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  • Writer's pictureValerie A. Higgs

AFI #96/BFI #24: Do The Right Thing (1989)


In a neighborhood in New York City, the temperature and racial tensions are high. Not only does Mookie have to manage his pizza delivery job at the neighborhood pizza joint. He has to manage his relationship with his girlfriend and everyone who comes into the restaurant with their opinions on how things should be run in their neighborhood. As the heat rises and the day progresses, cooler heads do not prevail.

I remember the first time I watched this one. I was taking a risk, after all. The media had warned us all about what was going to happen when Do the Right Thing hit movie theaters.

"Madness! Chaos! Riots in the streets!"

They said this every time a Spike Lee Joint came out. I won't discuss what was really going on behind these biased "warnings", but will instead just discuss my experience watching the movie for the second time (after 30+ years).

I remember walking out of the theater dissatisfied and irked. I understood why Sal (Danny Aiello) stood his ground ("When you get your own restaurant, you can decorate it however you want"). By the same token, I understood why Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito) kept bugging Sal to change his restaurant's decor to reflect the community it served.

Neither knew how to communicate effectively.

What I did not understand is why Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) walked around with his boom box on 11. (I did understand his selection of music, Public Enemy's "Fight the Power". It's a good one. But you know, mix it up a little if you have to blast it.)

What I also did not understand was why Mookie (Spike Lee) smashed Sal's restaurant with the garbage can.

Let me rephrase. I understand what motivated it. And it had nothing to do with Sal and his restaurant in particular.

It was a hot day. He was being ragged on by his boss about being late and moving slow. He was being ragged on by his bigoted boss' son, Pino (John Turturro). He was ragged on by his girlfriend, Tina (Rosie Perez) about their relationship and how he didn't handle his relationship with their baby. His friends kept ragging on him, as well - trying to force him to make changes at Sal's (as if he had any control of that).

He delivered pizza for a living. He was not trying to change the world. He was trying to survive this world he had absolutely no control over.

Why I don't agree with Mookie's choices, I understand that he threw that garbage can through Sal's store window out of frustration. By the time Radio Raheem was getting choked to death by the police, Mookie had had enough.

At the end of the movie, Spike Lee posted two quotes by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.

"Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends by destroying itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers."--Martin Luther King, Jr.

"I think there are plenty of good people in America, but there are also plenty of bad people in America and the bad ones are the ones who seem to have all the power and be in these positions to block things that you and I need. Because this is the situation, you and I have to preserve the right to do what is necessary to bring an end to that situation, and it doesn't mean that I advocate violence, but at the same time I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don't even call it violence when it's self- defense, I call it intelligence."--Malcolm X

It's 2023 in the United States and Do the Right Thing is still sadly relevant. As Radio Raheem was getting choked out by the police, I unfortunately recalled the video of George Floyd being getting choked out by the police in the summer of 2020. And when they called out the names of those who had been murdered unjustly, I shook my head. Because first: Nothing ever changes. And second: I didn't recognize the names.

“I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard. And, what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the economic plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years.” Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1966. (

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