'Do The Right Thing' At 30: Spike Lee's Prescient Portrait Of America Remains Nuanced Amid The Ongoing Heat Wave

Do the Right Thing is the movie that should have won the Best Picture Oscar for 1989, but like Glory — a film that depicted the real American Civil War, as opposed to the ongoing figurative one — it went without the nomination it deserved. The Academy Awards can be notoriously shortsighted. Earlier this year, Spike Lee finally took home a gold-plated statuette for Best Adapted Screenplay, but with the controversial Green Book still triumphing in the top category, his film, BlacKkKlansman, almost literally took a back seat to another Driving Miss Daisy.

It was as a college student in New York circa 2001 that I made my own personal discovery of Lee's directorial work. He Got Game was playing in a darkened TV lounge in the campus center. Ray Allen and Rosario Dawson were sitting on a bench in front of the Wonder Wheel at Coney Island, their faces lit green, the camera gliding side-to-side as they exchanged dialogue. When you're a 20-year-old riding the Metro-North Railroad alone into Midtown Manhattan, it feels like entering the center of American life. Lee's films centered on other parts of the city, making slices of life there — and important chapters in history — come alive.

Do the Right Thing showed us the hottest day of summer in one Brooklyn neighborhood, where simmering racial tensions would boil over into a situation where few, if any, did the right thing. History repeats itself and life imitates art, just as it did five years ago on Staten Island when the police-chokehold death of Eric Garner showed the world a real-life version of Radio Raheem. This time, we didn't need the empathy machine of a movie to make it real. All you had to do was watch a cellphone video on the news to see how little American society had changed.

Set to the tune of Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" (Lee also directed the music video), a memorable bout of aggressive dancing guides us into Do the Right Thing. Against a backdrop of brownstones in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, future Fly Girl choreographer Rosie Perez makes her feature film debut with fierce pelvic thrusts and quick costume changes as the opening credits roll. We see her bouncing around in boxing gloves and the message is clear: this is a movie that means to do some serious shadowboxing with the viewer.

When we first meet the character of Mookie, played by Lee himself, he's sitting in the dark at home, counting his money. Mookie works as a delivery guy at Sal's Famous Pizzeria. Soon he will take to the streets in an old Brooklyn Dodgers jersey with Jackie Robinson's name on back. There, he will crisscross paths with an array of local personalities, including the neighborhood drunk, an old-timer nicknamed Da Mayor (the late Ossie Davis), who advises him, "Always do the right thing."

There's also a trio of middle-aged friends who sit around on sidewalk lawn chairs in front of a red building, with one of them, Sweet Dick Willie, boasting amusingly about how he would drop the Brooklyn-born Mike Tyson "like a bad habit." His compatriot, ML, interjects:

"Well, gentlemen, the way I see it, if this hot weather continues, it's going to melt the polar caps and the whole, wide world. And all those parts that ain't water already will surely be flooded."

Years later, Lee would go on to direct When the Levees Broke, a four-part documentary about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. ML's musings about global warming are just one of the moments in Do the Right Thing that seem eerily prescient, given that this film came out three decades ago.

An even wilder synchronicity comes when a couple of cops, who have been cruising the neighborhood menacingly, stop by Sal's Famous Pizzeria, this restaurant with a Wall of Fame that only frames photos of Caucasians (specifically, "American-Italians.") The cops ask Sal how long he plans to stick around Bed-Stuy and he starts joking about how he's going to go into real estate.

"Mr. Trump!" the cops exclaim. "Mr. Trump's! Trump's Pizza."

These same cops are the ones who will choke Radio Raheem to death before the day is over. President Trump, of course, who hails from Queens, was already famous then for his 1987 book The Art of the Deal and his real estate developments in Manhattan and Atlantic City.

For his role as the titular Sal, Danny Aiello received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, much the same as Adam Driver would this year for BlacKkKlansman (while the nomination for that film's African-American lead, John David Washington, was once again absent). Sal prides himself on running "a respectable business." The people in the neighborhood grew up on his food, but there are bars on the windows of his pizzeria and as he walks up to it in the morning, he jokes about how the air-conditioning repairman won't venture into the neighborhood without a police escort.

This is a just a throwaway comment to his racist son, Pino (John Turturro), but it's one of the little details that characterize Sal as someone who holds himself slightly above Bed-Stuy and the people in it—most of whom happen to be black, although we also see inside Spanish-speaking households and Korean grocery stores. When one of Mookie's friends, Buggin' Out (Giancarlo Esposito), causes a stir about the all-white Wall of Fame, Sal picks up a baseball bat and immediately begins threatening to bust Buggin' Out's head. Mookie protests that people are free to do whatever they want, and Sal says:

"What the hell are you talking about, free? Free? There's no free here. I'm the boss. No freedom here. I'm the boss."

He's the boss but his menu pricing is ridiculous. At Sal's Famous Pizzeria, it's $1.50 for a slice of pizza but two dollars for extra cheese. The topping costs more than the pizza slice. Sal's stinginess with the cheese — even the parmesan cheese, which is a free condiment — is what first breeds the grudge between him and Buggin' Out and circuitously causes this whole major dispute to arise.

Banned from the pizzeria for being an instigator, Buggin' Out attempts to lead a boycott of Sal's. Mookie's sister wants him to direct his energies toward something more positive in the community, but he's too busy rounding up fellow boycotters like Radio Raheem, who holds his own grudge against Sal because Sal had the temerity to tell him to turn down the boombox he's always blasting.

Recognizable to comic book movie fans for playing Robbie Robertson in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man films, a young Bill Nunn portrays Radio Raheem. Nunn passed away in 2016.

Do the Right Thing - Spike Lee as Mookie

Pino is far more overt than his father Sal about telling us how he really feels. Coexistence in Bed-Stuy is untenable for him; he wants to sell the pizzeria and move back to Bensonhurst. The way he expresses his frustration sometimes is through racial slurs. Some of them come masked in Italian, but he openly uses the n-word around Mookie and he expects him to "talk some brother talk" to Buggin' Out, as if Mookie's skin color makes him conversant in some alien language.

Pino's polar opposite, perhaps, is Da Mayor, who seems like one of the most well-meaning, decent characters in Do the Right Thing. Da Mayor saves a boy's life, brings flowers to sharp-tongued neighbors, and consistently tries to defuse volatile situations. Yet even he has his flaws. When he can't find his favorite beer, Miller High Life, in the cooler, he starts ranting at the grocer, saying, "This ain't Korea or China or wherever you come from." One Asian country's the same as another to him. He eventually has to face his flaws when a group of disrespectful youths chew him out later for his whole self-pitying routine.

This the key to Lee's film: it doesn't rely on simple "good" and "bad" caricatures but rather, delivers a nuanced portrait of grey individuals. Even Pino gets weirdly humanized in some of his interactions, like his vending-machine tete-a-tete with Mookie.

Mookie himself isn't always the best employee. He takes a lot of unscheduled detours on his pizza delivery runs, disappearing for long stretches, then showing up again and asking to get paid early. The uncomfortably filmed scene where he tells Perez's character, Tina, to take her clothes off so he can rub ice cubes all over her body just goes to show that Lee, the director and actor, isn't perfect, either. Among other things, he's been criticized for his filmic treatment of women.

In Bed-Stuy, there's an across-the-boards othering that occurs as people of different races, ethnicities, and genders come into contact. Everyday microaggressions lead to a buildup of bad blood until it finally erupts at the end of the day in an all-out riot at Sal's Famous Pizzeria.

After Sal lays into Radio Raheem's boombox with a baseball bat, an intense scuffle breaks out. Radio Raheem has his hands wrapped around Sal's throat and is choking him on the street when the police show up, drag him off, and use excessive force on him, choking him to death with a baton. Cries of murder echo throughout the neighborhood, with residents verbally equating the death to real-life cases like Michael Stewart and Eleanor Bumpers.

After trashing Sal's place — burning the Wall of Fame and the system it represents — the angry mob sets its sights on the Korean grocery next, stopping just sort of attacking it, simply because its owners are Other. People seem to fixate on whether or not Mookie did the proverbial right thing by throwing the trash can through the window and turning the crowd's rage on the pizzeria first. Do the Right Thing anticipates this very question by having the City of New York release a wrong-headed statement the next morning, saying, "it will not let property be destroyed by anyone." In the meantime, Radio Raheem lies dead in the back of a police car.

In the movie, it certainly doesn't play like targeting the pizzeria was some calculated move Mookie made to divert attention away from Sal. He just seems upset and determined to do something. Maybe the central question of this movie, then, is not: did Mookie do the right thing? Maybe it's: did anyone do the right thing? What steps could anyone have taken to help avert this situation where buried prejudice and cheese and boombox grudges would get a person killed?

Do the Right Thing launches its closing credits with two quotes, one from Martin Luther King, Jr. and one from Malcolm X. King's quote talks about how violence as a way of achieving justice is "a descending spiral ending in destruction for all." It is immoral, he says, because "it destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue."

Malcolm X's quote talks about how the bad people in America "are the ones who seem to have all the power." He speaks of preserving "the right to do what is necessary to bring an end to that situation," even if it means using "violence in self-defense" against obvious oppression.

Juxtaposing these two contradictory quotes, both of which feel relevant today, forces the viewer to determine what "the right thing" is. Lee's film offers no easy answers, preferring instead to provoke and challenge the viewer. Do the Right Thing wouldn't be the last time he did this.

Newsweek is right: 25th Hour is the most enduring cinematic representation of 9/11. With its equal-opportunity "Fuck you" montage to all of New York, the greatest city on Earth, that film called back to the fever-pitch moment in Do the Right Thing when Mookie, Pino, and other characters spout racial stereotypes directly at the camera. Mister Senor Love Daddy, the voice of We Love Radio, played by Samuel L. Jackson, tries to counter with reason. He's the one who calls timeout on this incendiary scene. At the end of the movie, he's also the one telling listeners, "Today, the cash-money word is: chill."

Whether it be watching Malcolm X for the first time at a friend's equestrian home in Florida, or seeing Inside Man at a theater pub in Portland, Oregon, Lee's films continued to follow me around and stick in my mind even after I left New York. They transcend state lines and coastal boundaries and paint a picture of America, as it was then and as it is now: a melting pot with a fire under it, bubbling over in expressions of love and hate.

These are the two words we see spelled out on Radio Raheem's gold knuckles. Lifting them up for the camera, he talks about the left hand of hate being KO-ed by the right hand of love. It's an image etched in film history yet his character's fate feels ripped from the headlines of today's world, where the story of a diverse neighborhood tearing itself apart one night couldn't be more emblematic of the current state of affairs.

When the residents of Bed-Stuy wake up the next morning, Mister Senor Love Daddy is on the radio, asking, "Are we going to live together?" Before he looks outside, Da Mayor says, "I hope the block's still standing." That's almost what it feels like anytime you turn on the news in 2019.

The morning after the riot, Mookie and Sal face off outside his destroyed pizzeria. Sal will be alright, as insurance money will cover the property damage, but Mookie never did get paid and he wants his salary. Some of the edge leaves their voices by the time they part ways, and Mookie would even show up delivering pizzas for Sal again in Lee's 2012 film Red Hook Summer; but for now, there's no time to recover from the hottest day of the year because "they say it's even gonna get hotter today" and "there's no end in sight to this heat wave."

Those words still hold true now. Thirty summers later, Do the Right Thing has lost none of its punch; it still delivers a two-fisted attack on the heart and mind. By offering a small-scale chronicle of the day's events in one neighborhood, Lee managed to shine a light on the American macrocosm, leaving viewers to grapple with the country's past, present, and probable future. Put this movie in a time capsule and send it into outer space so aliens can understand what Earth's civilization was like before it destroyed itself.