I originally wrote this late last year, around the time of the Ferguson riots, for my Intro to Film class journals that we were required to keep and turn in at the end of the semester. In light of the current goings on in Baltimore I thought it appropriate to post as today’s Q.D.R. Spoiler warning.
Do The Right Thing (1989)
I watched “Do The Right Thing” a week ago now, and as I write this, off to the side I see Ferguson MO, burning on my television. In this movie there is a race riot inspired by the murder of a young black man by a white teenager. This movie becomes a little more relevant in the wake of each such tragedy. It was made a few years before the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, but is culturally inspired by the race riots from the 60s and 70s that Spike Lee would have experienced as a child. In the riot scores of businesses are burned down. The movie is very stylistically directed by the aforementioned Spike Lee, and includes a supporting cast full of strong character actors like John Turturro and Samuel L. Jackson who plays a radio DJ.
Among the places threatened in the ensuing riot is Sal’s pizzeria. Sal is an Italian, and as such he doesn’t consider himself “white” in the same sense that an Irish or English descended person would be, but to the black neighborhood he operates in, he is as white as a sheet, as opposed to a local Korean store owner whose business is left unscathed in the riot. There is a scene where a character played by Giancarlo Espisito demands to know why there only Italian pictures on the wall at Sal’s pizza place, and no black ones. Start your own pizza place, and put up whatever pictures you want is the reply he receives.
This movie shows the blueprint for how a race riot happens. We see the tension in the community between the different ethnicities, and watch it slowly boil over until everything finally comes apart with the death of the “Mike Brown” of this story, young Radio Reeham, a character who before his tragic death is seen as mostly a tolerated annoyance in the community with his oversized boombox that is always blaring. After his death at the hands of police officers who are as caught up in a mob mentality beyond their own control as the black characters are, he becomes the rallying cry to tear apart this community we have come to care about over the course of the movie.
Sal’s best employee is a young black kid named Mookie who will be forced to make a heartbreakingly tough decision as to whether to remain loyal to his street or to the employer who has become a father figure to him. This is not a black and white movie, even though it is about black and white. It does not paint the black characters as helpless victims of white oppression, nor does it paint the white characters as mindless racists. It shows the complexity and the tension that our American “melting pot” society has been such an incubator of these past 100 years. And that same tension that burns down Sal’s pizzeria, is right now burning down a town less than 90 minutes away from me.