Friday, October 22, 2021

Spike Lee Does the Right Thing

For the past week, I’ve been following the fortunes of my current favorite baseball player, the extraordinary Mookie Betts. It’s all part of rooting for the sometimes infuriating L.A. Dodgers, now locked into a playoff series with the Atlanta Braves. As I write this, the Dodgers have kicked away more than one opportunity to come out on top. But I count on my man Mookie to always DO THE RIGHT THING.

 The irony, as I discovered when re-watching Spike Lee’s 1989 breakout film, Do the Right Thing, is that Lee himself plays an important character named Mookie. Like many of the roles played by Lee in his early films, his Mookie is sometimes funny, sometimes lovable, sometimes confused, and sometimes dead wrong. He starts out the film as the gofer and all-around sidekick of Sal (the late Danny Aiello), who owns an Italian pizzeria in a mostly Black Brooklyn neighborhood. The good-hearted Sal, ignoring the rantings of his bigoted son (John Turturro), does his part to be an active member of the Bedford-Stuyvesant community, giving handouts to those who need them and generally making nice. He won’t budge, though, when local toughs demand he add Black faces to the Italian-American Hall of Fame that decorates his restaurant wall. His heroes are Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, not Dr. King and Malcolm X, and he refuses to make any changes. 

 On the hottest day of the year, all the locals are steamed up. The young punks are agitating against the pizzeria, where Sal’s angry son is already driving him crazy. The old codgers are bickering among themselves, and the sweet local drunk (Ossie Davis) is being spurned by the tough neighborhood matriarch played by Ruby Dee. Meanwhile Mookie pays a quick visit to his on-and-off girlfriend (Rosie Perez in her screen debut), who’s furious with him for ignoring her and their infant son. The only one staying cool is the local radio DJ, Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson, who was then still calling himself Sam). As the sun goes down, the tension rises. Radio Rahim invades the pizzeria with his blasting boom box, and Sal finally snaps. After the police get involved, with tragic consequences, Mookie takes the lead in hurling a trashcan through the pizzeria window. 

 What’s disturbing about Do the Right Thing is that after more than three decades it still seems so timely, as current as the disturbances surrounding the death of George Floyd. Since 1989 we haven’t gotten any better at answering Rodney King’s plaintive question: “Can’t we all get along?”  I give Spike Lee credit for not being a total ideologue. The film shows he can see all sides of an issue, even that of the immigrant  Korean grocers so desperately trying to fit into the ‘hood that at one point they try to claim kinship with their Black neighbors. Appropriately the film ends with two on-screen quotations, a hopeful one from Martin Luther King, followed by far more militant words from Malcolm X. But the final dedication to the families of Black victims of police brutality makes clear that when it comes to issues of law enforcement, Lee knows where he stands.

 He also knows how to look to far different movies for inspiration. The Lee exhibit at the new Academy Museum reveals where he came up with the film’s opening moments, featuring Rosie Perez in closeup, doing a wildly militant dance to “Fight the Power.” Where’d he get the idea? From Ann-Margret, looming large on the screen, in the first few minutes of a mindless musical from 1963, Bye Bye Birdie. Who would have guessed?




  1. Beverly, A wonderful and insightful piece about an excellent movie and a master director, Spike. A couple of things. 1) Mookie’s name may have come from Mookie Wilson, who starred for my W S winning Mets. 2) More Importantly-Mookie wears Brooklyn Dodgers uniform with the number 42 on the back, the number of the most important baseball player of All Time,my hero-Jackie Roosevelt Robinson, may he Rest In Peace. Bob

  2. Thanks for the baseball trivia, Bob. I believe that Mookie Betts did get his nickname from Mookie Wilson. I also read that when he was born his baseball-crazy parents give him the initials MLB, standing of course for Major League Baseball. I wasn't aware of the 42 on his back -- how could I have missed that! Go Dodgers -- in 2022!