Friday, June 20, 2008

An Open Letter to Spike Lee: Did Mookie Do the Right Thing?

ED. NOTE: If you have not seen Do the Right Thing and you plan to, do not read this post because it contains spoilers.

DVD cover of Do The Right Thing
Dear Mr. Spike Lee:

I know that by simply asking the question did Mookie do the right thing you will know that I am white. After watching your film Do the Right Thing I thought a lot about what happened in the last half hour, with the death of Radio Raheem, Mookie’s hurling the trash can through the plate glass window of Sal’s Pizzeria, and the subsequent riot that ensued, with New York’s finest showing up, billy clubs in hand, and New York’s bravest with fire hoses at the ready, a la Bull Connor in Birmingham.

I went to sleep pondering Mookie’s actions. The next morning I woke up and decided to watch the film with the commentary. What I heard in the commentary really opened up my mind. Here I was pondering Mookie’s actions against Sal’s pizzeria – owned by a guy who, despite trying his best, has an almost lackadaisical disdain for his black customers, and operated by his two sons, one of whom is a decent guy and the other who is, for lack of better terms, a racist prick – when the thought of the murder of Radio Raheem did not fully register with me.

Despite your assertion that white folk – the only people who ask you about whether you think that Mookie did the right thing or not – seem to be more concerned with the property of a white man than the life of a black man when they question Mookie’s actions, I feel that this is not the case, at least with me. Your words at the end of the film commentary ring true; a pizzeria can be rebuilt yet a stolen life cannot be restored. However, my thought process has brought me to the following conclusions.

One of the main reasons that some may question Mookie’s actions is because, despite the fact that they were illegal, they may have been justified whereas no matter how one looks at the death of Radio Raheem, there is no doubt that the NYPD was at fault. Raheem’s death is clearly wrong; there is no question about it. Anybody with half a brain can tell that the cops were way over the line when they put him in that chokehold like they did to Michael Stewart in 1983, which is where the idea is reported to have come from for Raheem’s death, and which the NYPD would repeat in 1994 with Anthony Baez.

There is no doubt that Mookie’s actions were illegal. That is not to say that they were wrong, because there have been plenty laws, even late into the 20th century (laws prohibiting miscegenation, for one) that have been wrong and that continue to be wrong (laws of omission that essentially prohibit gay marriage). But I think that this is where the most interesting part of the movie, at least for me, lies. Clearly Mookie thought that he did the right thing, because he did it. But the way that you end the movie, with both a Martin Luther King, Jr. quote declaring violence as an invalid mean to a just end, and Malcolm X’s stating that violence, when committed in self-defense, can be a thing of intelligence, suggests that you want the viewer to decide who was doing what and if it was right.

Spike Lee (Street Knowledge Wordpress)
Let’s look at the facts of the riot scene. The only people affected were Sal and his two sons and nobody was hurt. There is no doubt that Pino was a jerk and did not deserve the job at his father’s place. Vito could go either way, because despite his friendship with Mookie, if push came to shove, he would go with his family. And Sal is probably the most enigmatic of the group. Despite, at times, not-so-subtle racist overtones he seems to, at the very least, have a guarded respect for his clientele, if only because they pay the bills. His attitude toward Mookie is complicated by the fact that he clearly is attracted to his sister Jade. But his clear ignorance, if not outright racism, is cemented by his comment regarding the death of Radio Raheem, when he states, “You do what you gotta do.”

So let’s say that Sal’s pizzeria deserved some kind of harm. Were there any other options? In the spirit of Malcolm, who is falsely stereotyped as being an advocate of wonton black violence, let’s say that Buggin’ Out’s original idea of an economic boycott of Sal’s pizzeria was heralded as the solution to the problem and Sal’s now-clear disrespect for the plight of his customers. It would have taken months to get rid of the place, and by then Pino could have snapped, as he came close to it numerous times before the riot was even in the foreseeable future. Then there could have been another black victim at the hands of a white perpetrator, and Sal would have to move out. When looked at through this lens, what Mookie did was simply speed up the result of what an economic boycott of the pizza joint would have done anyway.

What other alternatives were there? The people of the neighborhood could not simply continue going to Sal’s knowing that he agreed with the police who acted in a brutal manner with one of their own, resulting in his death (never mind the beatings that Buggin’ Out received from his arresting officers as they fled the scene.) It makes no sense to financially support someone who clearly does not care about you as a human being, never mind a customer. They could have killed Sal and his family, but that would be wrong. Sal did not kill Raheem, and nor did either of his sons. As you said in the commentary, a pizzeria can be rebuilt, a life taken cannot be restored.

Given that there were no other alternatives, and Buggin’ Out’s economic boycott would have simply continued the pot boiling and could have led to more disastrous results, Mookie’s actions cannot be viewed as necessarily “wrong.” When the police officers who have sworn to serve and to protect are acting in reckless and lawless fashion, what can be expected of the citizenry who is supposed to be bound by obedience to their authority? While Mookie’s actions were illegal, as stated before, they were not reckless. Nobody was hurt and, as Mookie tells Sal in the final dialogue between the two, he’ll get his insurance money.

So, back to the original question: did Mookie do the right thing? I think it is clear that this is the question posed by the film because Da Mayor makes a point to tell Mookie early on in the film to “always do the right thing.” In the eyes of the law, Mookie did not do the right thing, but this is the same law that acquitted Michael Stewart’s killers, Anthony Baez’s killers, Amadou Diallo’s killers, Sean Bell’s killers (the list goes on). However, the only person who can say whether or not Mookie did the right thing, at least in my mind, is Mookie himself. There are cases in life that are, for the most part, cut and dry. You murder someone, you did something wrong. You rob, you cheat, you steal, you did something wrong. But to lash out against a symbol of racism and disdain, at an establishment that treated you like dirt and effectively approved a savage murder of your friend at the hands of police, is that truly wrong? If a Jew were to throw a brick through a window of a business that maliciously displayed a swastika, or a black South African were to sabotage the very police force that beat him and kept him a second-class citizen, or a Nicaraguan were to ruin CIA operations undermining democracy in that country, would he be wrong? In my opinion, that is what the real question of Mookie’s rightness or wrongness boils down to.


  1. Not black and whiteJuly 23, 2011 at 10:37 AM

    Just saw this movie again last night, for the first time in like 15 years. Thanks for the interesting analysis. You put some things out there I'd never thought of.

    I have a slightly different take on it. I think Mookie very clearly did the WRONG thing. In fact, most everyone did the wrong thing, at times throughout the movie. Radio Raheem was wrong to disrepect Sal by blasting his radio in the restuarant. Sal was wrong to smash the radio. The cops were wrong -- way wrong -- to kill Raheem. And Mookie was wrong to throw the trash can.

    In fact, the entire movie can be viewed as a series of people doing various levels of the wrong thing, some minor and some serious -- the Celtics jersey guy bumping into Buggin Out with no apology or "excuse me"; Radio Raheem being a total douche to the Korean store owners when he buys batteries; Cee and his crew's hurtful criticism of Da Mayor; just about anything Pino says or does; Mookie's absenteeism with regard to his kid. The list could go on and on.

    And the film shows how each of these "wrong things" lead to more wrong things. Hate begets hate, anger begets anger. Nobody's perfect -- everyone has both love and hate within them. If you somehow didn't know that already, Radio Raheem's soliloquy on this makes it perfectly clear. That is why a basically good person like Mookie can do such a bad thing. Under bad circumstances, we can all make bad decisions, despite our better nature. Even Mother-Sister is yelling "burn it" that night, but later, after things settle down, you see her weeping. In my mind, she is not just distressed at the violence in her neighborhood, but also because she realizes that she has succumbed to hate, and knows that nothing good ever comes of it.

    We must all try tap into the love in ourselves and not the hate. The film shows the disastrous results of when hate reigns. Death, destruction, violence, anger, pain and grief. By showing that these are the results of doing the wrong thing, the film hopefully teaches us the importance of doing the RIGHT thing.

    Peace. Let love rule.

  2. How could anyone possibly argue that Mookie was right in throwing the trashcan? Of course he was wrong! Jesus...