Cast: Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Richard Edson, Giancarlo Esposito, Spike Lee, Bill Nunn, John Turturro, John Savage
Oscar Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Danny Aiello), Best Original Screenplay (Spike Lee)
SUMMARY: Sal’s Famous Pizzeria has been in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, for 25 years. The pizzeria is owned by Sal (Danny Aiello), who is Italian-American, but the neighborhood is almost completely black – the exceptions are the Korean couple that owns the grocery store across the street and a few Hispanics inhabitants. Sal has two sons, Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson), who work in the restaurant with him; the only other employee is Mookie (Spike Lee), the black delivery boy from the neighborhood. Pino resents the neighborhood, the customers, and Mookie, and believes a number of racial stereotypes, but Vito is more open, and gets along with Mookie quite well. On this particular day, it is extremely hot in New York, causing most people to come out of their houses because they don’t have air conditioners (Sal’s is broken). In the morning, one of mookie’s friends, called Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito), comes into the restaurant and notices Sal’s Wall of Fame. All of the people on this wall are famous Italian-Americans, like Al Pacino, Joe DiMaggio, and Frank Sinatra. Buggin’ Out decides that since the restaurant is in a black neighborhood, and the majority of the customers are black, there should be black people on the Wall of Fame. Sal immediately shoots down this idea, saying that it is his restaurant, and he can do what he wants. As the day goes on, Buggin’ Out tries to organize a strike on Sal’s, but most people laugh him off. There are two exceptions: Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) and Smiley. Radio Raheem got his name because of the large, loud boombox he always carries with him. When he took it into Sal’s in the morning, an argument erupted over the music’s volume between Raheem and Sal, as Sal demanded that it be turned down or off, and Raheem resisted. Raheem is still angry with Sal, and decides to join the protest. Smiley is a mentally disabled man who spends his days wandering through the neighborhood, attempting to sell pictures of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, which he has colored.
As the day goes on, the tensions in the neighborhood begin to rise. The cops have already visited once, to turn off a fire hydrant that had been opened to provide some relief. Pino gets more and more agitated by Mookie’s antics, like side trips on deliveries and extended breaks (during which Mookie goes home and takes a shower, or goes to see his girlfriend and son), and begins to make his frustrations known. At lunch, he begs his father to sell the restaurant and reopen in their own neighborhood, but Sal refuses to leave. Sal also gets fed up with Mookie, and nearly fires him. When the sun goes down, the residents finally start to get some relief, but their tempers have not cooled with the temperature. After securing the support of Radio Raheem and Smiley, Buggin’ Out finally returns to Sal’s as they are closing. The three march in (Raheem with the boombox blaring) and demand that Sal put pictures of black people on the wall. Sal grows angry about the radio (which he had already dealt with that morning), and he finally boils over, smashing the boombox with a wooden baseball bat. Raheem then jumps him, starting a fight inside the diner that includes Sal and his sons, Raheem and several of his friends, as well as onlookers. The fight quickly spills out into the street and attracts an even larger crowd, which in turn attracts the patrolling police (who have anticipated more trouble in the neighborhood). When they arrive, Raheem is choking Sal; he is pulled off, and one of the officers begins to choke Raheem with his baton. Though his partner begs him to let go, the worked-up officer does not, and kills Raheem. When they realize this, instead of continuing to police the fight, the officers put the body in their car and leave. This leaves Sal and his sons facing the neighborhood occupants, while everybody is still angry. It is Mookie who finally acts: he throws a trash can through the front window of the restaurant, which ignites a riot. The residents rush in and loot and destroy the restaurant; Smiley sets it on fire, which calls the police and firefighters back to the scene. When the rioters do not respond to requests to leave, the firefighters turn their hoses on the crowd, and many people are arrested. Mookie and his sister sit on a curb, watching the chaos; inside the restaurant, Smiley hangs one of his pictures (of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X) on the Wall of Fame. The next day, Mookie returns to the restaurant to find that Sal is already there. Mookie wants his weekly salary, despite what happened, and although the two men get into a heated argument, Sal pays him, and the two part amicably. The local DJ dedicates a song to Raheem. At the end of the film, quotes about violence (opposing views) from Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X are shown.
MY TAKE: Given the racial tension that the country is going through right now, this film felt particularly relevant, even thought it was made nearly 30 years ago. Basically, it seemed to me that too many people were giving in to racial stereotypes, and letting the heat affect their better judgment. Instead of respecting each other and working together, most of the neighborhood residents wanted to fight and keep themselves separate from other races. This comes from three different groups in the film: the whites (Sal and his sons), the blacks (most of the neighborhood), and the Hispanics (a small group in the neighborhood). The most interesting characters to me were Sal and Mookie, as they both seem to straddle the line between groups (although my favorite relationship is between Da Mayor and Mother Sister — they were hilarious, and played by real-life married couple Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee). Sal is white, but has a longtime business in a black neighborhood. His son hates it, and begs his father to leave, but Sal refuses to do so. He gets along great with some of the customers, like Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) and Mookie’s sister, but has a really short temper with others, like Raheem and Buggin’ Out. Granted, I would get irritated too if somebody came into my restaurant blaring music, or criticizing my décor, but he could have handled things way better. Simply asking Raheem to turn the music down, rather than demanding it, probably could have prevented a lot of problems. It’s one of those things where even though you’re irritated and tired of saying the same thing over and over, you’re in a service industry, and you have to be pleasant with your customers. Mookie manages to straddle all three groups: he’s black, and is friends or at least acquaintances with everybody in the neighborhood, but he works for Sal, and is friendly with one son. In addition, his girlfriend (and the mother of his son) is Hispanic. Sometimes, Mookie doesn’t seem to see color, like when he’s talking with Vito about Pino’s bullying, but at other times, he also gives in to stereotypes, like when he’s demanding that his son speak English instead of Spanish. Ultimately, everything boils over into a fight that leads to a murder and the destruction of Sal’s. I can understand people getting fed up and wanting to act for change, but I don’t understand or condone violence, particularly rioting. As the quote from Dr. King at the end says, violence only creates more violence. Basically, if one party acts out violently, the other side feels that they are justified in being violent back, which creates a vicious cycle. Property gets destroyed, people get killed, and nothing gets accomplished, because both sides come out angry. Think about it in terms of this movie: yes, Sal no longer has a restaurant, but the neighborhood no longer has one of their primary restaurants, and one of their own has been killed. Did anybody come out a winner in that? None of the tension between the parties was resolved — I can guarantee that Pino still hates black people, and Buggin’ Out probably feels that the burning was justified. It’s a tragedy all around. On a (somewhat) lighter note, here’s something to consider: would things have turned out the same way if the cops hadn’t turned off the fire hydrant? When I was in school, this was used as an example of almost “good” crime — it doesn’t really hurt anybody, and it probably keeps people from committing other crimes. Had the fire hydrant been left on, at least for a while, a lot of the teenage residents would have had something to do, instead of simmering about how people treated them (real or imagined). People would not have been so overheated, which in turn might have kept their tempers in check, which might have prevented the fight. It might have lightened the mood of the entire neighborhood — either playing in the water or watching those who were. I might be completely off base, but it seems like such a simple act might have prevented a lot of violence.
Fun fact: Rosie Perez, who plays Mookie’s girlfriend (and was in White Men Can’t Jump) is the voice of Click the Camera in the TV show Go, Diego, Go. This was her film debut, as well as the film debut of Martin Lawrence, who plays one of the neighborhood teenagers.
Bill Nunn, who plays Radio Raheem, is also in Sister Act, where he plays the cop trying to protect Whoopi Goldberg’s character.