Spike Lee’s masterpiece manages to stay relevant for over 30 years.
It’s the middle of a heat wave in Bedford-Stuyvesant and everyone around the neighborhood seems to be going a little overboard. At multiple points of the movie, we see characters expressing their “inner voice” to the camera. Local highlights include: Radio DJ Mister Senor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson); friendly one-liner quoting drunk Da Mayor (Ossie Davis); wandering boombox enthusiast Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn); local horndog Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito); neighborhood watchdog Mother Sister (Ruby Dee); mentally disabled man Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith); and then there’s Mookie.
Mookie (Spike Lee) is a pizza delivery man for neighborhood pizza man Sal (Danny Aiello). Mookie lives with his sister, Jade (Joie Lee), and has a baby with his girlfriend, Tina (Rosie Perez). Mookie frequently fights with Sal’s racist son Pino (John Turturro), but is friends with Sal’s other son Vito (Richard Edson). Sal, an Italian-American, gets into a fight with Buggin’ Out over the fact that Sal puts famous Italian-Americans on the pizza wall, but not African-Americans. Mookie tells Buggin’ Out to just stay away for a while, but Buggin’ Out points out that since this is a black neighborhood, Sal should honor some black people. Meanwhile, in order to deal with the heat and the blackouts, local residents Ahmad (Steve White) and Cee (Martin Lawrence) open a fire hydrant. Some of the teens use the water to soak a local man until the police shut down the party and the hydrant.
Mookie and Pino get into a fight over the fact that Pino keeps using the “N word” despite idolizing black people. After Mookie leaves, Pino asks Sal to sell the pizzeria and move to an Italian-American neighborhood, but Sal insists that this is the only place where they can make money and that he likes the neighborhood. When Buggin’ Out tries to start a boycott of Sal’s to get a black figure on Sal’s wall, the neighborhood uniformly defends Sal’s, so Buggin’ Out is the only person boycotting. Jade and Sal have a conversation, leading Mookie to believe Sal wants to hit on her and he tells both parties not to associate.
Later that evening, Radio Raheem, Smiley, and Buggin’ Out come into Sal’s as it’s closing and try to demand black people be on the wall, calling Sal and sons “Guinea Bastards.” Sal, angry, calls Radio Raheem and Buggin’ Out the “N word” and smashes Radio Raheem’s boombox. Raheem attacks Sal and soon a brawl erupts into the street. The police arrive and arrest Radio Raheem and Buggin’ Out, but not Sal. In the process, one of the officers, despite the crowd telling him to stop, chokes Radio Raheem to death. The officers then put Raheem’s corpse in the car and leave. A mob starts to direct their anger at the police, but with them gone, they direct their anger at Sal and his sons. Mookie walks away from Sal as Da Mayor tries to convince the crowd that it wasn’t Sal’s fault. Realizing that violence is imminent, Mookie throws a trash can through Sal’s window, leading the crowd to attack the restaurant as Da Mayor gets Sal, Vito, and Pino out of the way. Smiley sets the building on fire and firefighters arrive to put it out. They quickly turn the hoses on the crowd, leading to more fights and arrests.
The next day, Mookie goes to see Sal and asks for his money. The two have a tense interaction, but end up reconciling somewhat. Mookie walks back as another hot day begins and Love Daddy tells everyone to register to vote. The film ends with a pair of quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X on the nature of violence and a photo of the two leaders together, the same photo Smiley was selling throughout the film.
The prompt for this film was “Best Film Soundtrack (No Musicals).” My first thought was Purple Rain, because that soundtrack is amazing, but then I decided I wanted to eliminate movies where the musician starred in the film, because that seemed too close to a musical. Then I was caught between this film, Guardians of the Galaxy, Top Gun, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and a half-dozen others. I picked this movie because out of all of the movies, I think this one has stayed the most relevant.
The soundtrack to this film, much like Reservoir Dogs, is typically music that the characters are actually hearing, rather than just the audience. The music is almost entirely played by either Radio Raheem’s boombox or by DJ Love Daddy. The only times in which the music is entirely internal seem to be when the characters are directly addressing the audience. The central song in the film which is played both during Rosie Perez’s extremely powerful and energetic dance during the opening theme, and at almost every time that Radio Raheem is in the film, is “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy. The song is, as you would think, an anthem dedicated to empowering black Americans and trying to rebel against the dominance of white culture and subservient images of black heroes. Public Enemy wrote the song at the request of Spike Lee and it ended up being one of the band’s biggest hits. The rest of the soundtrack intentionally includes songs that are particular to the scene, but were not major hits. Part of the reason is that DJ Love Daddy ran a small local station and probably only could afford independent music, and part of it is that it better showcased underground music. After being featured in the movie, several songs, including “My Fantasy” by Teddy Riley and Guy, shot up the Hot R&B Singles charts, with “My Fantasy” hitting number 1. There’s a great variety in the soundtrack, ranging from gospel to Latin to R&B, which is in part because it is ostensibly a variety radio lineup. The score for the film was composed by Spike Lee’s father and is a blend of Jazz, Classical, and R&B.
One of the film’s strengths comes from the variety of characters featured. The story isn’t really as much about Mookie or any single character as it is about this neighborhood. Most of the recurring characters don’t have real names, only sobriquets, because that’s how they know each other. The audience is treated as if it’s just another person in Bed-Stuy. Because of that, we’re given a heavy dose of honesty from the various people around, including the famous scene of many of the characters directly stating which race they hate the most.
Throughout the film, tempers flare as the temperature rises. The temperature is one of the most brilliant parts of the film because it simultaneously functions literally and as a metaphor for racial tension. When the characters are feeling the heat or deal with racial issues, they start sweating more profusely, the lens becomes a little more fish-eye, and the dutch angles start to take over, indicating unease or tension. It’s heavily used in the scene in which Radio Raheem and Buggin’ Out confront Sal, pushing him over the edge until he finally responds with slurs and breaking Radio Raheem’s boombox. Was it the heat or the pressure that finally causes Sal to snap and Raheem to snap in turn?
The death of Radio Raheem is a large part of why I selected this film. Radio Raheem is needlessly choked to death by a police officer over attacking a man who had just destroyed his property. Raheem had confronted and harassed Sal in his place of business, but Sal destroyed the most important piece of property which Raheem owned, something which was tied directly to his identity. Raheem doesn’t even say “my boombox,” he says “my music” when confronting Sal, because being accompanied by music was part of who he is. However, when the police arrive, they don’t touch Sal or Pino or Vito, but they kill Radio Raheem. We’re required to watch the entire thing as multiple characters are yelling at the officers and saying that they’re killing him, including the officer’s partner. We’re even shown that the officer pulls Raheem literally off the ground as he chokes the life out of him. When he falls to the ground dead, what is the first response? The police yell at his corpse and kick it, telling him to quit faking. The police then get the hell out of there and leave Sal, Vito, and Pino to be their scapegoats.
There have been plenty of discussions about why Mookie throws the trash can through the window of Sal’s, but I’ve always stuck with the interpretation that Mookie realized that something had to happen. Losing Radio Raheem was too great of an inequity for the crowd to bear, a brutal reminder of the inequalities of the world they live in. The mob was going to try to balance the scales and Mookie decided that it was going to be either Sal’s or Sal and that property is not as important as life. Sal is insured, he’ll rebuild. Radio Raheem cannot be brought back. This is why the scales can never be balanced under the current system. At the end of the film, DJ Love Daddy reads a message from the Mayor that says that destruction of property will not be tolerated. That’s what the politicians care about: A burned-up building. Not the dead body of Radio Raheem. This movie is over 30 years old and yet this message seems so contemporary that it’s frightening.
I don’t think I can add anything else to this. If you haven’t seen this movie: See it. If you have seen it: See it again. And, as DJ Love Daddy reminds us at the end of the film: Vote. It’s a constitutional form of violence against the powers that be.
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