Thursday, October 20, 2011

20+ Years Later--Did Mookie Do the Right Thing?

By Paul "The Good-Looking One" Goldberg


What do you think of Do the Right Thing?  It’s pretty much polarized critics and just normal, everyday viewers (which critics are really just glorified versions of) ever since its release in 1989.

But since it’s likely been a while since this film has left our national consciousness, let me give you a refresher:

·     Do the Right Thing is directed by Spike Lee, an African-American filmmaker nearly universally lauded for his artistry and directorial craft.  However, Mr. Lee is also a magnet for controversy.  Numerous quotes (for a selection of such quotes, as well as brilliant analysis, read Stanley Crouch's review entitled "Do the Race Thing" in his 1990 book Notes of a Hanging Judge) as well as themes and implications of his films paint Lee in some people's eyes (such as mine) as racist, segregationalist, victimhood-peddling, and guilt-mongering.

·     Spike Lee also stars as Mookie, who for the majority of the movie is level-headed and likeable, although apathetic and irresponsible

·     The film takes place in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn (working-class), where the entire population is black other than Sal (Danny Aiello), whose pizzeria has been a local landmark for over 25 years, and a newly emigrated Asian couple. 

·     Though Sal seems to be in touch with the neighborhood, Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito), the neighborhood’s detestable rabble-rouser, decides that he doesn’t like that Sal only has pictures of famous white Italians, and none of any famous blacks, on the walls of his restaurant.  Buggin Out enlists Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) to help stage a sit-in protest of Sal’s restaurant.  Radio Raheem (known as such for the boombox he constantly carries with him, always playing Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”) and Buggin Out enter Sal’s shop, refuse to leave, Sal gets crazy pissed, calls them the N-word, and busts Radio Raheem’s radio.  Raheem then grabs Sal and starts a brawl, which the entire neighborhood eventually becomes involved in.  But here’s the turning point of the film: the police eventually come in, take Raheem off of Sal (who’s lying, beaten, on the ground), and in their anger wind up killing him.  At this point, the whole neighborhood turns against Sal, blaming him for Raheem’s slaying, and Mookie— a previously friendly employee of Sal’s, and the neighborhood conciliator—throws a trashcan through Sal’s window, causing the neighborhood to riot and eventually burn his pizzeria to the ground.  At the end of the film, Mookie comes up to Sal, demanding his last two weeks’ pay.  Sal angrily shells it out.

·     The credits of the film tie up one of the film’s running motifs: Malcolm (X) vs. Martin (Luther King, Jr.).  Essentially, Lee asks us to choose between Malcolm’s view of violence as intelligence (to which Lee subscribes, and in all likelihood intends for his movie to exemplify), and Martin’s view of violence as never—in any circumstance—moral or allowable.

·     One last interesting thing to note:  although the end of the film is full of gravity and deep, deep tragic dilemmas, the majority of it is actually comedic and light.

Alright, so there’s the basic rundown/refresher on which I’ll now build.  So of course, the question is: was Mookie’s decision to throw the trashcan through Sal’s window, starting a riot amongst an angry mob, the right thing for him to do?

I think that people who say “yes” to this question are either illogical, unthinking, or racist.  Lee himself believes that because of the cops’ slaying of Radio Raheem, of course Mookie’s action is justified.  But how?  Let me point you to Lee’s logic in this belief:
  1. The white cops murdered Radio Raheem (black)
  2. Sal is white
  3. Therefore, Sal is also guilty of Radio Raheem’s death
  4. Therefore, Mookie is justified in rioting Sal’s restaurant and having it burned to the ground
Does this make any sense to you, reasonable reader?  That just because Sal’s skin color is the same as the murderers, he is also a murderer, and must pay for their sins?  This is morally confused for two reasons: (1) Because Lee is viewing people not as individuals, but as groups, when in reality, the individual is always to be considered first, and (2) Although no one ever thinks of this, in fact SAL is the minority in the neighborhood.  SAL is the person surrounded by people suspicious of him on the basis of his skin color alone, SAL is the person feeling enclosed and overwhelmed.  So in fact, Lee has unwittingly reversed the roles he intended: The formerly oppressed minority (black people) become the oppressive majority, while the formerly oppressive majority (white people) become the oppressed minority.  Thus Mookie is 100% in the wrong by starting a riot with the goal of intimidating and destroying Sal’s livelihood.

Moreover, the final scene of the movie, in which Mookie demands Sal pay him for his final two weeks, is supposed to, I believe, come off as a final resolution between the two, a recognition that both have harmed and been harmed, and all sins paid.  Of course, as in the rest of the movie, this final scene is terribly morally confused; it implies that Sal and Mookie are morally equivalent—or worse yet, that Mookie (the man who started a dangerous, destructive, violent riot) is morally superior to Sal (the one harmed by all these actions).

Now, if Lee were making a film about police brutality, and cops’ exceptionality to the Rule of Law, then he would have the moral high ground.  When police break the law, all faith in the goodness of government and authority is lost, as is any citizen’s sense of safety.  It’s one of the worst things that can happen in a civil society.

But of course, Lee’s film is about racial tensions.  And on that point, he loses mightily.

For you see, although he sees Mookie’s throwing of the trashcan as right because it is not violence, but in Malcolm X’s term, “intelligence”, any logically and morally thinking person should see that it’s nothing but baldfaced, destructive violence.  A violence that spews separatism and segregation rather than togetherness, and breeds hate and rash action rather than compassion and thoughtfulness.

Perhaps if the film were made by someone other than Lee, with different motivations, it could be viewed more positively.  As a description of the state of race relations in the country—indeed, it often seems that we too often view other races as groups rather than a collection of individuals—it would be quite poignant.  But as a prescription of how race relations should run, it’s simply dangerous venom masquerading as depth and insight.

Critics’ reactions at the film’s release were mixed, but most who didn’t like the film were too scared to speak out strongly against it.  Instead, the loudest voices were those of racist buffoons who feared that the film would cause blacks around the country to riot and those of pandering “intellectuals” who praised Lee for the film’s moral “complexity”.

Of course, before ending, I should mention some noteworthy ingenuity in the technical aspects of the film: the raw camerawork imbues it with a sense of unvarnished urban-ness, the one-face-at-a-time, head-on camera angles during confrontations highlight the real me vs. you, head against head nature of  any sort of confrontation—to me, this was the notable brilliance on the film, that Lee allowed you to feel the anger and the blood-rising of each character during scenes of tension.  The jazz soundtrack gives it an easy, authentic, feel.  Although Lee’s dialogue is inauthentic and most of his characters are one-dimensional, he does a good job of creating a story arch that pulls you and jerks you with its every turn, and effectively highlights the key tragic moments by surrounding them with contrasting, light comedy.

But while Lee shows technical directorial talent in the making of Do the Right Thing, it’s overwhelmingly overshadowed by his outed racism, irrationality, and moral shallowness.

Did Mookie do the right thing?

No.  How can you say he did?

Please, if you have a comment to make, do.  I’d love read and respond.



  1. Very clearly and straightforwardly said, Paul. Doing the right thing, in the end, is about courage--courage to say things even when unpopular, courage to stick to things of right reason and of the human heart. Keep at it!

  2. I beg to differ. Lee's characters are particularly well-crafted in their humanness. Unlike most films, where conflict of character is hidden or subtle, requiring extensive interpretation, Mookie, Buggin' Out, Radio Raheem are all blatant in their somewhat caricatured triumphs and failings. In the exaggeration is the dramatic parallel of a veritable representation of mankind--one that is all to often overlooked! And unfortunately, I feel like because you are looking to dissect the film, you are missing Lee's intention to present this obvious conflict of character and interest, of the morally sound and obtrusively wrong existing and thriving simultaneously within one human character. Far from "one-dimensional." Secondly, you do not have to be morally sound to be oppressed. This, too, is missed in this review. It does not entirely matter that Mookie was right or wrong in the hurling of the tin trash can, what matters is the building tension in the city that occurred as a result of patriarchal societal conditions, a history of unrelenting and unforgiving oppression. Perhaps, this is why these transactions are taking place under the similarly unrelenting and unforgiving heat of summer Brooklyn. (Just a thought!)

    The film is not aiming to force you to take sides, to formulate conclusions and espouse (debatable) answers. No, you are not, as the enlightened viewer, to pick out the "simply dangerous venom masquerading as depth and insight," find the "right" answer. Rather, it is your role to debate, consider, reflect and most importantly to ask the "right" questions. I wish I could emphasize this last point more. That is exactly why the audience is given the two concluding quotes of the most honorable Martin Luther King, Jr. and the righteous Malcolm X--not to choose, but to compare and to inquire the value of each method and the context in which certain outcomes are produced.

  3. NoI'mNotFinished...November 22, 2011 at 10:10 PM

    Furthermore, you bring up this complication of group vs. collective association of individuals. For centuries, first slave traders and holders then heavily race-minded whites in America, did not dare to stop and ponder the difference between these two classifications. Blacks were treated as a group, as niggers--dirty and inferior in mind and feeling. (Hence, probably one of the most famous scenes in the film between Pino and Mookie) Now, this is not to say that Lee is just in his presentation of the people in groups. First of all, I would contend that he even does so consistently throughout the movie. There are points where this does indeed happen, including the mob scene at the end--but it is to present his point, to highlight division between communities. There are however, far more instances, where the characters are showcased as individuals. At his best, Lee is able to merge my own perception of the individual and the group at once, nothing but the fine result of meticulous crafting. I know that I personally felt the loss of Radio Raheem in ways that I did not expect, especially because he was a character that the audience had very little background information on. (By the way, he is character entirely worthy of discussion on his own!) This can only be a result of empathy for him, his regular appearances from beginning to end, holding loudly to his voice! His radio! ( I know what this feels like. Truth.) At the same time this same clinging to the boombox is representative of the larger black community, hence my own visible indignation when Sal destroys the piece. Even if you do not buy my explanation of the individual's presence, the representation of groups are worthy of your further pondering. There is merit in trying to understand such conglomerates. What's more, in the same manner, that the film can simultaneously represent the group and the individual forming the group, Lee can and succesfully does give light on both issues of police brutality and race relations. I know I would have loved to have a little more focus and a smidge more depth on his commentary on police brutality. (I do indeed have more critiques of this film , but you have clearly done enough of that.) That being said, and I do not remotely feel sorry in stating this so blatantly, it is actually dumb not to see police brutality and race relations as being entirely connected. Police brutality ("over-policing" of the black male population more generally") is SO linked to racial hierarchies and I have racks on racks on racks ( of statistical evidence of to prove it. (Just hit me up if you want the full force flood). The link may be vague but Lee does not need to explicitly draw that for the audience. Come on, son.

  4. RefuseToBeBamboozledNovember 22, 2011 at 10:11 PM

    Last but not least. I'd like to add a little something on audience in general. Lee did intend this for the wider American audience, not just whites, not just black, not just I-talians. Like I mentioned before, this film is really to push you to ask questions about your state, your context--of living and understanding. Very Brechtian, indeed. (QUESTION YOUR SYSTEM, keep institutions and prejudices in check!) But in his motive to push this agenda, dear old spike was like Radio Raheem, putting forth a voice--an individual and singular opinion--but one on behalf of the black people, no less. Rarely, do black people in America have a mainstream platform on which injustice can be proclaimed and the system can be critiqued thusly. Even if you do not believe this to be the case now, Lee was definitely a pioneer in 1989, alongside the likes of Poitier. As a member of this American black community, I am so grateful for Spike. Yeah, after coming full circle, and not getting over my frustration of all the loose ends in this film, loose ends that I know see as intentional, I can see this film as empowering. Anyone who thinks that this film will incite violence is entirely blind to the conditions that make its message so necessary.

    Living life with my fist in the air, baby. And no I'm not trying to fight you or society. Not trying to beg you to hear me or to even empathize with my point of view.
    Just because I can.

    Your Friend Still!


  5. P.S. I do love how you started and concluded with a question.

    Solid review.