There’s a moment in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) that sticks with me. It’s the hottest day of the summer and Mookie (Lee) sails down the sidewalk, pizza delivery in hand. He’s halted by Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), who he first tries to brush off until Da Mayor insists on being listened to. Mookie stops.
“Always do the right thing,” Da Mayor tells Mookie.
“That’s it?” Mookie says.
“That’s it,” says Da Mayor.
And Mookie replies, “I’ve got it. I’m gone.”
And yet we know that Mookie does not, in fact, got it. He’s a rubbish boyfriend, father, employee, and brother. He’s not even a particularly good friend. Throughout most of this fateful day in Bed-Stuy, Mookie walks around decidedly not doing the right thing.
But then Mookie’s friend Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) is choked to death by police, gasping “I can’t breathe” in an haunting piece of filmic prescience. And as tensions begin to mount, Mookie throws a garbage can through the window of Sal’s Pizzeria, sparking the black residents to destroy this white-owned business.
It’s hard to not weigh Mookie’s actions against Da Mayor’s directive, so does Mookie, in fact, “do the right thing”? One could argue that Mookie channels the neighborhood’s grief and rage away from Sal (Danny Aiello) and his sons and toward their business, thus preventing further bloodshed even as the business burns. And Spike Lee has always maintained, much as have protesters in the past weeks, that if you feel worse about the destruction of Sal’s Pizzeria than about the murder of Radio Raheem by the police then you need to rethink your priorities.
But I think it’s too simplistic a reading that Mookie throwing that garbage can fulfills the requirement to do the right thing. Mookie stops to listen to Da Mayor but his “I got it. I’m gone.” does not inspire confidence that he has absorbed Da Mayor’s message. Rather, Do the Right Thing shows just how hard it is to even know what the right thing is, let alone to do it.
But returning to that penultimate scene, Mookie’s reaction is inscrutable. He appears shocked by the death of his friend but then he seems to make a decision. He does not seem overcome by rage but, rather, resolved to take an action. So while we can debate whether or not Mookie did the right thing by throwing the garbage can, Mookie himself seems to have made a conscious decision to do what he sees as the right thing in the moment.
Which leads to the importance of context. The right thing always exists in relationship with the moment you’re in. The “right thing” at a specific time may not seem like the right thing with hindsight or a wider lens or from a different perspective. But that again underscores the difficulty—the profound, human challenge—of always doing the right thing. People attribute to Maya Angelou the dictum that you do the best you can until you know better and then when you know better, you do better. What is maturity other than the constant striving to do better?
Complexity and difficulty do not mean that we shouldn’t try to do the right thing. Each day. Each moment. Choice by choice. Do the right thing. That’s it? That’s it. I got it. I’m gone.