Do the Right Thing is the newest entry in the expanding catalog of films inspired by Italian-American family virtues. If it is less engaging than Moonstruck, it can be commended for the earnestness of its effort to convey the suffering and final defeat of a rational man by an irrational world.
The protagonist of these struggles is Sal, proprietor of a pizzeria on a block identified as part of Bedford-Stuyvesant, a section of Brooklyn reserved for persons of color through generations lost in time. Sal is assisted by his two sons, Pino and Vito, and by his Afro-American deliveryman, Mookie, who lives down the block and is paid $250 a week. Sal incarnates the sentimentality that popular drama has accustomed us to associate with the Neapolitan peasantry. He is proud of an establishment whose every light socket he remembers wiring with his own hands, and his heart is balmed in its troubles whenever he reflects that these people “grew up on my food.”
That consolation is a special necessity whenever he feels called upon to reproach the bigoted ravenings of his elder son, who snarls at a point when the fit is especially upon him that these niggers are not to be trusted and that, when the chance comes, Mookie will be the first to throw the spear.
Their debate is resolved by a climax when the neighborhood rises up to sack, pillage, and loot Sal’s Pizzeria, and Mookie opens the assault by throwing a garbage can through its window.
And so it turns out that Sal has been the dreamer and that Pino has been the realist, however repellent his impulses and style of argument. American artists from Mark Twain to Spike Lee have confronted the conflict between white and black for more than a century, and it would not be easy to recall many scenarios that have so heavily and pitilessly loaded the dice against the better side.
Art cannot be art unless its hero has an antagonist worthy of him. Mookie is unfit for the challenge, simply because, if Sal is not without his flaws, Mookie is without anything else. He is not just an inferior specimen of a great race but beneath the decent minimum for humankind itself. He neglects his job, his child, and its mother, and, except for mistaking Sal’s clumsy kindnesses to his own hard-working sister for signs of lust, he shows no trace of feeling for any interest except his own.
When a riot breaks out and Sal’s Pizzeria is gutted, the police and fire-fighters break upon the assembly with a brutal fury that is one of the movie’s infrequent plausibilities. The young black man called Radio Raheem, whose loud radio provoked Sal, dies from a policeman’s choke hold. While Mookie’s friends and neighbors struggle with the clubs and writhe among the fire-hose jets, Mookie sits on the sidewalk, the melancholy and removed observer of a horror he has played no small part in advancing toward this consummation.
The next morning he goes to collect his pay and finds Sal sitting in the ashes of his illusions. He demands his $250 and Sal wads up and throws him five $100 bills. Mookie throws two of them back and says he owes Sal $50. Sal refuses to pick them off the pavement and, just before the two part, Mookie bends down to collect and carry the crumpled bills away with him. Sal has kept a measure of his dignity, and, here at the end, as invariably all along, Mookie has given a final, stooping proof that he has none at all.
After Sal’s Pizzeria has been irredeemedly put to the torch, its assailants turn to face the Korean grocery across the street, and its proprietor cools their rage with no more than a reminder that he, too, is a man of color. The extreme unlikelihood of this reconciliation made me wonder for a moment whether the producer’s last name could permit inferences of an Asian-American origin.
I was, however, in error: Spike Lee is an Afro-American, and played Mookie. It is never permissible to say that anybody has a low opinion of his own people, but this particular piece of casting might suggest some degree of distaste for his own self.
The aforeprinted musings upon Do the Right Thing were stimulated by a surmise that it would go down as well with the Italo-American residents of Canarsie as it would in Bedford-Stuyvesant; and so, it seems, it has. Such is the ground the guerrilla filmmaker must take and hold, or else forfeit his chance of finding another major studio to stake his next guerrilla film.
Spike Lee recognizes that necessity as acutely as any craftsman of color must to make his way: “White boys,” he reflects in his book, “get real money, fuck up, lose millions of dollars, and still get chance after chance. Not so with us. You fuck up one time, that’s it.”
His knowledge of the peril of going as far as he tells himself he will could be the most plausible excuse for what has happened to the intentions set forth in Do the Right Thing, the book, through the grinding process of their reduction to ash and powder in Do the Right Thing, the movie.
We can, as an instance, release ourselves from further puzzling over the ambiguities in the moment when a silent but presumably transformed Mookie throws the garbage can through the window of Sal’s Pizzeria. Lee’s first thought had been,
It’s my character who sees a great injustice take place and starts the riot. He turns a garbage can upside down, emptying the trash in the street. Then he goes up to the pizza parlor screaming “An eye for an eye, Howard Beach” and hurls the garbage can.
That was stuff too strong for swallowing even in Lee’s original script, and he discarded most efforts at tangible articulation of Mookie’s outrage and settled for the bare battlecry, “HATE.” Even that word, shorthand as explanation though it might be, could not be spoken in the final version, and its omission most tellingly suggests an understanding that a Mookie who said aloud what he meant was a Mookie of serious impulse and therefore a menace to things as they are, and, even more disablingly therefore, a discouragement to commerce.
When Lee arrived at Mookie as his protagonist’s name, he observed in his journal that “people might think of Mookie Wilson who plays center field for the Mets.” He could hardly have found an evocative echo more calculated to disarm; Mookie Wilson’s cavalier dealing away by the Mets has been especially mourned by the sportswriters who cherished him, with no dilution in their respect, because he was so cheerful and so accommodating. Spike Lee’s Mookie is neither cheerful nor accommodating; but he has been leeched of all the juices that could offer a troubling challenge to Canarsie; conscientious contrivance has made of him a figure who is, unlike the Mets’s Mookie Wilson, so unworthy of being taken seriously as to solicit no admiration and to offer no disturbance, let alone stir any alarm.
But then we would be unfair in imputing failures of seriousness to a work that scarcely attempts it. Black nationalism has not invariably avoided straying into the direction of the absurd. All the same, it has engraved upon our history enough of the marks of nobility of character and shrewdness of observation to qualify for a dignity that deserves a fitter representative than the young man called Buggin’ Out, who is incensed by the portrait of Frank Sinatra on the wall of an establishment where he buys a slice of pizza and pays extra for heapings of mozzarella three times a day.
It would be captious to complain about this exchange of a rich tradition for the poor currency of shuck and jive if Lee’s indisputably sincere reverence for black history extended to a proper concern for its details. The artist disposed to draw our attention to a history until now written more often than not by its enemies has a duty at least to show that he knows more about it than they do. A hack may be excused for finding the oratory of Louis Farrakhan as unalloyedly “arousing” as Lee reports he does, because we need not expect a hack to know that Farrakhan has yet to apologize for, or even affect to repent, the gratification he radiated on the morning after Malcolm X was assassinated. But Lee has pretensions to be more than a hack; and that posture will be less than persuasive until he musters sufficient intellectual discipline to weigh this unlovely offense in the balance of Farrakhan’s account.
Do the Right Thing, the book, includes a newsphotograph of the fire hoses spurting upon bodies twisted and tossed in their cruel stream that inspired the climax of Do the Right Thing, the movie. The caption abjures the reader to “Take your pick: Montgomery, Alabama, 1963—or Brooklyn, New York, 1989?” Montgomery had its hours shining still; but the one in the photograph happens to be Birmingham’s. History does not deserve to be dissolved into mist like that. The claim to describe must found itself on a responsibility to be precise in matters that can seem small only to those indifferent to their duty to force our attention to what is true and real. The difference between Montgomery and Birmingham in 1963 is not a small one, and neither is the difference between the Bedford-Stuyvesant where its residents live and the Bedford-Stuyvesant Lee brought home from his journeyings there.
The black experience has of course a unique authority, but it is not all-embracing. It doesn’t much matter that Lee’s native Cobble Hill is not Bedford-Stuyvesant. That condition would be no handicap if he had risen to an awareness that neighborhoods of a prevailingly Afro-American cast are distinguishable each from each in ways often subtle, but in others sometimes so striking as to have made the decay of Harlem as much a shock to a Black Panther emissary from Oakland as the South Bronx must always be to Harlem, and Brownsville to Bedford-Stuyvesant.
To identify a locale as Bedford-Stuyvesant ought to imply some degree of commitment to a history that cannot admit even the possibility of Sal’s Pizzeria hardly a generation old and left behind as a relic of a time when its block was Italo-American. Bedford-Stuyvesant has been all-but-exclusively populated by persons of color for so long that the first official expression of alarm about its decline was registered more than fifty years ago. It remains, however, the stable home of hundreds of thousands of the working poor. They are, in general, unnoticed here, as are the West Indians who contribute so much to the singularity of Bedford-Stuyvesant’s atmosphere. There are here no grandmothers toiling and no grandsons selling dope, which latter omission is more pardonable because it would introduce complexities that anyone indisposed to deal with so many less intricate ones could in justice not be expected to engage.
There are degrees of irony in any reflection upon how far the movies have advanced in the fifty years that have transformed the Afro-American archetype from Paul Robeson to Spike Lee’s Mookie. But then we have Martin Duberman’s biography to remind us of how many times a producer assured Robeson of what was intended and how just as often he was disillusioned by what had thereafter been done. Now the producer has the idea, the writer bleeds out what might distress too many parts of the audience, the actor delivers the result of a package that is a mockery of what was originally promised, and the studio makes its profits. In this case, the producer has lied to himself, the writer has rescued him with the lie that serves the rules of commerce, and the actor has carried in the meal. And all three are the same Afro-American; and he will even get a piece of the profits. That in its way is a kind of progress.
September 28, 1989