Race isn’t a category measured in skin tone. It’s a series of social performances. Director Spike Lee’s first film bets on those performances, which slip from vulnerable to extraordinary without notice. His ensemble cast hits all the right notes.
Mookie (baby-faced, brilliant Spike Lee) is a reluctant delivery boy for a pizza joint awkwardly stuffed inside Brooklyn’s mostly black Bed-Stuy neighborhood. Owner Sal (Danny Aiello) won’t compromise with customer Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) over demands to replace the restaurant’s photos of Italian-Americans with photos of black brothers — since, after all, it’s only brothers who eat there.
Sal’s raging son Pino (John Turturro) will stop at nothing to turn his family against Mookie for being black. And Mookie stops at nothing to throw Puerto Rican girlfriend Tina off his scent (Rosie Perez with the earsplitting delivery that made her an icon).
Then there’s all the street roaming savants: soft-spoken messiah Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), boombox-freighting Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), local DJ Mister Señor Love Daddy (ultra-smooth Samuel L. Jackson) and village idiot Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith) who pesters everyone with that eerie photograph of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X smiling in unison. It’s a comedy until someone loses an eye.
Lee can make the heart skip a beat or three with his intentional misfires: moments that brush up against the trigger only to have characters laugh it off.
But when Sal discovers he has one too many unsatisfied customers, the bright, saturated colors of the film’s first half are drained away by blood in the street. Da Mayor, a pacifist, is the one who commands Mookie to, “always do the right thing,” and he does — though King might be less inclined to agree than Mr. X.
Lee’s film asks an enormous question. Is it violence what it takes to finally stir people from their sleepwalk through oppression? Director Paul Haggis’s lesser meditation on race relations, 2004’s “Crash”, won an Oscar for Best Picture while this masterpiece unjustly went without a nomination.