Why Mookie Did the Wrong Thing

Can you believe ‘Do The Right Thing’ is 20 years old? The film’s promise of a United States of Black America was a nice fantasy. But now it’s time to welcome Sal back to the neighborhood.

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When Do the Right Thing was released 20 years ago, a generation of black writers and intellectuals became instantly radicalized by Spike Lee and Public Enemy’s vision of black America. Their fist-pumping black nationalist slingshots, along with The Autobiography of Malcolm X, were the perfect antidote for the isolation and alienation many black youth felt growing up in white suburbs in the post-civil rights era.

Together Do the Right Thing and Chuck D’s single “Fight the Power” made a pitch-perfect argument for a United States of Black America, composed of a constellation of urban outposts like Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, that were free of white patriarchy. USBA was a place where black people owned the restaurants, businesses and schools, and inhabited their own black worlds free of oppression. The film’s fiery conclusion, with the Italian-American Sal’s Famous Pizzeria going up in flames after the police murder of Radio Raheem, was the perfect denouement, a catharsis for every sleight at the hands of white people.

I was only 12 when the movie came out, but the film’s fire ignited my own smoldering resentments. Burn, white supremacists who harassed my family for daring to move to a white suburb of Indianapolis! Burn, cops who followed me and my teenage friends just because! The literal fire set in the film and the social fire that followed was payback for my black classmates who rode deseg buses from the inner city to suburban schools, leading to inevitable culture clashes that we would never win.

The satisfaction that came from that released rage played out for years. I remember a similar feeling just after Los Angeles police officers were acquitted in the videotaped Rodney King beating, when my friend Nzinga, a Black Panther’s daughter, announced with relish outside our high school lockers: “Niggas is rioting in L.A.

Uuuuunnmph! Take that, we thought.

Do the Right Thing is still a powerful movie. But today many of the scenes that elicited cheers seem off the mark.

Sal’s racist son Pino tries to persuade his father to leave Bed-Stuy because black people didn’t want them there. Sal, played by Danny Aiello, defends the neighborhood, expressing his pride that the people there had grown up on his food. Didn’t Sal have every right to be there?

And what of the supposed triumph at the end of the movie when Smiley pastes up a photo of MLK and Malcolm X on Sal’s Wall of Fame?

Watching it this time around, I found myself wishing to the very end of the film that the inevitable wouldn’t happen, that Sal’s pizzeria would not go up in flames at the hands of a black mob.

I am not immune to the charms of black nationalism. I’m a proud Howard University graduate raising my family in the middle of a black neighborhood in D.C., the Chocolate City. But I am also keenly aware of black nationalism’s lingering contradictions. Today, Bloomingdale, my D.C. neighborhood, is in the throes of gentrification: Yoga studios bump up against public housing projects; cafes clash with methadone clinics; farmers markets displace bodegas. Today, I see dozens of proverbial white men in Celtics jerseys, laying their historic claim to the neighborhood where their ancestors settled but where a black majority has lived for decades.

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