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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Today I find myself agreeing with the original critics of Do the Right Thing who condemned Mookie (the pizza deliveryman played by Spike Lee) for throwing the trash can through the front window of the pizzeria, kicking off the riots. At the time, such criticism set off Lee and the film critic Roger Ebert. How dare anyone equate the restaurant with Radio Raheem’s life, they argued with a heavy dose of moral fury?

But that was not the point critics were trying to make. Property cannot and will not ever equate to a human life. When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, hundreds of black Washingtonians made the same (false) equation between property and life, and they burned black parts of Washington, D.C., to the core. What followed were decades of pain, decay, dysfunction and isolation.

Over in Bed-Stuy today, chances are Sal’s pizzeria would still be shuttered, leaving its denizens with no place to get a decent slice. And by now, many blacks of means would have moved on (Spike Lee himself moved to Manhattan years ago), allowing the place to rot, literally and figuratively.

Not exactly what Malcolm X had in mind.

It is only in the past decade that many corners of the so-called United States of Black America have shown signs of new life, and that is thanks to a multiethnic mix of people who have made the deliberate attempt to work through their racial (and class-based) fears. Yes, some of the white newcomers are pushy, strident, entitled, privileged and often just plain culturally incompetent. Some of them even have dreams of a pristine white neighborhood free of black people. But most don’t.

A few years ago, for an article I was writing about gentrification for the Washington Post, I spent some time with Nicole Tramonte, a white widow who in the late 1970s bought Catania Bakery from the Carusos, an Italian-American family that had been in my neighborhood since immigrating in the early 20th century. (I briefly met an elderly member of the Caruso family who kept an apartment above the shop for sentimental reasons.) Tramonte’s family was baking bread for area restaurants. She stayed bunkered up in a fortress-like shop on North Capitol Street, which she exited only through the rear and under guard. In 2003, Tramonte was so encouraged by the new life in the neighborhood that she resumed selling her baked goods to the public and even planted flowers outside. Weeks after the article appeared, her flowerpots were upended. Her bakery was robbed. She put the bars back on the windows and shuttered the fortress again.

The bakery has been mostly inaccessible to street traffic since. And that’s too bad.

In 1989, Do the Right Thing rightly railed against police brutality and institutional racism that reduced the life chances and quality of life of many black people in urban areas. If combating those conditions, which still exist, is what we mean by fighting the power, I will be the first to put on boxing gloves.

But 20 years on, Buggin Out’s kind of fight feels futile. Symbolically and literally speaking, we are the Power. We need Sal’s Famous Pizzerias in the neighborhood, and we need the Mookies of the world to open their own businesses, too. It’s messy. It’s sometimes tense, often uncomfortable. We won’t always understand each other. But come on back. We need that slice.

Natalie Hopkinson is the associate editor of The Root.

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