• Do the Right Thing

    By Roger Ebert

    Leaving the theater after the tumultuous world premiere of Do the Right Thing at Cannes in May of 1989, I found myself too shaken to speak, and I avoided the clusters of people where arguments were already heating up. One American critic was so angry she chased me to the exit to inform me, “This film is a call to racial violence!” I thought not. I thought it was a call to empathy, which of all human qualities is the one this past century seemed most to need.

    Perhaps I was too idealistic, but it seemed to me that any open-minded member of the audience would walk out of the movie able to understand the motivations of every character in the film—not forgive them, perhaps, but understand them. A black viewer would be able to understand the feelings of Sal, the Italian-American whose pizzeria is burned by a mob, and a white viewer would be able to understand why a black man—who Sal considered his friend—would perform the action that triggers the mob.

    It is this evenhandedness that is at the center of Spike Lee’s work, and yet it is invisible to many of his viewers and critics. Because he is black and deals with anger, he has been categorized as an angry man. However, it is not anger, but rather a certain detached objectivity that I see in his best work. His subject is the way race affects the way lives are lived in America. More than any filmmaker before him, he has focused his stories on African-American characters, considering not how they relate to the white society, or it to them, but how they relate to each other. School Daze is no less about skin color because all of its characters are black. Jungle Fever is not only about a romance between black and white, but about all of the social, class and educational factors that race stands in for. Malcolm X is about a man who never abandons his outrage at racism, but comes to understand that skin color should not define who he can call his brother.

    In Do the Right Thing, the subject is not simply a race riot, but the tragic dynamic of racism, racial tension, and miscommunication, seen in microcosm. The film is a virtuoso act of creation, a movie at once realistic and symbolic, lighthearted and tragic, funny and savage; one of the reasons we recoil at the end is that we thought, somehow, the people of this neighborhood, this street, whom we had come to know, would not be touched by the violence in the air all around them. We knew them all, Da Mayor and Radio Raheem, as well as Sal and his sons. And they knew each other. Surely nothing bad could come between them.

    And yet something bad does happen. Radio Raheem is murdered; Sal’s Pizzeria is destroyed. Spike Lee has been clever enough to make us sympathize with Sal, to like him and his pizzeria, so that it is not an easy target but a shocking one. And Lee twists the story once again, making the instrument of Sal’s downfall not a “negative” character but the one we like the most, and identify with: Mookie, the delivery man played by Lee himself. The woman who found the movie a call to violence was most disturbed, I suspect, because it was Mookie who threw the trash can—Mookie, who the movie led her to like and trust. How could he do such a thing to Sal?

    The answer to that question is right there on the screen, but was elusive for some viewers, who recoiled from the damage done to Sal’s property but hardly seemed to notice, or remember, that the events were set in motion by the death of a young black man at the hands of the police. Among the many devastating effects of Lee’s film, certainly the most subtle and effective is the way it leads some viewers (not racist, but thoughtless or inattentive or imbued with the unexamined values of our society) to realize that they have valued a pizzeria over a human life.

    I have written here more about Lee’s ideas than about his style. To an unusual degree, you could not have one without the other: style is the magician’s left hand, distracting and entertaining us while the right hand produces the rabbit from the hat. It’s not what Lee does that makes his film so devastating, but how he does it. Do the Right Thing is one of the best-directed, best-made films of our time, a film in which the technical credits, the acting, and Lee’s brazenly fresh visual style all work together to make a statement about race in America that is all the more powerful because it blindsides us.

    Do the Right Thing was the finest, the most controversial, most discussed and most important film of 1989. Of course, it was not nominated for an Academy Award as Best Picture (that award went to Driving Miss Daisy, which has a view of race in America that is rotated just 180 degrees from Lee’s). To an extent, I think some viewers have trouble seeing the film; it is blurred by their deep-seated ideas and emotions about race in America, which they project onto Lee, assuming he is angry or bitter. On the basis of this film it would be more accurate to call him sad, observant, realistic—or empathetic.

    Roger Ebert is the film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.

13 comments

  • By mjs
    June 26, 2009
    08:44 PM

    I just watched this film again, about 19 years after I saw it the first time, with clearer eyes, I think (and hope!) When I first saw this, I was bewildered by Mookie's decision to throw that can. But I realized this time that it was entirely in line with Mookie's pragmatic nature and skill in thinking critically. This is a guy who's been making money from a successful Caucasian employer. He gets along with everyone - it seems like mostly because that's easiest way to get what he wants, which seems to be to get along, make some money, and enjoy his life. He's smart enough to see the dynamics of the relationships amongst the people in his neighborhood; not entirely detached (especially when it comes to his sister's relationship with Sal) but enough that he can negotiate his world pretty easily. But when Radio, who I think symbolically represents 'the keeper of pride and anger', is killed (both figuratively and literally, in the context of the movie) he has a few important choices to make. Just before he makes his decisions, he's standing with his 'white' employer and his sons - should he be standing with them? He decides he needs to stand with his African-American friends and family, to share their perspective. Once he's done this, it seems he understands better what they're feeling - these 'white' people, in this moment, represent the people who killed an innocent, beloved member of their community. Somebody's gotta pay - and the police are out of sight (and even if they weren't they're untouchable). This is a toxic bubble that is going to burst - the anger has to go somewhere - destruction is inevitable. But if he does the right thing, the blast will do less harm. Mookie's decision to throw that can takes the focus of the mob away from Sal (who, after all, is not his or anyone else's enemy) and ensures that no further human death occurs - just the death of an institution that had come to represent inequality for some in the community. Sal will collect his insurance money, probably build another restaurant, and live another 40 years; most of the community will wake up the next day calmer, cooler and regretting their actions, their emotions more tempered by grief - and no more blood was spilled. Incidentally, Mookie's 'defusing' actions in this scene are foreshadowed pretty enjoyably by the one where Mookie 'defuses' his girlfriend's anger and irritation with him by 'cooling her off'. He's a problem-solver, and the way he solves problems, everyone gets what they need. Looking at it this way, it's pretty clear that Lee isn't trying to instigate wide-spread rioting to contest inequality. Although his message isn't completely straightforward - it absolutely inspires discussion - it seems to me he did his best to show that in some circumstances, a specific, non-life-threatening kind of destruction is the best rational choice.
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    • By David MacDonald
      August 28, 2013
      11:27 PM

      Wow, I really disliked the ending of the movie when I first saw it. However, your analysis has really got me thinking. I'll have to watch it again, of course, before I can re-form an opinion. But just know that you've made me seriously re-consider my opinions, and that's not something often achieved by strangers on the internet, in any context.
  • By Craig Simpson
    March 20, 2011
    10:09 PM

    In "No Surprises, Please," his book on 1980s cinema, Steve Vineberg duly informs the reader that "Do the Right Thing" is "coded" to support a pro-violence stance. And if anyone can crack that code, it's a white professor of theater history from Holy Cross.
    Reply
  • By paddy
    October 16, 2012
    04:33 PM

    I've watched this film many times and as much as I dislike Spike Lee, and boy do I dislike him, this is a good film. Spike Lee is like any good right wing politician in that he disguises his core values in order to gain credibility. Spike clearly enjoys speaking out on injustice & portrays himself as a guardian of its victims yet on screen always, seemingly, being impartial. I'm not sure what sort of friends you keep but none of the central characters are likeable. There are moments where we catch a glimpse of a capability to transcend this but ultimately each character never strays from his or her path. When posed with the question Did Mookie do the right thing? he remarks that he has only ever been asked this by white viewers. Black viewers do not ask the question. Lee believes the key point is that Mookie was angry at the death of Radio Raheem, and that viewers who question the riot's justification are implicitly valuing white property over the life of a black man. Now I would agree with the notion that Mookie does Do the right thing as ultimately no one else dies. I believe him to be a reactionary revolutionary where the ends justify the means. But this premise relies on the idea that the reaction from the crowd was inevitability and so Mookie knowingly directs the crowds anger toward the shop and away from Sal which i believe to not be the case. So when the crowd are posed with this question for a second time, in relation to the cornershop owned by the Korean couple, the situation is diffused by them pleading with the crowd that they are just like them, black. And although this is met by incoherent ramblings the crowd decide that they are in fact "alright" and spare them. Now I can see that someone may point out that perhaps the cathartic process of the riot had run its course and the destruction of yet another local business that again has racial tensions with the community was only saved by it being second in line. However this poses a larger question in that the crowd have now shown that in the face of adversity they ARE able to Do The Right Thing?. This choice further diminishes what little understanding there is for the justification of destroying Sals shop. So i really must ask why there is so much critical acclaim for a film that uses social injustice as a platform and then uses the pulpit to exclaim "2+2=4 but also 2+2=5" My problem i should state isn't with the film per say, as i said earlier i do quite like it. My problem is that it is the general consensus that Do The Right Thing and its director both have a poignant voice that are socially conscious whereas i think the reality is that both aim to deal with social injustice but both ultimately fall short of saying something. This doesn't mean that they say nothing but it must be said that there is something very wrong in trying to be something your not.
    Reply
  • By D.j. W.
    January 05, 2013
    08:21 PM

    i gained a little more respect for roger ebert
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    • By Patrick
      April 05, 2013
      02:10 PM

      Is this because you agree with him on this film? Losing respect for someone because of their informed opinions on a film is silly.
    • By D.j. W.
      April 19, 2013
      12:28 AM

      His opinion and view of the film is what gained my respect
    • By D.j. W.
      April 19, 2013
      12:30 AM

      and yes actually because if someone looked at this simple-mindedly and said "THIS MOVIE IS RACIST! SPIKE LEE IS DOING WHAT HE DOES BEST AT MAKING WHITE PEOPLE LOOK BAD!" and that other garbage, then yes, i would lose respect for them
  • By The Truth
    April 04, 2013
    09:39 PM

    Robert Ebert is a legend. D.j. West, you are a random in some website's comments section. Your level of respect for Ebert is invalid.
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    • By Aaron Cunningham
      April 08, 2013
      05:28 PM

      That's an astonishingly stupid perspective... Ebert is a legend to you, in part, because you know who he was. Or rather you know who you think he was. And the sum of that "knowledge" makes him legendary. D.J. West isn't a legend, to you, in part because s/he is "a random," i.e. anonymous and you don't know who s/he is. And because s/he is commenting on a website in anonymity. Your ignorance somehow diminishes the validity of another person's opinion?
    • By LJ
      April 19, 2013
      04:00 PM

      Ebert was a film critic, that's it. (and one who blew many key film reviews, Blue Velvet and Blade Runner for example) Far from a "legend" in my book.
  • By Matt Hyland
    April 05, 2013
    02:51 AM

    Rest in peace, Mr. Ebert.
    Reply
  • By Yeshpha
    April 19, 2013
    09:57 AM

    Despite trying to be reasonable and 'corrective' Aaron Cunningham is a blithering moron. And I'm not defending Adam West.
    Reply

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