A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
I have been given only a few filmgoing experiences in my life to equal the first time I saw “Do the Right Thing.” Most movies remain up there on the screen. Only a few penetrate your soul. In May of 1989 I walked out of the screening at the Cannes Film Festival with tears in my eyes. Spike Lee had done an almost impossible thing. He'd made a movie about race in America that empathized with all the participants. He didn't draw lines or take sides but simply looked with sadness at one racial flashpoint that stood for many others.
Not everybody thought the film was so even-handed. I sat behind a woman at the press conference who was convinced the film would cause race riots. Some critics agreed. On the Criterion DVD of the film, Lee reads from his reviews, noting that Joe Klein, in New York magazine, laments the burning of Sal's Pizzeria but fails to even note that it follows the death of a young black man at the hands of the police.
Many audiences are shocked that the destruction of Sal's begins with a trash can thrown through the window by Mookie (Lee), the employee Sal refers to as “like a son to me.” Mookie is a character we're meant to like. Lee says he has been asked many times over the years if Mookie did the right thing. Then he observes: “Not one person of color has ever asked me that question.” But the movie in any event is not just about how the cops kill a black man and a mob burns down a pizzeria. That would be too simple, and this is not a simplistic film. It covers a day in the life of a Brooklyn street, so that we get to know the neighbors, and see by what small steps the tragedy is approached.
The victim, Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), is not blameless; he plays his boom box at deafening volume and the noise not only drives Sal (Danny Aiello) crazy, but also the three old black guys who sit and talk at the corner. He wears steel knuckles that spell out “Love” and “Hate,” and although we know Radio is harmless, and we've seen that “Love” wins when he stages an imaginary bout for Mookie, to the cops the knuckles look bad. Not that the cops look closely, because they are white, and when they pull Radio off of Sal in the middle of a fight, it doesn't occur to them that Radio might have been provoked (Sal has just pounded his boom box to pieces with a baseball bat).