Twenty-five years ago today, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing was released in theaters. Controversial then and still volatile now, it has since taken its place among the greatest American films ever made. It has a lot to say (it was written directed by Spike Lee, so of course it does) about race, class, power, sex and community. Any number of moments could be the topic of their own essay. But we mostly remember this movie for one scene: the flying trash can.
It’s the end of the hottest day of the year in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a predominantly black neighborhood in Brooklyn. Mookie (played by Lee himself), the delivery man for Sal’s Pizzeria, just wants to get paid and go home. His friends, Buggin’ Out and Radio Raheem, won’t let Mookie’s boss, Sal, close up shop until he makes right what they feel is his mistreatment of them as patrons of his restaurant. (Buggin’ Out is mad that Sal’s “Wall of Fame” has no black faces on it, while Radio Raheem didn’t appreciate being told to turn down the music on his larger-than-life boombox). Tempers flare, words are exchanged (including the infamous n-word), and Sal takes a bat to Radio Raheem’s prized possession. “I just killed your fucking radio,” he says. Enraged, Radio Raheem lunges at Sal and the entire pizzeria breaks out into a brawl. When the police arrive on the scene, they apprehend Radio Raheem. Using his baton, one of the officers applies a chokehold that stops Radio Raheem’s breathing. The officers put his body in the back of squad car and drive away, leaving the neighborhood’s black residents to assume Radio Raheem is dead and the police will get away with killing him, as they’ve done so many times before.
Mookie watches all of this. Moments after taking it all in, he walks toward a trash can, removes the lid and trash, picks it up, runs toward Sal’s Pizzeria, screams “HATE!” and hurls the trash can through a window. A riot ensues.
“I think all of black America threw that can,” Lee told People in 1989.
Lee noticed something about the criticism his film was receiving, particularly from those white critics who thought it might incite race riots. “They never talk about the death of Radio Raheem at the hands of the police,” he said, “They talk about Mookie smashing the window and the pizzeria burning down.” The property rights of a white business owner took precedence over the life of a black man. It’s in that context where small acts of rebellion, like Mookie’s throwing the trash can, come to represent all of the frustration, anguish, and rage that are products of having to live under a racist system. Did he “do the right thing?” What’s the “right” response to a society that refuses you humanity?