Mookie (Spike Lee) is a delivery man for Sal (Danny Aiello), the Italian-American owner of a Brooklyn pizza joint. One hot summer day, a friend of Mookie's, Buggin' Out (Giancarlo Esposito) notices that Sal's "Wall of Fame" has only Italian celebrities, with no blacks; since Sal's income is coming from the many black people of the neighborhood, Buggin' Out feels that they deserve a place on the wall. Sal feels that it's his right as the owner of the restaurant to put up whoever he likes on the wall. This is one of many incidents of racial tension that play out in the neighborhood, but today is the hottest day of the summer, and by the end of the day the tension will build up to violence and tragedy.
There was controversy about it when it came out, with some even warning that the film might incite people to riot (which did not happen). The ambiguous nature of the ending was also controversial. The movie was nominated for two Academy Awards: Best Original Screenplay and Danny Aiello as Sal for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.
This film contains examples of:
- The '80s: Like you wouldn't believe.
- Added Alliterative Appeal: Radio Raheem.
- Ambiguous Disorder: It is unclear (and ultimately irrelevant) whether Smiley is autistic or mentally disabled.
- Angry Black Man: One could say that there are a few (particularly Buggin' Out), but the trope is somewhat inverted when one black man tells another whom is spouting ABM language that he "doesn't want to hear that horseshit." In the commentary track for the DVD release, Spike Lee specifically notes that when Buggin' Out begins ranting about the pictures in the pizzeria, that he disagrees with the character, saying that it's Sal's place, so it's his right to put whatever pictures he likes on the walls.
- Author Filibuster: Lee's views on racism (or at least what he considers racism) aren't particularly subtle anywhere, and this film is no exception.
- Awesome Mc Coolname: Samuel L. Jackson gets one—Mister Señor Love Daddy—as is his due.
- Asshole Victim: Radio Raheem.
- Big Applesauce: Bed-Stuy edition.
- Big Brother Bully: Pino to Vito.
- 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 climatic 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.
- Brooklyn Rage: Sal and Pino when agitated. Buggin' Out could be considered a black version of it.
- But Not Too Black: Mookie gets Pino to admit that 1) his favorite basketball player is Magic Johnson, 2) his favorite actor is Eddie Murphy, and 3) his favorite musician is Prince. When Mookie calls him out on his hypocrisy of referring to every black person he encounters as a "Nigger", Pino backtracks and says "They're different".
- Chekhov's Gun: Smiley's photos.
- Cluster F-Bomb: Particularly the argument scenes.
- 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).
- 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. 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.
- Disproportionate Retribution: 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 wasn't so insistent on the pictures.
- Raheem being murdered in cold blood by the NYPD officer for his assault on Sal.
- Dies Wide Open: Radio Raheem.
- 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 and Sal's Pizzeria is burned down. Though Word of God via 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.
- 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.
- Everything Is Racist: An Italian man hanging pictures of famous Italian men in his Italian Restaurant? RACIST!
- 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: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' titsun spade Moulan Yan. 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, mire-mire 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.
- 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).
- 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 not a hard worker but clearly cares for his son and is respected in the community, Pino is a jerkass whose own friends don't respect him, Buggin' Out is a black militant Malcolm X wannabe who could be a good character but misdirects his ideals of black justice at Sal, who never did anything wrong to anyone, and Sal himself is a decent man who can’t control his temper and has some latent racist tendencies.
- 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.
- Hot-Blooded: Buggin' Out is incredibly loud, angry and driven.
- 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.
- Inspirationally Disadvantaged: Smiley.
- I Resemble That Remark!:Mookie: Why are you always cursing?
Tina: I don't fuckin' curse that much!
- 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. Considering his reason for starting the riot in the first place was the death of his close friend, though, it's still hard to call the end of his story a happy one.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Police Brutality: One of the most controversial examples in cinema.
- Police Are Useless: An Italian guy's car is soaked by some black kids messing with a fire hydrant. What do New York's finest do? Put the cap back on the hydrant, mock the guy's attempts to make a report for vandalization, and suggest he take off before the locals decide to strip his car clean.
- Powder Keg Crowd: Which explodes into a riot after Mookie tosses the trashcan through Sal's window.
- 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 New York where some black youths were chased out of a pizzeria by some white youths in a section of New York known as Howard Beach.
- Sassy Black Woman: Mother Sister
- Scary Black Man: Radio Raheem.
Punchy: Black Panther eat pizza, we eat pizza.
- Radio's description of his LOVE and HATE jewelery is a reference to The Night of the Hunter.
- 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:
- 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 racially black musicians.
- Schmuck Bait: "My car is an antique, you better not spray it with water!" Yeah, you're totally not begging for it.
- Spicy Latina: Tina.
- 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.
- Title Drop: Da Mayor advises Mookie using the name of this film.
- Torches and Pitchforks: At least the former is used.
- Yank the Dog's Chain: Right as Sal, the kindly old man who's one of the few genuinely kind people, is about to let in some customers even though he's closed, because he just loves his community, a riot breaks out ending up with Sal being attacked on the street, Radio Raheem dead, the pizzeria that he built and ran all his life looted and burnt to the ground, all by the people who he just moments ago happily mentioned grew up on his pizza.
Always do the right thing.