AFI film school #14: Do the Right Thing — The truth Ruth


It’s been way too long since I’ve done one of these, having been busy with an Indiegogo campaign, and then raising some extra capital, and then beginning the process of creating our streaming site. But call your grandma: we’re back!

Also, I’m inspired by how great this movie is and how relevant it is still today, thirty years after it was originally made.

Besides, I can’t leave a hundred part project unfinished at thirteen.

Following (all so loosely) the order of the podcast that always does the right thing, Unspooled, here we are with 1989’s Do the Right Thing, written and directed by Spike Lee.

Wait, what?


Overall, this movie is asking a question, and it’s a question that Mookie could have asked Da Mayor after he delivered the film’s titular line: “what is the right thing?”

This is a hard question to answer, and it’s nothing that Spike Lee directly shoves down people’s throats, as so many writers would want to do, perhaps because there is no definitive answer. It’s a judgement for us to come to on our own. Unlike when a script makes a direct statement, we’re left with a myriad of options.

Lee even posts these options pre-credits with a “violence is not the answer” quote by Martin Luther King Jr. and a “violence is sometimes acceptable” quote by Malcom X.

We are shown the duality of all the characters throughout the movie, how each one is capable of doing both the right thing and the wrong thing, and how confusing it is to tell which is which.

Sometimes we’re on the side of Sal, sometimes we’re against him. Sometimes we think Mookie is great, sometimes we think he’s being a bit of a deadbeat. Sometimes Radio Raheem is awesome, sometimes not as much.

This complexity is reflected throughout, and it forces the audience to constantly ask its question.

Hate begets hate


There is another message that’s very clear: love brings more love, and hate brings more hate.

More duality: Radio Raheem knuckles each contain one of these words, and we are often presented with examples of both.

Da Mayor is determined to get Mother Sister to love him, and he’s kind to her no matter how many insults she throws his way. But after he demonstrates several acts of love, like saving the child and keeping the Frangiones safe during the riots, he wins her love in return.

Great, but there are plenty more examples of the opposite: hate spiraling out of control. Intolerance creating more intolerance. The whole disaster at the end, leading to Radio Raheem’s murder and the riot that follows.

Sal demonstrates both of his sides, loving the community one minute, and then getting angry and doing some racist things another. His sons each represent a side of that duality, with Pino depicting the angry,hate-filled, racist side and Vito being the loving, accepting side.

When Mookie throws a trashcan through the window, even shouting “hate,” he’s unleashing his anger at Raheem’s death and all the inequalities he has to face on a daily basis, but at the same time, he’s showing love by finding a direction for the anger that doesn’t involve killing Sal and his family.

Do the Spike thing


Do the Spike Thing

A book that anyone wanting to make film should check out is Do the Right Thing by Spike Lee. It’s not a novelization, it’s Spike Lee’s journal about the creation of the film. Not only do you get to see how some things were done, but you get to see the thought process of someone making one of the greatest films of all time.

It did so many things well, but I’ll narrow it down to two that I think any filmmaker could benefit from (but nowhere near as much as reading that book).

A great big cast

Do the Right Things is a HUGE ensemble. Let’s just name the main reoccurring characters:

Mookie, his sister, Sal and sons, Smiley, Bugging Out, Radio Raheem, Da Mayor, Mother Sister, Martin Lawerence and his crew, the Korean grocers, the cops, the Puerto Ricans, the Sweet Dick Willie pose, Tina, Senor Love Daddy.

All memorable characters and all distinct. Magically we get well acquainted with them right away.

I’ll have to do a whole post on this at some point, but here are a few basic tricks Spike Lee does for having an ensemble cast of great, memorable characters:

  • -Make every personality distinct. No two characters are alike, which makes us feel they’re real people.

  • -Demonstrate their personalities immediately. We get crucial scenes with all of them that show who they are, and it’s kept consistent.

  • -Give them unique looks. Through wardrobe and casting and manor of speaking, all of people are very different from each other and everyone stands out.


The heat is a big piece of the film (it originally called Heatwave). It’s a cause and a symbol for the racial tension that’s constantly brewing, and smartly at the end, the next day is also predicted to be a hot one, telling us that what went on is still continuing.

But Spike Lee doesn’t just tell us that it’s hot. He makes us FEEL it.

The shots outside are all brightly exposed, while the ones inside are darkly lit, with a lot of sunshine pouring through. The sweat on the character’s faces. The way their dressed. Even the colors, like the bright red wall behind the Sweet Dick Willie crew, make us feel the heat more.

Hot environments, like the pizza parlor, make us feel even hotter, as we constantly see the ovens and hot pizza. And then at the end, just when it looks like things are getting cooler, we get the fire.

Those moments of reprieve, like Mookie in the shower and the “thank god for…” ice sequences almost make us feel the same relief the characters feel.


In a way, the cyclical “love and hate” message does answer the “what is the right thing” question.

I think Spike Lee truly believes that love is the best answer. If we do love each other and take care of each other and treat each other well, then we’re going to have a better world.

But if we act out of hate, especially if those in power do, then self-defense and more hate is the only answer. And round and round it goes.

So it’s cautionary and optimistic tale at the same time. We could be Raheem’s left fist or we could be his right one.

But I guess “Do the Love Thing” sounds like a completely different movie.

Thanks for reading!

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