Set on one street in Brooklyn on one boiling hot day, Mookie (Spike Lee) delivers pizza for Sal (Danny Aiello) the owner of ‘Sal’s Pizzeria’, while Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L Jackson) is the DJ watching the street and providing the soundtrack.
Smiley (Roger Geunveur Smith) wonders along the street trying to sell pictures of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X; a Korean couple have opened a convenience store; Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) blares Fight the Power from his boombox and three men sit like a Greek chorus opposite Sal’s passing comment. As the camera follows them through the day we get to know them all and watch as the temperature rises and hate and bigotry smoulder. It’s hot, bold and provocative from the very beginning when Tina (Rosie Perez) dances to Public Enemy’s Fight the Power, from then on its like a ticking bomb.
Sal has owned his pizzeria for 25 years and has watched the neighbourhood grow up along with his own sons who work with him. The eldest son Pino (John Turturro) is angry, depressed and openly racist, Sal and his younger son Vito (Richard Edson) don’t share his views but they also don’t confront him. This casual, everyday racism that’s systemic in all our cultures is collected together in a brutal montage of all the characters chanting racist taunts to the camera.
During the afternoon Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) asks Sal why, since his customers are nearly all African-American, there aren’t any pictures of black celebrities on his wall of fame along with the Italian-American ones? And then Sal asks Radio Raheem to turn the volume down. Two seemingly small acts. But tensions are rising, Sal smashes the boombox to pieces and is caught uttering racist names when he’s under pressure. Sal and Raheem get into a fight, the police arrive and everything explodes.
This is up front, shouty, sweary, in your face and shocking (and way out of my comfort zone) but it isn’t grim. There’s humour and laughter and gentleness between the aged couple Da Major (Ossie Davis) and Mother Sister (Ruby Dee), when the colours soften and the music melts.
The film ends with contrasting statements from Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, one saying that violence is never justified and the other that it is, if in self-defence. I’m not sure that the film offers any resolution but Smiley pins pictures of both men on the wall of Sal’s Pizzeria.
Written and directed by Spike Lee in 1989 partly in response to the number of racially motivated killings including Michael Griffiths in 1986 and the shooting of Eleanor Bumpurs in 1984, it seems particularly shocking to be watching it 30 years later when George Floyd and Jacob Blake are the news stories.