The Pizza Is Burning!

Do the Right Thing

a movie by Spike Lee

Do the Right Thing: A Spike Lee Joint

by Spike Lee, with Lisa Jones
Simon and Schuster/Fireside, 297 pp., $10.95
Spike Lee
Spike Lee; drawing by David Levine


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…

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