizza store. Music also played an important role in the movie.
It is heard from the introduction of the film as the film credits are rolled, within the film and until the last scenes of the movie. Reference to the introductory song has already been cited previously. Within the film, as the summer heat builds up and scene shots are made of tabloids with headlines of the sizzling weather conditions, a song is played in somewhat of a slow Latin beat with the lyrics “I know you can’t stand the heat…”. After the tabloids, the face of Tina, Mookie’s girlfriend is focused where she is supposedly immersing herself in a basin filled with icy cold water.
Then, cut to Tina taking a shower in a bathroom, still with the hint of an orange lighting in the background. In another scene, the Puerto Ricans are listening to some of their music on the radio while they are seated on the front steps of an apartment. The Puerto Rican beat is slowly overpowered by a kind of hiphop or Black type of music which was way louder than their music’s volume. This irks the Puerto Ricans, and they look to find that it is Radio Raheem with his huge boom box. They hurl expletives at Raheem who doesn’t go, so they put their volume on full blast and the Spanish song fills the air again.
Raheem doesn’t say anything but turns his volume up too. They surrender, but then again, they shout invectives at Raheem who turns around and walks away. In this manner, it is seen that music was able to reinforce the feeling of heat in the movie, as well as act as a source of conflict between the Puerto Ricans and Blacks. Overall, the element of music contributed to the film’s total mise-en-scene in a significant manner as to make the movie more visually interesting and appealing to the viewers. Some classify this film as part of the comedy genre, which is definitely a gaffe.
Do the right thing is not a mainstream type of movie since it cannot be classified as a drama, action, horror, family, adventure, coming-of-age, detective, fantasy, love story, etc. It is a kind of film which will hold up on its own because of its customized message for the viewer seeking to elicit more respect for the Black Americans. Perhaps it can be categorized as a social drama, although it cannot exactly fit the pattern because there is no specific social problem which gives rise to the conflict that ensues. In a social drama genre “usually the Champion has a personal stake in the outcome of the struggle” (Create your Screenplay, n.d. ). Although Mookie is somehow depicted to be that champion, he did not experience a struggle in the movie because he was well accepted at his place of work and in the community. The social problem which is raised in this movie is more of a subjective type of racial discrimination since the perspectives may vary with each individual, as well as the circumstances which took place. Such subjective views are manifested by Sal, Radio Raheem and Buggin’ Out. As a whole, the movie Do the Right Thing is an enlightening cinematic reproduction of the situation in Brooklyn during the 1980s.
Tension between the Blacks and other races in the locality was rife during that time but numerous reforms have already been passed to address the issues, and multi-cultures have also become more accepted in the US. In short, a lot of things have changed since then. Nevertheless, the situation is still far from ideal for the minority races in the US, hence, continuing vigilance is still necessary to carry on with what Director Lee has initiated in this film.