Do the Right Thing: A Lesson on Empathy

Do the Right Thing is a comedy/drama movie created in 1989. The movie focuses on the day-to-day activities of different people in a predominantly Black community and their rivalries with neighboring non-Black business owners. 

The main character in the movie, Mookie, is played by Spike Lee. He works as a pizza delivery boy for an Italian man named Sal who owns a family-run pizza place. The community loves Sal and his pizza place, they claim to have grown up loving Sal’s pizza and Sal speaks very highly of everyone in the community. One of Sal’s sons, Pino, has an unexplainable hatred for Black people. He is seen many times trying to urge his father to move the family business to an area without a high population of Black people. Sal expresses disappointment at Pino’s hatred for the people in the community and continues to show kindness to everyone that goes to his pizza place.

Trouble emerges one day when a boy in the community, Buggin’ Out, visits Sal’s pizza place as he normally does. He notices the portraits on the “Hall of Fame”- a wall in the pizzeria with pictures of Italian people that Sal admired. Buggin’ Out requested that there be pictures of Black people on the wall as Sal’s business prospered from the Black people who went there to eat-which was a fair point. Sal immediately refused and dismissed Buggin’ Out’s request. 

Screen capture from Do the Right Thing, retrieved from Medium.com

This was a critical point in the movie for me as I feel that it is something that many people of color (especially Black female activists) experience. I have seen too many times people of color attempting to inform white people about things that may be racist/offensive, and those white people completely dismissing the opinions of the person of color as if that person of color is not qualified to speak on an issue that directly affects them. Situations like this are especially frustrating as it becomes evident that the white person in question is not accidentally doing something offensive/racist, but they are choosing to be oblivious and bask in ignorance by ignoring the words of a person of color who has the knowledge on things that they may not have. 

As the movie progresses, Buggin’ Out attempts to recruit people to boycott Sal’s pizza place until pictures of Black people are put on the hall of fame. Mookie encourages him to drop the situation. People ignore him, telling him that the hall of fame wall is no big deal. It isn’t until Buggin’ Out and a friend of his approach Sal demanding for new pictures to be put up that people see Sal for who he truly is. From the beginning of the movie up until that moment, Sal is portrayed as a man who has nothing but love for the people in the community; in fact, viewers may even think that Buggin’ Out is in the wrong as Sal is made to be a reasonable man just choosing what he wants and how he wants it.

Sal’s inner hatred for Black people arises when he finds himself cornered by the people urging him to add Black people to the hall of fame wall. He begins to show serious acts of violence and spew racial slurs. This was another important scene in the movie. I almost felt bad for Sal in the beginning, I saw him as the “nice guy,” the “ally”. It did not phase me when he ignored the request of Buggin’ Out. This scenario is very common in the world we live in.

“Allies” claim to have so much respect and support for marginalized groups until the people in the marginalized groups state their concerns. I do not say this to demean white allies, but I say this to say that any ally who cannot truly listen to the words of a person of color and take those words as they are is not a true ally. Choosing to ignore the cries of marginalized peoples and claiming to be in support of them is the epitome of impiety. Those who do so show that their cluelessness is not of an innocent origin, instead it is a sort of premeditated benightedness. 

Screen capture from Do the Right Thing, retrieved from Medium.com

The rest of the movie is pure chaos, all of which could have been avoided had Sal listened to Buggin’ Out or at least had a bit of empathy and put himself in the shoes of the Black people that would eat at his pizzeria; constantly supporting his business with no requests other than representation in the place that only succeeded due to Black people being willing to buy from his pizzeria. If he had shown any of that love he claimed to have for the Black community from the beginning things may have ended a bit differently. 

This is a movie that I urge everyone to watch. It is a masterpiece on violence vs. peace in the presence of overwhelming anger. I was actually surprised at how accurately the story matched the events that have happened in the past year with the Black Lives Matter movement. This movie serves as a lesson for all, especially those who are not people of color but want to be allies or supporters. Do not silence or suppress the voices of people of color to maintain a feeling of innocence. Educating ourselves every day is the only way to grow and become better people. As a wise man once said, 

           “Empathy is the most essential quality of civilization” – Roger Ebert

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