So we’ve established that Do the Right Thing has a very unique structure: Like most stories, it is about a large problem, but instead of watching a hero solve that problem, we’re watching the crisis slowly build, spotting a progression of factors that no one character can see.
Even so, only on subsequent viewings do we realize that almost every scene has contributed to the final crisis, often in very ironic ways. Here, as I see it, are all the contributing factors, and where they come in the timeline:
- 9:50 The heat (which causes Sal to say “I’m going to kill someone today” at the beginning)
- 18:43 Buggin’ Out clearly has a history of free-floating agitation (see his nickname)
- 18:43 Buggin’ Out feels that Sal has been cheap with the amount of cheese on his pizza. Sal doesn’t give an inch.
- 18:43 Sal contemptuously dismisses Buggin’s request to put African American pictures on the wall.
- 18:43 Sal has a bat under the counter and in the Wall of Fame scene we see that he’s quick to take it out.
- 21:43 Buggin’ tells Mookie to “Stay black.”
- 23:00 Da Mayor tells Mookie to “Do the right thing,” which seems to gnaw at him throughout the movie.
- 26:27 After turning off the fire hydrant (and seeing that the locals have humiliated an Italian-American driver) the Italian-American cop says he’ll bust heads if he has to come back.
- 33:20 We see in Raheem’s boombox duel with the Puerto Ricans that being forced to turn down your radio is a defeat, a personal humiliation, a threat to manhood
- 35:05 Buggin’ has his white Air Jordans run over by a white bicyclist, who bought a brownstone on the block. And the guy is wearing a Larry Bird jersey (Lee hints in the commentary that the characters would have taken this jersey as a brazen display of white pride).
- 39:19 Cops glare hatefully at the cornermen, who glare hatefully back.
- 39:19 The cornermen are increasingly angry that all of the businesses are owned by non-blacks.
- 51:35 Raheem gives Mookie his personal philosophy of love and hate, ending with “If I love you, I love you, but if I hate you…”
- 53:32 Sal doesn’t say please when he asks Raheem to turn down his radio the first time.
- 59:20 Pino yells at Smiley (just after Sal tells Pino that he won’t move) and the neighborhood overhears and heckles back.
- 103:45 Everybody mocks Buggin’s attempts to recruit them, so he starts to calm down, and just starts to clean his Jordans, but Mookie says that his Jordons are dogged, causing Buggin’ to get angry all over again.
- 115:19 Mookie doesn’t like Sal’s friendship with Jade.
- 127:30 Smiley is a mentally challenged person walking around unsupervised, and unlike most challenged people in movies, he isn’t serene all the time, so he’s agitating everyone.
- 127:30 Buggin’ Out happens to run into Radio Raheem and their free-floating animostities combine on a semi-randomly selected target. Then Smiley adds his anger to theirs.
- 129:08 Ahmad, Ella, Punchy and Cee convince Sal to re-open the pizzeria after it’s closed.
- 130:00 When Raheem, Buggin’, and Smiley show up to demand pictures on the wall, Sal doesn’t just yell about Raheem’s music, he calls it “jungle music.” Obviously, this is followed by the big one, where Sal smashes Raheem’s radio with his bat.
- 133:46 When the resulting fight spills onto the sidewalk, a kid yells “Fight!” and everybody comes running.
- 140:00 The crowd reveals that they are angry over previous police murders (the characters shout out the names of real-life police victims Eleanor Bumpers, Michael Stewart, et al.)
So that’s almost everything right? Even the seemingly happy moments, like the fire hydrant scene, ironically contribute the final tragedy. But in fact there’s another, much smaller list of elements that don’t contribute to the crisis:
- Everything with Senor Love Daddy, who is the ultimate in chill.
- Vito’s friendliness with Mookie doesn’t contribute one way or another.
- The anger of the teens at Da Mayor.
- The scene where Raheem’s batteries die and he gets more from the Korean grocers.
- Da Mayor rescues the kid from getting hit by an ice cream truck leads to peace between Da Mayor and Mother Sister.
- Everything with Tina and Hector (Mookie’s child) including the sex scene.
It’s crucial that these moments are included. Unlike most stories, which assure us that we are following the linear progression of one problem, so that every scene “counts”, this sort of story must do the opposite: if we suspect that every element of this story is part on clockwork machine, the movie would feel grim and preachy: “Behold The Folly of Man!”
By interspersing the 23 elements that contribute with 6 that don’t, Lee keeps our eye off the ball, allowing us to just relax and enjoy this vibrant world, without having to feel that we’re riding a fixed escalator of racial tension. We sense that something bad is coming, but we don’t know how or where it will arrive. In fact, we cling to our hope that moderating influences like Da Mayor or Vito will ensure that things can’t get too bed. This way, when everything finally goes to hell, it feels much more tragic that it would have Lee had merely set us up in order to knock us down.
In the end, many elements contribute ironically, some elements contribute directly, and a few elements contribute not at all. That’s the most powerful way to tell this story, because that’s the way the world works.