In Spike Lee’s 1989 classic “Do the Right Thing,” there are several portrayals of racial interactions throughout the movie, given the basis of the existing circumstances like the rising tensions between residents, demographics of the community, today’s heat wave, and other contributing factors like fatherhood and brotherhood. These factors play key roles in the racial interactions between the local residents of Bedford-Stuyvesant, and the effect those factors have is eventually revealed in the tragic events at the conclusion of the movie.
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At the beginning of the movie, it is already quite clear that a lot of the residents in the neighborhood do not agree with each other, such as the relationship between the characters Mother Sister and Da Mayor. Early into the movie, she calls him an “old drunk,” and proceeds to warn him about drinking in front of her stoop, additionally blocking her view of the city block, and even being ugly. The situation escalates gradually until Da Mayor finally retaliates by telling Mother Sister that she will be nice to him someday, regardless of whether or not they are still living, and that she will regret it. Mother Sister then calms herself and listens to Da Mayor’s words. Initially it isn’t clear why these two characters do not agree with each other, although the viewer will think that Mother Sister and Da Mayor never previously agreed with each other at any point.
Due to the circumstances of certain characters like Mookie, the pizza boy, one of his main goals is to be paid, at any cost. He also faces fatherly responsibilities, like raising his son Hector, but also brotherly responsibilities such as caring for his sister Jade, whom he lives with occasionally. A positive example of racial interaction in Lee’s movie would be the relationship Sal, the pizzeria owner, has with Mookie, despite his race. Sal also has two sons who help him run the shop—Vito and Pino.
Vito, the younger brother, is not-so optimistic about working in his father’s shop with his brother in lieu of his relationship with Pino and the community residents’ behaviors, which they have to deal with in addition to the day’s heat, which happens to be the hottest day of the summer. Pino, the older, is very pessimistic about working with his younger brother in Sal’s shop, and could possibly be racist due to some of his statements and his overall relationship with Mookie.
The two brothers do not have a good relationship with each other. Fortunately, Vito seems to have a positive relationship with Mookie. At one point, Vito takes Mookie’s advice to combat the possible physical violence against Vito from his older brother. In a later scene, Vito wholeheartedly agrees with Mookie’s advice and prepares himself for defense when the time comes.
Sal later states that he loves Mookie like one of his own sons. Another negative example of racial interaction would be Buggin’ Out’s response to the framed images on the wall in Sal’s Pizzeria. The scene portrays Buggin’ Out barging inside and demanding a slice of pizza, and going to sit down to begin eating. Before he begins, he glances at the wall with the framed images that feature Sal’s Italian relatives, and asks him why there aren’t any pictures of “brothas” on the wall. Sal promptly states that when Buggin’ Out gets his own place, he can put pictures of whomever on his own wall.
The community Lee’s film takes place in is an actual New York suburb named Bedford-Stuyvesant, dubbed “Bed-Stuy,” which is one of the area’s many low-wealth residential communities comprising wide and bustling streets with many rowhomes in which people reside in. The community also features many typical corner stores, restaurants, street shops and vendors people can visit as well. One of these corner restaurants happens to be Sal’s pizzeria, and is also one of the most popular restaurants in Bed-Stuy. Due to the community’s demographics, there are not many places for Bed-Stuy’s children to play, so they play on the sidewalks and notably the street. Demographics of the community also affect how people interact with each other, sometimes by groups of people gathering outside on the steps of their rowhomes and listening to music, as observed in one scene with the Hispanic group of people outside chattering and reminiscing, all the while battling other groups of individuals with the loudness of their music.
Despite the circumstances of the neighborhood portrayed in the movie, one of the most overwhelming ones of all is the heat. The first scene of the movie even depicts Mookie sweating while sitting on his bed counting money, with the windowed air conditioner perpetually running in the background. Da Mayor wakes up sweating in the next scene, and immediately throws his cover off. In later scenes, Mister Señor Love Daddy can be heard broadcasting the forecast, and also that today is one of the hottest days of the summer. In nearly every scene throughout the movie, heat is an underlying factor, made noticeable by people sweating profusely, rising heat visually distorting the camera and its ‘waving’ effect, scenes depicting block residents opening fire hydrants and cooling off with their friends in the middle of street, incessantly operating air conditioners in different buildings, people immersing their heads in tanks of ice-cold water like Tina, and even Mother Sister sitting on her perch outside in the windowsill.
Due to the underlying and present circumstances of the entire Bed-Stuy community, the events which have now taken place over the course of what happens to be the hottest day of the summer have unfortunately led to some of the most destructive racial events in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood prior to the Crown Heights rioting, which occurred later in 1991, as well as the Howard Beach riots which occurred prior to “Do the Right Thing” in 1986.
Towards the end of Lee’s film, the effects of the racial exchanges and circumstances are finally revealed. In the final scene within Sal’s pizzeria, Mookie’s crew piles up at the door before closing time, and Mookie asks Sal if they could be let in as last customers before they close. Sal approves, albeit willingly, and allows Mookie to unlock and open the door. Mookie’s crew tumbles inside disorderly, and all of them demand slices of pizza. Vito and Pino look ahead in disapproval. Buggin Out’ marches up to Sal and says “Yo, Sal, we're gonna boycott your fat pasta ass.” Sal immediately retaliates by saying “You’re gonna boycott me?” Later on, Radio Raheem strolls inside grudgingly, with his radio booming, and demands “two slices.” Sal cannot endure the volume and screams at Raheem “NO service ‘til you turn that shit off!” Raheem proceeds to ask for “two slices.” Pino steps in and exclaims “Turn it off!”
The situation escalates until Sal loses his composure after several racial exchanges, and ultimately destroys Raheem’s radio with a slugger. Tensions are continuously raised as Raheem attempts to kill Sal by strangling him, and everyone steps in to get Raheem off of him. The altercation eventually tumbles outside onto the sidewalk and the police pull up seconds later, violently restraining Raheem. He is raised off of the ground by a baton against his neck, and is not able to breathe. Amidst the confusion, Buggin’ Out is also restrained and thrown into the car. Seconds later, amidst Raheem’s attempts to break free, he is choked to death by the police’s baton. The police later pick up and throw Raheem’s body inside the car. People begin to realize that he’s dead because he remains motionless. Mourning residents throw things at the fleeting cop car, and even Smiley drops to his knees in despair. Residents of Bed-Stuy gather outside the pizzeria, with Mookie, Sal, Vito and Pino outside as well. Confusion sets the scene as the residents begin arguing at Sal in an uncivilized fashion. Mookie tries to get everyone’s attention in order to get them to stop, although his actions are in vain.
Unable to do so, Mookie promptly seeks the nearest trashcan located across the street, grabs it, returns to Sal’s pizzeria and hurls it through the window. All composure is lost and the residents of Bed-Stuy begin rioting, fighting and destroying Sal’s pizzeria. Looters rush inside and destroy the furniture, steal the cash from the register, and break the remaining windows by throwing anything in sight. Mookie, who seems lost, sits on the curb as the looters proceed to torch the pizzeria, burning it to the ground.
Due to the occurrences that have resulted from Buggin’ Out’s simple declaration that he’d boycott Sal and his pizzeria because of the lack of “brothas” on the wall, Radio Raheem has been killed by the police for assaulting Sal, Sal has lost his place of business in the course of one night because he destroyed Raheem’s radio, tensions which were previously raised in the community are now subsided, people are now communicating and cooperating with each other positively as races, Mookie finally gets his money from Sal despite a short confrontation, and seemingly nobody has done the right thing yet. At the conclusion of the film, Smiley makes his way towards Sal’s ruined pizzeria and he pins a picture to the wall of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X shaking hands, and in a way, Buggin’ Out finally has his “brothas” on the wall he inquired about earlier in the movie.
Regardless of the existing circumstances of each character, these racial interactions between the characters which have been exchanged throughout the movie have played several roles in the unfolding of these unfortunate events in the conclusion of Lee’s film.