Set during the hottest day of the year in New York City, Do The Right Thing depicts the tensions intensifying around a pizza joint in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant (Bed-Stuy) neighborhood. Inspired by racially charged incidents such as the 1983 police beating and subsequent death of graffiti artist Michael Stewart and the 1986 assault of three black men in Howard Beach, Queens, the film takes place over a 24-hour period of sweltering heat, following the protagonist Mookie (Lee), a black pizza delivery man, as he navigates through the neighborhood’s racial, generational, and class conflicts. Moving between the private sphere of apartments and bedrooms to the public sphere of street corners and crowded public sidewalks, the film offers a nuanced portrayal of the different attitudes, personalities, and desires that can clash within the urban space.
In a published journal and script of Do The Right Thing, Spike Lee notes that the film was inspired, in part, by violent racial clashes that occurred in 1980s New York City. He writes, “While I was in the grocery today I heard a radio newscast that two Black youths had been beaten up by a gang of white youths in Bensonhurst. The two Black kids were hospitalized. They were collecting bottles and cans when they got jumped. This happened on Christmas night. Just the other day some Black kids fired up a white cab driver in Harlem. New York City is tense with racial hatred. Can you imagine if these incidents had taken place in the summer, on the hottest day of the year? I’d be a fool not to work the subject of racism into Do The Right Thing.”
Taking notes from real-life incidents of racially motivated violence, Lee imaginatively portrays the racial animosities that often erupt within the urban sphere. He dedicates the film to the families of victims of police brutality in New York City: Eleanor Bumpurs, an elderly black woman who was gunned to death by the police as they were attempting to evict her from her apartment in the Bronx; Michael Griffith, who was killed after he was hit by a car while trying to flee a pizzeria where he and his companions were assaulted by white teenagers armed with baseball bats; Arthur Miller, a businessman who was beaten to death by 16 policemen; Edmund Perry, a 17-year-old graduate of Phillips Exeter Academy, who was shot and killed by a plain-clothes police officer in the Morningside Park neighborhood of Manhattan; Yvonne Smallwood, a 28-year-old Bronx woman who died after what her friends said was a severe beating by the police; and Michael Stewart, who was killed while in the custody of the New York City Transit Police.
Do the Right Thing’s allusion to then-recent race-related violence served to keep the real-life racial tensions of New York City in the consciousness of movie-goers, causing some scholars to suggest that the film was largely responsible for Mayor Ed Koch’s loss in his November 1989 reelection campaign to David Dinkins, who would become New York City’s first—and so far only—black mayor.