When you look over Danny Aiello’s resume, it’s hard not to go bug-eyed just over the films you forgot he was in. Bang The Drum Slowly, Godfather II, The Front, Fingers, Bloodbrothers, Fort Apache: The Bronx, Once Upon A Time In America, The Purple Rose Of Cairo, and Radio Days just in his first 15 years on screen. And that’s all before he got his big break with Moonstruck in 1987. I mean, look at that list. It boggles the mind.
Of course, Aiello’s greatest role came two years after Moonstruck with Spike Lee’s instant classic, Do The Right Thing. As the owner of Sal’s Pizzeria, Aiello embodied a specific part of New York City and white America as well. He was as Italian as they come. A working class guy who started his own business in a neighborhood that once reflected his heritage but changed greatly by becoming largely African American.
Other than his two sons, his only employee is delivery man Mookie, played by Spike Lee. Almost all of his patrons are black. So, when Buggin’ Out (the incomparable Giancarlo Esposito) takes Sal to task for having nothing but photos of Italian-American legends on his wall, he has a point. In no way does that wall reflect his customer base. Sal’s retort is not without merit, as he tells Buggin’ to get his own pizzeria and then he can put whoever he wants on the wall.
It’s a bit of friction that may not seem terribly significant until, on the hottest day of this NYC summer, tensions boil over and a young black man is murdered by police. Sal’s Pizzeria is also burned to the ground. It’s incredible how sadly relevant the film is to this day – especially in the era of Trump.
The sort of unspoken, just below the surface, seething racism that has finally boiled over in our country parallels what happens at Sal’s. The day starts well enough. Sal opens up, and great, authentic, Italian pizza is served. Conversations on the topic of race are had throughout the day (none more profound than the one with Sal’s son – played by the great John Turturro – and Mookie over who is really ‘black’).
But slowly and inevitably, what begins as a sort of R-rated Sesame Street turns darker as the light of the sun fades to black. Sal loses his cool with Radio Raheem, and his massive boom box which plays nothing but Public Enemy’s Fight The Power at full blast. Overzealous police come to the scene and choke him to death. A trash can is thrown through Sal’s window and all hell breaks loose.
At the time, many (white people) found the film hyperbolic. Now it seems prescient. Worse yet, current.
So, what does one make of Sal? Is he a bad person? After all, it is his use of the granddaddy of all racial epithets that sends the boil over the brim. Is it that simple? Not in the hands of Spike Lee and Danny Aiello. As caustic and casually prejudiced as Sal is, he cuts Mookie a ton of slack considering he takes long breaks and is occasionally a pain in his Italian ass. Sal also likes most of his customers. Even on this fateful night, he stays open longer to make more pies because “they love my pizza.”
But under that seemingly benevolent bluster lurks a much darker hideaway that under stress comes into plain view. No, Sal is not the march down the street carrying a tiki torch white supremacist we’ve come to know and (most of us) hold in disregard. Sal is the kind who generally thinks less of the black people who he comes into contact with. It’s not that he simply hates them or thinks of them as non-people, but he does think of them as not his people, and therefore, lesser.
He is the modern day, working stiff white man who sees his way of life slipping away. And when tested, the worst in him comes out. There isn’t a chance in hell that Aiello’s Sal wouldn’t be a Trump supporter. He’s one of those maddening types who will insist he’s not racist. The kind who would start out a sentence with “I’m not a racist, but…” (and just to let you know nothing ever non-racist has ever followed those words). Sal epitomizes Trump’s so-called “forgotten man.”
It was the role of a lifetime, and it’s hard to imagine anyone playing it better than Danny Aiello. There is a great charm about Sal and many things to respect. He built up his business and puts his fingers into his own dough every single day. But there’s that other side too. The one that would bring forth that word from which there is no coming back.
To pull off a character like Sal, to make him relatable and sympathetic – even in the film’s coda, after his actions have facilitated the death of Radio Raheem – is a god damn magic trick. Aiello does so by making Sal a full human being. Is Sal generally a good person and also a latent racist? Can those two realities exist on the same plain? Therein lies the debate. It’s a nearly impossible role in an impossibly brilliant movie. How can you even explain it? It is as if the stars lined up, the moon went into full Jupiter, and the sea briefly parted to allow such a miracle to occur.
There are many great movies. There are few perfect ones. Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing is one of those immaculate jewels whose every edge gleams without flaw. For that to be so, for that to be in the realm of what could be, it needed someone at the center who could portray this most complicated character with brio and ferocity, but no vanity. I still don’t understand how he did it.
Aiello received an Oscar nomination for playing Sal in the category of best supporting actor. However, the performance towers over that distinction. It’s not just one of the best performances of that year, it is among the greatest of the 20th century. And if the film came out today, the same would be said of it in the 21st.
I cannot overstate how fortunate we are to be able to witness it over and over, again and again.
Danny Aiello died yesterday. He was 86 years old.