Do the Right Thing is in part a response to a series of racially charged incidents of violence against African Americans in New York during the 1980s, the film depicts a racially diverse neighborhood, primarily African American, in which Puerto Ricans, an Italian American family, a Korean couple who own the local grocery store, a WASP brownstone-owner, and white cops all play important roles.
The drama in the film erupts around the question of whether Sal, an Italian American who owns the local pizza joint, should display pictures of African Americans on his “Wall of Fame,” which honors famous Italian Americans only. Sal invokes the rights of private property, but he is challenged by Buggin’ Out, a young African American who points out that Sal’s customers are almost all African Americans. Sal, the movie suggests, has a right to hang what he wants on his walls, but–given that the pizzeria is also an important community space for the neighborhood–is omitting African Americans the right thing to do?
Part of the neighborhood’s problem is that no one can talk about problems like this without resorting to shouting or, even worse, racially charged language. The neighborhood’s civil society is impaired because it lacks any sense of civil discourse. Even friends swear at each other and refer to one another as “nigger,” and in one of the film’s signature set pieces (described in the script as the “racial slur montage”), some of the film’s characters do “the dozens”–a ritual of “trash talking” that is an element from African American oral tradition–by insulting different ethnic groups; the African American Mookie insults Italians; the Italian Pino insults blacks; the Puerto Rican Stevie insults Koreans; the white police officer insults Puerto Ricans; and the Korean grocery-store owner insults Ed Koch (and by extension New York’s Jews).
Uncivil discourse is the norm in this neighborhood on a good day, and therefore at a moment of crisis, the neighborhood’s residents lack the linguistic resources to stave off violence through conversation and negotiation. Challenged by Buggin’ Out and the menacing Radio Raheem, Sal, for most of the film the voice of reason and cross-ethnic and racial sympathy, suddenly spews racist invective, which leads to a riot. The film depicts the failure of cosmopolitan conversation, although the one bright spot is that the Koreans are spared the wrath of the primarily African American crowd, which is persuaded by the grocery-store owner’s plea, “Me no white. Me no white. Me Black. Me Black. Me Black.”
Do the Right Thing presents the opportunity for cosmopolitanism, but dramatizes the powerful obstacles that prevent it from being realized.