Essay/Term paper: Do the right thing
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The movie, Do the Right Thing, by Spike Lee is a hard
hitting drama that deals with violence and racism in today's
society. This film is set in a primarily black neighborhood in
close to the present time. Right in the center of this
neighborhood stands a pizza parlor that is owned and
operated by one of the most important characters in the
movie, Sal. In the beginning of the movie, Sal is shown
arriving to work with his two sons Pino and Vito. This gives
an appeal to Sal as a family man. Right from the start Sal is
portrayed as a hard working, kind, and devoted individual.
Just the fact that he owns his own business in these rough
and tough times shows that he is a smart, efficient, and
dedicated man. Later in the movie we learn that Sal did in
fact build his pizzeria by himself from the ground up, brick
by brick, board by board which was no little task indeed.
The fact that Sal gets to share his creation and hard work
with his sons makes it all the more special to him. After Sal
has finished his pre-opening preparations Sal's Pizzeria is
open for the day. Shortly after this, the main character of
the movie, Mookie, comes strolling into the restaurant.
Mookie works as the delivery man for Sal in this movie.
Mookie literally delivers pizza, yes, but he also acts as a
mediator between the two races. Sal relies on Mookie not
only to get the pizzas delivered, but to also keep his fellow
black folks happy with Sal so they will come and patronize
his restaurant. I think that this shows a very interesting side
of Sal. It for the most part pawns him off as a racist. On the
one hand he can put on a happy face and greet all the black
people as they shell their hard earned money out to him for
his pizza, while on the other hand he turns into a bigot,
hating most black people and talking behind their back
while they are not around. Now I say most black people
because Sal seems to have this father-son bond going on
between him and Mookie where Sal is the white father and
Mookie the black son who in the end finally rebels like all
siblings do at some time in their life. Also Sal seems to have
some kind of affection or love for Mookie's sister, Jade.
When she enters the pizza parlor Sal insists, if not begs to
make her some special slices of pizza. He then drops what
he is doing to go sit and visit with her. This shows another
awkward side of Sal. Is Sal considering some sort of
interracial relationship here? I mean Jade is only
approximately 20-25 years old where Sal has to be at least
50-55. Is Sal changing his attitude toward black people?
Hardly. This might prompt one to ask themselves if Sal is a
racist then why does he own a restaurant in the middle of a
black neighborhood. Well as Sal explains to Pino early in
the movie it is purely business. Sal knows that he is not able
to compete with the large restaurant chains, so he must
travel to someone else's turf to make a go of it. This is a
point that is expressed in Bell Hooks Counter Hegemonic
essay. She says that a scary, conservative idea voiced over
and over again in the film is that everybody is safest in their
"own" neighborhood and that it is best if we remain with
people like ourselves. Now this doesn't seem to hold true
for Sal and his pizzeria at first. Just look at the facts, he has
been in this neighborhood for at least 15 to 20 years
without any problems that we are made aware of.
Obviously he must be making a profit or he would have
shut down years ago. The way I see it is that the main
problem with Sal these days is that he isn't in the business
for the love of it anymore, he is in it for the money. After all
of these years making pizza he has lost some of the fire that
always got him going. I would be willing to bet that when
Sal first opened up his pizza joint he was superficially
friendly to all the people, including the black people, that
came into his establishment. Through the years though Sal
has built up some sort of grudge or hatred against a variety
of black people that he has been holding inside and it is at
the end of the movie that he reaches his limit of tolerance
and blows his top. The movie and Sal's character for that
matter really start to take a turn for the worse when Buggin
Out comes into the restaurant for a slice. While he is
enjoying his slice he happens to notice that there are no
black people on the wall. This angers Buggin Out and leads
him to go ask Sal to put some up. This allows us to see
another side of Sal. Sal pretty much come from the old
school of thinking where he owns this place and things are
going to be done his way, right away, or no way. He
doesn't even open his mind to new ideas. This shows that
he is a very domineering and overpowering individual who
fears change. This fear leads him into a shouting match with
Buggin Out who insists that he will form a boycott against
Sal's and that none of his friends will every eat there again.
Here Sal again relies on Mookie to smooth things over so
this boycott really does not happen. Mookie really doesn't
have to work to hard because Sal's pizza is well liked in the
community. Day has turned into night and it is getting near
closing time. The second after the doors are shut and
locked four kids show up at the door wanting a slice. Here
Sal shows his nice side and lets them because after all they
love his pizza and he can't fault them for that. Right after Sal
lets them in Buggin Out and Radio Raheem (who had
previous encounters similar to those of Buggin Out with
Sal) storm into Sal's Pizzeria with the radio blaring, a big
pet peeve of Sal's, demanding that Sal put some black
people up on the wall and they aren't leaving until he does
it. Sal won't even deal with them until they turn that music
down, so since Raheem and Buggin Out refuse to turn the
music down they just stand there and shout at each other
for a while. At first when they are shouting the four black
kids that came in earlier are on Sal's side because they
want to get their slices. However as the shouting match
continues Sal says something that makes every black
person irate and every white person cringe because they
know that something bad is going to end up happening. Sal
says something to the effect of "you niggers have no right to
come into my restaurant and tell me what I can and cannot
hang on my wall." The character played by Martin
Lawrence then stands up and says "oh so we're niggers
now?" It all goes down hill from there. The question now is
did Mookie do the right thing as far as from Sal's aspect? I
believe he did and I think Sal, although he might not admit,
thinks this way also! If Mookie had not thrown that
garbage can threw that window and started that riot Sal
would have never been able to make a go of it in that
neighborhood again because the people now knew that he
was two-faced. They knew what he really thought of them
and I don't think they would have been ever been able to
patronize such a persons establishment again. At the end
when Mookie goes to get his wages from Sal we learn that
it is not the money aspect of the loss that bothers Sal it is
the fact that Sal lost something that was really a part of him.
All I have to say is that he should have thought of that
before he opened his mouth. In closing, the essay written
by Bell Hooks brings up a good point that I believe pretty
much sums up the movie. She says that the lunatic violence
that erupts in not just this community, but all segregated
black communities finally hurts black people more than
anyone else. Even though it seems like it is Sal who came
out on the bottom here it is really the black community and
relations among black people that are wrecked and
ravaged for a long time after..
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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.