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Baked Apple: The Stealth Worldbuilding of Do the Right Thing Part 1

The sunlight illuminates the street as it rises above the brownstones of a sleepy Brooklyn neighborhood. People are just waking up, ready for the day that awaits them. The heat of the sun greets them first and it’s only going to get hotter. When things get hotter, things get nastier. Little do these people realize that the hottest day of the year is going to bring things to a boil that will impact their community for generations to come.

The term “worldbuilding” is often reserved for the likes of fantasy epics and science fiction yarns, a catch all for describing the skill it takes to craft and present a world unlike our own. Though worldbuilding is associated with hobbits, killer robots, or air nomads, worldbuilding is a skill that must be applied to all stories, not just the more fantastical ones. The best worldbuilding is the kind that one doesn’t even notice, it subtly hides in the shadows, gradually sucking you into its spell. It’s apparent in the best of contemporary storytelling from the neon tinged streets of 1969 Hollywood to the jungles of Vietnam to a hot block in Bed Stuy. 

Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee’s 1989 masterpiece is a marvel of filmmaking. A movie where all the pieces come together to make a sublime, radical, and revolutionary film. It is a masterclass in worldbuilding due to its diverse and textured cast of characters, its authentic use of place, and an expert use of cinematic technique and style to present a world that looks like the real world but is not. Lee sought to show how a one block stretch in a Brooklyn neighborhood was a microcosm for the greater conflicts of the world at large. Do the Right Thing exemplifies the best aspects of worldbuilding by presenting an ecosystem within a single street in a subtly abstract manner and creates a world that feels realer than real. 

Bed Stuy, Do or Die

Do the Right Thing takes place on a single stretch of Stuyvesant Street between Quincy Street and Lexington Avenue in the heart of Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant (Bed Stuy for short) neighborhood. In 1989 Bed Stuy was filled with “some of the highest unemployment, infant mortality, and drug related homicide rates in New York City,” thanks to twenty years of African American communities being pushed deeper and deeper into the inner-city boroughs without many opportunities for economic growth. Despite those setbacks, Spike Lee notes that though the residents in these neighborhoods “live in the bowels of the socio-economic system,” they still “live with dignity and humor.” Spike Lee chose Bed Stuy as the perfect setting to explore racial tensions in America and expose the societal injustices imposed on the urban working class.

Though small, the world of this neighborhood is nonetheless bursting with life. The sultry sounds of We Love Radio 108 helmed by ever present DJ Mister Senor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson) provide a soundtrack for the day. The block’s self-proclaimed soothsayer and resident drunk Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) stumbles out to make some extra booze money while the ever-judgmental Mother Sister (Ruby Dee) leers at him from above. The mentally handicapped Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith) tries to peddle photos of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. past three older Corner Men (Paul Benjamin, Frankie Faison, and Robin Harris) drinking and philosophizing.

Meanwhile a white Cadillac pulls up past Sunny (Steve Park), the Korean Grocer and his wife as they open their fruit stand for the day. Out walks Sal (Danny Aiello) and his sons Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson) to open up the pizzeria Sal built with his own two hands 25 years ago. As they open up, their delivery boy Mookie (Spike Lee) finally decides to come into work. Other young folks like the combative Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Espositio) or the imposing Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), go about their days unaware that it will be the tensest day of their lives. All is quiet now, but things will start to heat up until they inevitably explode.

Forgoing the use of a studio backlot, Spike Lee insisted on shooting on location in Bed Stuy. To Lee, it was imperative that they shoot there or else there would be no movie. He balked at other cities suggested like Philly or Baltimore, saying “I’m sorry, Philly and Baltimore are great cities, but they just aren’t Brooklyn.” This may seem stubborn, but as William Grant points out in his essay “Reflecting the Times: Revisiting Do the Right Thing,” that “although most major cities have significant African American populations, the African American folk cultures differ from city to city.” Spike Lee wanted to present a neighborhood, a culture that he knew better than anyone and that lends to the authenticity of the world itself.

When filmmakers make good use of their settings, they not only film the space, but live in it, exploring how best to represent and unlock its true potential. When people say, “it’s like [insert location here] was a character in the film,” what they’re really talking about is good worldbuilding. For Lee, it was imperative for Do the Right Thing to play out in this specific location because it adds a layer of authenticity to the world. Spike Lee wished to expose the injustices imposed on the Black underclass and present a world filled with people who are fellow human beings and not just statistics.

“My People, My People”

Good worldbuilding is not just creating a unique physical location, but also creating distinct and fascinating characters to populate that space. The world of Do the Right Thing brims with a wide diversity of characters covering all different races and ethnicities from Black, Puerto Rican, Korean, and White. Lee presents a melting pot of characters in order to represent how these issues are not just permeating in this neighborhood, but also around the world at large.

One of the key elements Spike Lee uses to convey the connection between character and place is use of active frames. The ever-constant activity on the block creates a sense that this is a living, breathing world. You can depend on the Corner Men sitting in their chairs musing just as much as you can depend on Smiley peddling his photos of Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr. Lee intended to keep the script “circular,” by ensuring that every character had a “function” in order to “advance the script in some way.” Lee succeeded in this endeavor by presenting a community brimming with life and the viewer can’t help but get drawn into this world because each frame is filled with characters they recognize and connect with that all serve a purpose in the world of the story.

Spike Lee puts his own character, Mookie at the center of the film, but is wise enough to not have him be a clear-cut hero. He’s “lazy and shiftless,” according to Lee, a character who is more interested in getting paid than seeing his own son. He’s a complicated character, but Lee stated he wasn’t worried about presenting Mookie as flawed because his “character was based on truth.” Lee places such a morally complex character as the epicenter of the film’s orbit in order to demonstrate that there are no heroes in this story, only complicated people with their own desires, faults, and prejudices.

“Let Me Tell You The Story of Left Hand, Right Hand…”

The world of Do the Right Thing is filled to the brim with colorful and rich characters, but there are characters that stand out above the rest. Even the inhabitants of the block make way or show respect to the likes of Mother Sister, Da Mayor, and Radio Raheem. These characters are presented to the viewer as almost mythic figures because the other characters treat them as such. As a result, it shows a world that is creating its own myths and legends.

Mother Sister rarely leaves her brownstone, either perched on her windowsill or sitting on her stoop. “Mother Sister ALWAYS watching,” she says to Mookie, reminding the youth of the neighborhood that she remains in a state of constant vigilance, always certain to make sure the people of the neighborhood are safe. Her kind and loving demeanor is withheld, however, whenever Da Mayor is around.

Da Mayor stumbles around the block, always looking for the next drink, occasionally taking a moment to dole advice to whoever will listen. He somehow is able to withstand the heat in a battered suit, but he is always present on the block. He is the man on the ground while Mother Sister watches from above. He may be considered an old drunk by many on the block, but he still manages to carry himself with an air of dignity. He is a consummate gentleman who sees himself as the moral compass holding the neighborhood together, even if many other people don’t see it that way.

Mother Sister and Da Mayor may be staples in the neighborhood, but their influence is gradually crumbling around them. Though they often try to consult the younger generation that lives in the neighborhood, they are indulged, but often their words fall on deaf ears. Ruby Dee stated that once you reach a certain age, one becomes a statue “and what happens to statues? Birds shit on them.” Though they are (mostly) revered in the eyes of the members of the community, they are relegated to the sidelines and regarded more as symbols than actual people with experience, desires, or wisdom.

Da Mayor and Mother Sister are the monuments to another time, though we’re never told much about their past. The mysterious nature of their history together and apart helps bolster their mythic status. They are burdened with the weight of history on their shoulders and they’ve used their knowledge to attempt to maintain order in the neighborhood. They are, as Ossie Davis puts it so beautifully, “A center pole around which a lot of the community revolves.” By the end of Do the Right Thing, Mother Sister finally acknowledges Da Mayor as her kindred spirit in maintaining the ethical course of the neighborhood. As long as they are still there to guide and advise, the neighborhood will not be lost in darkness.

“Do you think the block’s still standing?”   “We’re still standing.”

While Mother Sister and Da Mayor are the figures of old-time values, Radio Raheem is a modern hero, a rap loving Hercules. He strides along the streets lugging a massive boombox that makes one wonder how he can carry it with one hand with such ease. He has an imposing figure and is often framed as such to appear larger than life. We hear his anthem, Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” usually before we see him. It’s a beckoning that a legend is coming through and people best make way.

Radio Raheem commands respect and fear from the younger kids in the neighborhood. “It’s your world in a big way,” they say to him, often hyping up his own legend with statements like “He even walks in stereo!” When the neighborhood kids open the fire hydrant, they make sure the water does not hit Radio Raheem when he walks past, parting the seas of the neighborhood. His status as an urban Hercules continues when he competes with a group of Puerto Rican kids over the volume of his music. He handily wins and walks off in triumph, another one of his twelve labors completed for the day.

Though Radio Raheem is treated and presented as a God-like figure, he is far from untouchable. Like many of the Greek Gods he’s in line with, he is flawed. He shows his own frustrations and prejudice with the Korean grocer when he says “Learn to speak English.” His worship of music is his ultimate undoing as he refuses to turn it down for most people (the only exception being Mookie) willingly. His attachment to the music stems from it being the only thing that defines him. He rarely speaks, instead opting to let the music speak for him. It is aggressive and combative, qualities we assume Raheem has, but we are never sure until he assaults Sal. Then all bets are off. He is punished for his transgressions.

Though Radio Raheem’s “Left Hand, Right Hand” speech is a nod to the classic 1957 film Night of the Hunter, the characters in Do the Right Thing worship their fair share of real-life legends and icons. Do the Right Thing is littered with icons from the mural of Mike Tyson, to Punchy’s Black Panther comic, and, of course, Sal’s Wall of Fame. These figures stand to show part of the character’s senses of identity and attachment. These figures transcend the natural realm into something greater than human. Even Pino, who shows nothing but animosity towards African Americans, admits that his favorite basketball player is Magic Johnson and Eddie Murphy his favorite movie star. His reasoning being that they have transcended blackness to become something greater. The connection the inhabitants of the neighborhood have with these icons show the overarching and diverse culture of the world of the film.

Hanging above all these icons, above the whole neighborhood are the modern Black myths: Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Their influence permeates throughout the film. Smiley is constantly peddling pictures of them to whoever will buy them. He wears an earpiece that pumps in the speeches of both men showing that he is “always connected to the Gods.” The influence of the Civil Rights movement seeps into everyone on the block and their core values. Their shadow looms so heavily over Do the Right Thing, that Spike Lee lets them have the final word, turning the film into a quasi-parable whose message can only be decided by the audience.

“Those Who Tell, Don’t Know. Those Who Know, Don’t Tell.”

The neighborhood in Do the Right Thing can function as its own ecosystem predominantly because of the clear rules and traditions that its inhabitants adhere to. These stem from local aphorisms to larger societal expectations. You don’t make a man change his beer, you don’t scuff a man’s Air Jordan’s, and extra cheese is two dollars. The title itself evokes the importance of respecting the philosophical and ethical codes. These are rules that keep the whole block in check, the world at peace. If one was to break with this societal contract, then chaos would erupt. All it takes is one transgression to set everything off.

Buggin’ Out is the first to challenge these traditions in fact, his introduction shows his combative nature right off the bat. He squabbles with Sal regarding the amount of cheese on the slice of pizza and after being rebuffed by Sal, he walks to a booth, still miffed at the situation. It is here that he notices the Italian American only Wall of Fame and decides to ask Sal to “add some brothers up on the wall” to better reflect the clientele that patronize Sal’s Pizzeria. He is instantly met with aggression for daring to challenge the way things have been for years and is cast out.

This kickstarts the central conflict of Do the Right Thing and perfectly encompasses how little transgressions snowball to a much more explosive conclusion. What follows is Buggin’ Out’s futile boycott of Sal’s that will end with both the death of Radio Raheem and the destruction of Sal’s Pizzeria. Spike Lee observed how “when the temperature rises beyond a certain point, people lose it. Little incidents spark major conflicts. Bump into someone in the street and you’re liable to get shot.” This is how centuries long feuds start, over someone skimping on the cheese.

Another clear unspoken rule hanging over the neighborhood is the use of derogatory or racist slurs. Though a lot of these words are certainly spoken in private by the characters, there is an unspoken understanding that “they simply cannot be uttered in polite society.” Even Pino, who says a lot of derogatory things, does not call Mookie the n-word to his face. Even though he doesn’t like Mookie (and the feeling is mutual), he knows not to break with a social code that is in place for a reason.

Lee emphasizes the reason this dictum is followed by having a sequence where several of the characters break the fourth wall, spouting all the harmful, incisive epithets they can think of directly at the viewer. Lee grabs the audience and turns them from casual viewer to participant in the world. The words are biting and what’s even more disturbing is the satisfaction on each character’s face when they say them. They never have the chance to in reality, because if they did, it would cross a line that cannot be uncrossed.

Sal crosses that line. When he calls Buggin’ Out that word, that unspeakable in the heat of the climax, is when things fully go haywire. This is a man who up until this point has been a generous, albeit benevolent, businessman. He commands respect, which is why most people don’t join Buggin’ Out in his quest to boycott Sal’s. He, like his pizzeria, is crucial to the neighborhood, it’s a monument that people don’t fuck with. But the moment Sal looses that word, it all comes down and precipitates everything that follows. Buggin’ Out may have lit the match, but Sal fans the flames until the bomb goes off.

All it takes is one thing to bring the traditional structures crashing down. Rules are broken in rapid succession and before you know it, Sal’s Famous Pizzeria is reduced to cinders. Right before they enter Sal’s, Radio Raheem mentions that when Sal demanded he turned off his music “he didn’t even say ‘Please,’ or nothing.” To think that if Sal had just done honored the social code of the world, this all could’ve been avoided.

Next week: The crew behind the neighborhood, the music of the neighborhood, and the truth in all our neighborhoods

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