I’ve watched Do the Right Thing many times, before, during, and after the three and a half years I lived in Bed-Stuy. The film accurately conveys a hot summer day in a place where heat radiates from the ever-present concrete and shade-providing trees are few and far between. It also sheds light on the racial tensions just below the surface in the neighborhood, exacerbated by the heat. I felt them as soon as I moved to the neighborhood in 2007, and I can only assume from this film that they were present in 1989.
Do the Right Thing looks at what can happen when people of different races and backgrounds are forced together in close quarters. Everyone is a little racist, as illustrated by various characters listing stereotypes about other races portrayed in the film. Some people, such as Pino, are more racist than others. The characters inhabiting this block are diverse and flawed, but perhaps the most interesting one of all is the protagonist, Mookie.
Mookie is very popular on the block, known and liked by everyone. He also happens to be played by Spike Lee, the writer/director/producer. As the delivery person for Sal’s Pizza, he acts as a go-between for the people who live on the block and the men who work at the pizzeria, diffusing minor altercations throughout the day. While Mookie is a likeable character, he also has some major flaws. He has trouble holding down a job, lives with his sister, barely makes rent, doesn’t take his job at Sal’s seriously, comes and goes as he pleases and has a child that he doesn’t take care of.
The other stereotypes of Italians and Koreans in this film are nothing new, but it’s intriguing that Spike Lee would enforce such a negative black stereotype. Perhaps he doesn’t see it as negative, just true. By giving Mookie redeeming qualities and ultimately having him “do the right thing,” maybe Lee feels that he’s created a fully formed character and not someone defined by his personal missteps. Perhaps giving Mookie a strong work ethic and a family at home would change his personality too drastically to have the same outcome of the film; he’d be too loyal to the pizzeria to throw a trash can through its window. Perhaps as a white person, I can’t fully understand the motivations of creating a protagonist in a film which feeds into stereotypes that I think a black person would want to overcome, not reinforce.
More than anything else, when I watch Do the Right Thing, I feel strong sentimentality toward Bed-Stuy. The characters seem like people I could have encountered on my own block. I can’t say that Bed-Stuy doesn’t have its fair share of dead-beat dads, local drunks or teenagers with nothing better to do than sit on a stoop all day. Though I also encountered many hard working, upstanding citizens who, just like me, were doing their best to make a life for themselves and their families. It’s possible that so much has changed in the past 20 years that Mookie no longer represents the average Bed-Stuy resident. It’s also possible that my fondness for the neighborhood makes me want to believe that there are better options for a hero. Or maybe Lee never meant for Mookie to be a hero of race relations. Maybe he was just supposed to be a regular guy trying to do the right thing.