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Celebrating Its 25th Anniversary... Why Do You Think Mookie Threw a Trash Can Through Sal’s Pizzeria Window?

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by Tambay A. Obenson
June 27, 2014 5:43 PM
3 Comments
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do the right thing sal's pizzeria

Just in time for the release of his Kickstarter-funded joint, "Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus," starting in exactly 2 days, BAMcinématek in Brooklyn, New York will host a retrospective of Spike Lee's films, in a series titled "By Any Means Necessary: A Spike Lee Joints Retrospective" running from June 29 - July 10.

BAM's 12-day series will include a screening of what is probably Spike's least seen film - his NYU master’s thesis work, "Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads." I haven't even seen it (the only released Spike Lee film I have yet to watch, if only because it's not one that Spike has made available). Needless to say, I will most certainly be there for that screening, when it happens on July 1. It may be my only chance to finally see it.

Of course, the usual suspects will all be included, like what many deem to be his masterpiece, "Do The Right Thing," which, by the way, is celebrating its 25th anniversary! How time flies! And in celebration of that milestone, I thought I'd revisit an old debate we had on this blog about the film - specifically, the meaning that can be found within a key scene. 

This was a debate we had on the old site, almost 4 years ago (and again 2 years ago), when only about 100 people were reading S&A. Ok, so there were more than that, but you get the point!

Some 5 years later, there are certainly a ton more of you reading this site's content, and so I thought, why not bring it up again, especially since it's the film's 25th anniversary, as well as the fact that it generated so much discussion/debate the first (and second) time, clearly indicating that there wasn't a consensus among black people on an answer to the question, which some of us initially believed; The filmmaker himself being one of those people.

In short, it'll all started with the below video, in which Spike Lee spoke during a brief Q&A before the Atlanta Film Festival’s 20th anniversary screening of "Do the Right Thing," at the Fox Theater in Atlanta, in 2009.

In the video, Lee mentions that, in 20 years, the only people who had ever asked him why Mookie threw the trash can through the window of Sal’s Pizzeria at the end of the film, have been non-black people; and that no black person, apparently, had ever asked him that question.

In response to that video, I wondered whether a reason for why no black person had ever asked him that question, was that there probably are black people who would like to ask him the question, but who might be afraid to do so, if only because he’s already indirectly told all of us that we should already know why, and shouldn’t have to ask, because we're black!

And my S&A colleague, Wendy, followed up that initial 2009 post of mine, with a survey asking the question: Why do you think Mookie threw the trash can through Sal’s pizza parlor window in 'Do The Right Thing'? The point was to find out if all our readers (whom I assume are primarily black people) at the time knew why Mookie did what he did, or at least had their own interpretation of what happened, and why, and then we'd compare answers, to see if there was indeed a consensus, or if we all saw the act via different lenses.

And, maybe not surprisingly, there were several different reactions to that scene, based on comments posted in response to the question. And things even got a bit heated too, with yours truly in the thick of it.

But it was a healthy, critical, in-depth discussion, with a group of smart, informed folks and cinephiles (including Charles Judson, Qadree Woodland who used to write for S&A, Wendy, Monique, of course myself, and several others) in which we really broke down the film, and that scene in particular. And I think we all (myself definitely) learned a few things back then. 

To give you some idea of how involved the post was, the debates in the comment section went on for a good 5 days straight! And this was when the site was still relatively new, and we had very few readers.

As I first said back then (among many other things), what often isn’t mentioned when I hear others discuss this topic is that, as Mookie throws the trash can through the glass window, he yells, “Hate!”

Now, rewind the film in your head about 20 minutes, back to the scene in which Radio Raheem schools Mookie on the never-ending struggle between love and hate. In Radio Raheem’s rendition, love wins the battle. In Mookie’s reality, hate wins over love, as he yells, “Hate” when he throws the trash can.

The question then is, whose “hate” is it that wins? The film waffles a bit, never fully committing to one side or the other – love or hate – essentially, implying that it’s really not that black and white. There’s a lot of grey area, and that’s life.

The ending quotes by both MLK and Malcolm X, which were added after studio execs insisted that Spike end the film on a somewhat less depressing note, tell us something. One preached non-violence; the other preached self-defense. Not that we were being asked to choose between one or the other; but, again, the film doesn’t really give us any clear answers, and maybe it's not necessarily its job to do that. We have to essentially unpack it all amongst ourselves.

Also, remember when Buggin’Out tries to organize a boycott of Sal’s, but the other black characters he enlists aren’t quite interested, because, as they tell him, they have no issues with Sal. So the trash can through the window wasn’t about Sal personally, but more about what Sal and his pizzeria represented, to Mookie and his neighborhood - especially after Raheem's death - which meant it had to be destroyed in their eyes.

So, back to “hate,” which Mookie yells as he tosses the trash can threw the window; One of the things I took from that is, in that moment, hate won over love – specifically Mookie’s hate. He let it get the best of him, and he acted on it, destroying this symbol of ownership (which is key to the entire film), and the one thing Sal treasured; the one thing he depended on for his family's livelihood.

That's essentially where the debate on the blog began; and evolved from there, branching into other areas that, by the 5th day, we'd almost completely gotten off the initial topic, but were still talking about film.

There was conversation about whether Mookie was right to do what he did in the first place, let alone discuss what it meant. Some took issue with the act, and didn't feel that it was justified, and questioned Mookie's true intentions, and whether Sal truly deserved that. Others simply weren't sure what Spike's message was with that scene, and thus questioned whether he was actually successful in delivering whatever that message was to his audience, and much more.

So, I'll leave it there, and pose the question to you folks to discuss: Why do YOU think Mookie threw the trash can through the window of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria in "Do The Right Thing"?

First, here's the Spike Lee Q&A on "Do The Right Thing" in which he talks about that specific scene; And underneath, you'll find the scene itself:

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3 Comments

  • Easy | June 29, 2014 8:32 AMReply

    Mookie threw the trashcan because Spike wanted to be seen as a revolutionary who is not afraid to use violence to fight The Man...throwing the trash can was "the right thing" because Malcolm X path (by any means necessary) appealed more to Spike than MLK's non-violence...that's why he made the Malcolm X pic afterwards

  • Mike | June 28, 2014 11:32 AMReply

    I myself have wondered why Mookie threw the trash can through Sal's Pizza Parlor window. What struck me was the ending of the film with the quotes by Honorable Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. I understood that Spike Lee was asking us (America, The World) to think deeply about what Mookie did and what motivated him to do it? Was Mookie wrong or right in his actions? Your thoughts? Why would Sal continue to operate his restaurant in a majority African-American neighborhood? Despite his sons insistence to move to a majority Italian/White neighborhood? What is Sal's reasoning for staying? Your thoughts?

    I am glad that "Do The Right Thing" ended the way it did. It was meant to start a dialogue and discussion. The question we (America, The World) need to ask ourselves is:

    What have we learned from "Do The Right Thing?"

  • petros | June 28, 2014 4:50 AMReply

    The act is meant to engender a sense of psychological balance in a community that is in turmoil. It is meant to de-escalate the tension by providing release through destruction in order to avoid further bloodshed. It serves as a form of catharsis for all parties. Both Mookie and Sal realize this. It is a perfect illustration of the central conceptual conflict of the film and definitely achieves its objective of giving the audience homework by not offering a pronouncement but the rendering of an inconclusive discussion.

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