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Film / Do the Right Thing

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"Wake up! Wake up! Up you wake!"
Mister Señor Love Daddy

A 1989 Spike Lee joint about bigotry and racism. Often considered one of Lee's signature films, it's known as much for its content and ever-relevant themes as it is for its initial controversial reception among audiences and for being snubbed at the Oscars in favor of Driving Miss Daisy.

Mookie (Spike Lee) is a delivery man for Sal (Danny Aiello), the Italian-American owner of a pizza joint in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. One hot summer day, a friend of Mookie's, Buggin' Out (Giancarlo Esposito), notices that Sal's "Wall of Fame" has only photos of Italian celebrities. Irritated, Buggin' Out argues that Sal should put some black celebrities' pictures on the wall, since most of his customers — and most of the neighborhood's residents — are black; Sal, equally irritated, argues that it's his restaurant and he can decorate it how he likes.

It's a small argument over a minor issue. It shouldn't be a big deal. But today is the hottest day of the summer. And sooner or later, that unbearable heat is going to bring the simmering racial tension in this neighborhood to a violent and quite literal boiling point...

This film contains examples of:

  • The '80s: Being a contemporary film released in 1989, the movie features some very visible elements of late-80's popular culture, from the neon clothing to the constant blaring of Public Enemy (who were at the peak of their popularity at the time).
  • Actually Pretty Funny: Raheem can't help but crack up when the Korean store owner says "Motherfuck you!" to him.
  • The Alcoholic: Da Mayor, a street bum with an affinity for Miller High Life.
  • Alliterative Name: Radio Raheem.
  • AM/FM Characterization:
    • Radio Raheem walks around with a boombox blaring out Public Enemy's "Fight the Power".
    • Despite his open and avowed racism towards African Americans, Pino's favourite basketball player is Magic Johnson, his favorite actor is Eddie Murphy, and his favorite singer is Prince.

  • Angry Dance: Tina's dance in the opening credits. The sequence is obviously meant to illustrate the anger in the community, the theme of "fighting" in the song, and the racially-motivated hatred on all sides in the neighborhood.
  • Asian Store-Owner: The Korean shop owner. He's able to fend off the angry black mob that torches the Italian pizzeria by claiming that he's "black too." This was inspired by a Real Life story mentioned in The Autobiography of Malcolm X. During the Harlem riot of 1935, a convenience store was spared looting and burning when the Asian owners hung a sign in the window saying that they were colored too.
  • Author Filibuster: Lee's views on racism aren't particularly subtle anywhere, and this film is no exception.
  • Batter Up!: Sal keeps a baseball bat behind the counter of his pizza joint and uses it to smash Radio Raheem's boombox. Radio doesn't take it well.
  • Big Brother Bully: Pino to Vito. He constantly gives his brother shit and tells him to not associate with Mookie.
  • Big Brother Instinct: Defied by Jade, who tells Mookie not to act all "big brother" on her, due to being a Lazy Bum.
    • Pino seems to think he has his younger brother Vito's best interests at heart, constantly warning him to stay away from Mookie, because (in his view) Blacks can't be trusted.
  • Big Good: Da Mayor is the only character in the film who ultimately seems to "do the right thing" and acts as an ambassador of sorts to the neighborhood and attempts to be a voice of reason.
  • The Big Guy: Radio Raheem towers over everyone in the movie, and the camera shots during his conversations with Sal and the Korean grocers always show him from low angles, make him look even more like a giant.
  • Big Guy, Little Guy: The tall and quietly imposing Radio Raheem contrasts the comparatively short and hyper-aggressive Buggin' Out pretty nicely. The two are shown to be good friends, and eventually join together to protest Sal's pizzeria.
  • Big "NO!":
    • Done by an off-screen resident when the police are choking Radio Raheem to death.
    • Done by Da Mayor when Mookie throws a trash can through a window of Sal's Pizzeria, sparking the climactic riot.
    • Done by Mother-Sister repeatedly during the riot, specifically when the white firefighters are turning their hoses on the black rioters for failure to disperse.
  • Bigot with a Badge: The film's climax features a riot sparked by a police officer choking a black man to death despite the pleas of onlookers.
  • The Big Rotten Apple: The film depicts a late 1980s N.Y.C.-Brooklyn-neighborhood as a racially charged tinderbox ready to explode.
  • Brooklyn Rage: Sal and Pino when agitated. Buggin' Out could be considered a black version of it.
  • Bump into Confrontation: The scene with Buggin' Out and the cyclist, though nothing actually comes of the threats and the guy doing the bumping doesn't seem to be intimidated.
  • Casting Gag: Buggin' Out, who says Sal is racist for not putting any black people on his Italian-American exclusive "Wall of Fame" is played by Giancarlo Esposito, who is himself half-black, half-Italian American.
  • Catchphrase: Mister Señor Love Daddy has "...and that's the [adjective] truth, Ruth".
  • Celebrity Paradox: Pino mentions that his favorite comedian is Eddie Murphy. The previous year, Murphy starred in Coming to America, where Samuel L. Jackson (Mister Señor Love Daddy) appears.
  • Choke Holds: Radio Raheem dies from being subjected to one by a police officer, sparking off a riot.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: The film has a total of 240 uses of "fuck", particularly used in the argument scenes. (The following year, Goodfellas would bust its record by 60 f-bombs.)
  • Color Motif: The street's color scheme was altered by the production designer, who used a great deal of red and orange paint to convey the sense of a heatwave.
  • Complete-the-Quote Title: The title comes from a Malcolm X quotation that goes "You've got to do the right thing."
  • Cult Soundtrack: Public Enemy's "Fight The Power" is used as a Leitmotif throughout the film. It would later appear on their album Fear of a Black Planet (1990).
  • Cycle of Revenge: Buggin' Out and Radio Raheem's frustration over initially petty things lead to them mobbing Sal's restaurant, leading to Sal calling them a racial slur and breaking Raheem's radio, leading to them beating him up brutally, leading to the police killing Raheem, leading to Sal's pizza place being burned down in a riot.
  • Dancing Is Serious Business: In the somewhat abstract opening sequence, Rosie Perez (as Tina) dances to "Fight the Power" by Public Enemy, at times while wearing a sports bra and boxing gloves. She even directly responds to the lyrics "Elvis was a hero to most but he never meant shit to me, sucker was straight-out racist, simple and plain" by mimicking Elvis's "Hound Dog" dance.
  • Dies Wide Open: When Radio Raheem is killed his eyes are still open.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Raheem being murdered cruelly and callously by the NYCPD officer for his assault on Sal.
  • Diving Save: Made by Da Mayor, when a kid runs in front of a car while chasing an ice cream truck.
  • Downer Ending: Radio Raheem's killed by the cops, a riot breaks out, Sal's Pizzeria is burned down, and Mookie and Sal depart from one another on acrimonious terms. Though Mookie's cameo in Spike Lee's film Red Hook Summer confirms that Sal did eventually re-open his pizzeria, Mookie still works as a delivery man and the two reconciled.
  • Dutch Angle: Used a lot.
  • Entitled Bastard: Mookie starts a riot that burns down his employer's place of business then has the gall to go back the next day and demand his paycheck. However, as he notes, Sal will be paid by his insurance, and if not for having redirected the crowd's rage towards the pizzeria, Sal and his sons might have been killed.
  • Epigraph: The film ends with two quotes to underline the conflict of the movie: one by Martin Luther King Jr, arguing that violence is never justified, and one by Malcolm X arguing that self-defense isn't the same as violence.
  • Everyone Has Standards:
    • Sal might be a racist, but any prejudice he has is nowhere close to the outfight bigotry of his son Pino, whom he admonishes for this.
    • Officer Ponte is clearly horrified at seeing his partner, Officer Long, strangle Raheem, attempting to make him release his chokehold on the man before killing him. Unfortunately, his attempts are in vain.
  • Everything Is Racist: An Italian man hangs nothing but pictures of famous Italian men in his Italian Restaurant, which is located in the middle of a predominantly black neighborhood? In the eyes of "Buggin' Out", that only means one thing: Sal is a racist! Lee has emphasized in the years since the film's release that Sal is indeed a racist, but that he disagrees with Buggin' Out's attitude towards the wall of photographs, making it more a case of Right for the Wrong Reasons.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: Takes place over the course of a single summer day (and a little bit of the following morning).
  • First Law of Tragicomedies: While not a straight comedy, it does feature some slice of life comedic moments... until the last 20 minutes.
  • Flowery Insults: Partway through the film, the action cuts away to a sequence of various characters levying some of these to the camera, each clearly targeted towards another character in the movie. Eventually Mister Señor Love Daddy shows up to cut the sequence off and return to the main film.
    Mookie: You dago-wop, guinea, garlic-breath, pizza-slingin', spaghetti-bendin', Vic Damone, Perry Como, Luciano Pavarotti, Sole Mio, nonsingin' motherfucker.
    Pino: You gold-teeth-gold-chain-wearin', fried-chicken-and-biscuit-eatin', monkey, ape, baboon, big thigh, fast-runnin', high-jumpin', spear-chuckin', three-hundred-sixty-degree-basketball-dunkin' ditsoon spade mulignan. Take your fuckin' piece o' pizza and go the fuck back to Africa.
    Stevie: You little slanty-eyed, me-no-speaky-American, own-every-fruit-and-vegetable-stand-in-New-York, bullshit, Reverend Sun Myung Moon, Summer Olympics '88, Korean kick-boxing son of a bitch.
    Officer Long: You Goya bean-eating, fifteen in a car, thirty in an apartment, pointed shoes, red-wearing, Menudo, mida-mida Puerto Rican cocksucker. Yeah, you!
    Sonny: It's cheap, I got a good price for you, Mayor Koch, "How I'm doing," chocolate-egg-cream-drinking, bagel-and-lox, B'nai B'rith Jew asshole.
  • For Want Of A Nail: A petty argument about a character's choice of decoration snowballs into a full-blown race riot. Buggin' Out attempts to start a boycott on Sal's pizzeria because Sal won't put up pictures of black people on his Wall of Fame. He succeeds in getting Radio Raheem and Smiley on the protest, and they begin protesting Sal, which led to Sal breaking Radio Raheem's radio, which led to Raheem's attack on Sal, which led to the cops showing up and killing Radio Raheem, which led to Mookie starting a riot by throwing a trash can at Sal's pizzeria, which led to the pizzeria being burnt down...over some pictures. Everything that happened in the spoilered part was bad, but none of it would've happened if Buggin' Out and Sal weren't so utterly stubborn about the pictures.
  • Funny Background Event:
    • When Mookie and Vito are talking about Pino, you can see Mister Señor Love Daddy gesturing wildly from the radio station to try and get their attention (as Mookie is supposed to be delivering his lunch).
    • Earlier in the film, when Sal is lecturing Mookie after kicking Buggin' Out out of the pizzeria, Buggin' is shown imitating his gestures from afar.
  • Greek Chorus: Mister Señor Love Daddy, and the three men sitting across from the Korean grocer (Coconut Sid, Sweet Dick Willie, and ML respectively).
  • Grey-and-Grey Morality: Many of the main characters are of questionable morals and their actions can be interpreted one way or another. Mookie is something of a slacker but clearly cares for his son and is respected in the community. Pino is a racist jerkass whose own friends don't respect him, but he truly loves his family. Buggin' Out is a militant Malcolm X wannabe whose righteous anger at the world's injustices is misdirected at Sal, who despite his fiery temper and repressed racism has never really acted on his prejudice or wronged anyone in the community.
  • Handshake Refusal: After Sal's pizzeria is set ablaze, several members of the crowd want to "clean house" by using the chaos as an excuse to also destroy the Korean family's store across the street. The owner desperately shouts that he's "black" (an oppressed minority) like them to dissuade them. They relent, but still refuse to shake his hand when he offers it.
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: Buggin' Out, Pino, and Sal. The former gets riled up so easily, that scuffing his sneakers has him railing the culprit for nearly two minutes!note  Sure enough, a petty argument between Buggin' Out and Sal at the latter's pizzeria, and their inability to let the issue go, eventually builds up into a literally explosive scenario in the neighborhood by the end of the film.
  • Heat Wave: The film takes place during the biggest one of the year, and the rising temperature is frequently used as a metaphor for the rising tensions between the various racial groups of the neighborhood. The heat remains an Informed Attribute, though, as nothing besides newspaper headlines, character comments and rotating fans makes you feel they really experience 99°F (37°C) out there in the streets.
  • Hood Film: The film is often seen as the Genre Popularizer. In an Unbuilt Trope, it's set in New York City instead of the more popular Los Angeles and features white protagonists as well as black ones. The film is about racial tensions in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn—namely between African-American and Italian-American communities, and how far they can end up escalating.
  • Hot-Blooded: Buggin' Out is incredibly loud, angry and driven. Even Jade believes that if he just directed his energy to something positive and constructive, he could actually be the person that he thinks he's aspiring to become.
  • Hypocrite:
    • Buggin' Out accuses Sal of being racist for featuring famous Italian Americans on the wall of his Italian Pizzaria, then later verbally assaults a white bicycler, saying that he doesn't have any right to live or be in a black neighborhood, all because the cycler got dirt on Buggin's shoes. It's also worth pointing out that in the final argument, Sal began to use the N-word only after Buggin' Out called him a "Guinea bastard" first.
    • Coconut Sid also counts as one, as he gives Sonny, the Korean shop owner, a hard time, accusing him of coming right off the boat. ML and Sweet Dick Willie call him out on it, reminding him that he's an immigrant too.
    • Pino is racist towards African-Americans, yet his favourite movie star is Eddie Murphy, his favourite musician is Prince and his favourite athlete is Michael Jordan. When Mookie calls him out on this, Pino replies that "They're different".
  • Improv:
    • The key scene when Danny Aiello and John Turturro talk alone in the restaurant booth was partly improvised. The scripted scene ended as the character Smiley approached the window. Everything after that until the end of the scene was completely ad-libbed.
    • All of the scenes with Coconut Sid, Sweet Dick Willie, and ML were improvised.
  • I Resemble That Remark!:
    Mookie: Why are you always cursing?
    Tina: I don't fuckin' curse that much!
  • Italian-American Caricature: Sal is the owner of a pizza shop in a neighborhood that used to be majority-Italian but is now majority-black. One wall of his shop is covered end-to-end with photos of Italian-American stars like Frank Sinatra; it becomes the biggest source of conflict throughout the film when Buggin' Out asks why Sal doesn't have any photos of black celebrities on there and accuses him of being racist.
  • Jerkass:
    • Pino. He is a racist who barely bothers hiding his racism, and hates working in his dad's pizzeria to the point where he outright refuses to sweep up front and constantly asks someone else to do so. He's very disrespectful to even his own brother, and especially to the people in the neighborhood (Mookie, Smiley, etc.). In a twist of irony though, his favorite celebrities are Eddie Murphy, Magic Johnson and Prince, only so liked because according to Pino, they're 'different'. Also, his racism might be explained away by his 'friends' barely tolerating him because he's the son of Sal and otherwise hating on him, though not excused.
    • Buggin' Out as well due to his bigotry, hypocrisy, and self-righteous attitude.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: A large number of the cast are either bigoted, ignorant, or short-tempered, but most of them are shown to have softer sides. The most notable examples are Mookie, who is generally a decent guy who is popular with just about everyone in the neighborhood despite his Lazy Bum tendencies, and Sal, who, while curmudgeonly, still tends to be reasonable and even kind to others. The fact that almost everyone has some redeeming qualities makes the eventual Downer Ending all the more depressing.
  • Karma Houdini:
    • Mookie, who seemingly suffers no punishment for starting the riot that led to the destruction of Sal's Famous. However, considering that unless Sal reconciles with him, Mookie has only 500 dollars to spend wisely for his family now that he's without a job and one of his best friends is dead, so it's still hard to call the end of his story a happy one. Not to mention Sal will still be alright, as he is sure to be reimbursed by the insurance.
    • The police who choked Radio Raheem to death.
  • Knuckle Tattoos: Subverted in that the typical LOVE/HATE tattoos are replaced by Radio Raheem's gold-knuckle jewelry.
  • Like a Son to Me: Sal says that he sees Mookie as this.
  • Long List: "WE LOVE ROLL CALL, Y'ALL!"
  • Magical Negro: Da Mayor tries to be this, but no one seems to show any respect to him these days.
  • Malcolm Xerox: Buggin' Out borders on this. He chastises Mookie for his friendship with Vito - Sal's youngest son, and he tells him to "stay black".
  • Meaningful Name: Buggin' Out, who spends almost all of his screen time ranting and raving about ultimately trivial things.
  • Minor Injury Overreaction: Buggin' Out overreacting when a guy accidentally scuffs his new shoes. When the guy apologizes he still makes it a big deal. Of course, the guy being white might've had something to do with it.
  • Mistaken for Racist: Sal, though few of his mannerisms do exhibit a slightly concealed racism, such as when he threatens to bust Buggin' Out's head in for provoking him over the pictures on the wall. Buggin' Out even looked offended at the bat gesture and being called "a troublemaker." This is particularly displayed when Raheem, Buggin' and Smiley enter his store at the end to confront him. Of course, that could be just because they keep getting on his case. It's a very ambiguous case, indeed, but screaming racial slurs at his customers sorta tips the scale.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Rosie Perez in the intro, although Spike Lee may not have intended it that way. Not to mention her topless scene... The reason you never see her face during her nude scene was because she felt she was being exploited and was crying while the scenes were being filmed.
  • My Sister Is Off-Limits: Mookie gets very bad vibes from Sal and Jade.
  • Nice Guy: Da Mayor and Jade are two of the kindest and most open-minded people in the neighborhood. Sadly, no one listens to either very often.
  • Not So Above It All: The resident Only Sane Man Da Mayor has his moment, demanding alcohol from the store while being racist towards the Korean couple that own it.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: Mookie invokes this in his conversation with the bigoted Pino around the middle of the film, pointing out that many of Pino's favorite celebrities are Black, and that as a "dark Italian", his hair is even kinkier than Mookie's.
  • Only Sane Man:
    • Da Mayor. Following Radio's death, the former tries to dissuade the mob from doing something they'll later regret. They don't listen.
    • Mister Señor Love Daddy is this during the infamous racial insults scene, where the final sequence is him yelling at Mookie, Pino, Stevie, Officer Long, and Sonny to, in no uncertain terms, knock it the fuck off.
  • Passive-Aggressive Kombat: At the end of the movie, when Mookie goes to get his pay back from Sal, the two end up tossing the last bit of money between the two, each saying that the other should have it.
  • Police Are Useless: An Italian guy's car is soaked by some black kids messing with a fire hydrant. What do New York City's finest do? Put the cap back on the hydrant, mock the guy's attempts to make a report for vandalism, and suggest he take off before the locals decide to strip his car clean.
  • Police Brutality: One of the most controversial examples in cinema.
  • Powder Keg Crowd: Which explodes into a riot after Mookie tosses the trashcan through Sal's window.
  • The Precious, Precious Car: "My car is an antique, you better not spray it with water!" Yeah, you're totally not begging for it.
  • Repeat Cut: The scene of Mookie and Tina kissing in front of the huge hand fan is repeated.
  • The Rich Have White Stuff: Sal's white corvette shows the separation between him and the locals.
  • Ripped from the Headlines:
    • This film was inspired by an actual incident in the city where some black youths were chased out of a pizzeria by some white youths in a section of the city known as Howard Beach.
    • Radio Raheem's death was inspired by Michael Stewart's, a graffiti artist who was likewise choked by NYPD officers in 1983.
  • Sacrificial Lion: Radio Raheem. His death by the police's hands leaves the entire block devastated, and leads Mookie to smash the window to Sal's pizzeria. Everyone soon joins in, tearing down the establishment while chanting Raheem's name.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Radio's LOVE and HATE jewelry and his description of the meaning behind them is a reference to The Night of the Hunter.
    • Pino harshly brings up Planet of the Apes (1968) when talking to Sal about how he feels like he's surrounded by animals every day when he works at the black people-frequented pizzeria.
    • There's also a sequence of speeches (see Flowery Insults above) which reference an old Pepsi Cola ad. ("Lip smacking, thirst quenching, ace-tasting, motivating, good buzzing, cool talking, high walking, fast living, ever-giving, cool fizzing...")
    • Punchy is apparently a fan of Black Panther, as he's seen reading a Black Panther comic by Jack Kirby, and even mentions the character by name:
      Punchy: Black Panther eat pizza, we eat pizza.
    • At one point during his radio show, Mister Señor Love Daddy does a "roll call" wherein he name-checks a veritable Who's Who of black musicians.
  • Sir Swears-a-Lot: Tina, as pointed out by Mookie.
  • Small Role, Big Impact: The local police only show up intermittently and only for a few moments at a time, but in their final appearance they use the excuse of arresting Raheem to strangle him to death before throwing his body in the back of their car and speeding off. Their wanton act of murder instigates an entire riot throughout the neighborhood, and it's unknown if they even suffered consequences for their actions.
  • The Stoic: Mookie confronts pretty much all of the moments in his life, happy or sad, good or bad, with the same sleepy expression and slightly annoyed tone of voice. During more intense scenes, however, his expression, while unchanging, comes off as being one of quiet intensity rather than tiredness.
  • That Satisfying "Crunch!": Sal smashing Radio Raheem's boombox to pieces.
  • Title Drop: Da Mayor says "do the right thing" to Mookie about half way through the movie. From then on, it serves to punctuate the tragedy as everything goes From Bad to Worse, leading up to a climax where it's questionable that anybody did the right thing.
  • To Absent Friends: The radio narration at the end gives a shout out to Radio Raheem.
  • Tragedy: What starts out as a simple dispute over a pizza restaurant's choice of decor over time escalates to a point where all the character's lives are destroyed.
  • Tranquil Fury: Mookie doesn't deviate from his usual indifferent expression and demeanor once during any of the film's tenser moments, including when he's tossing a garbage can through Sal's window in response to Raheem's death.
  • Vague Age: Radio Raheem, played by Bill Nunn in his mid thirties, is clearly supposed to be a young man, but it's unclear whether he's supposed to be a teenager or someone in his 20s.