(Dir. Spike Lee, United States, 1989)
We’re All Responsible
Viewing Spike Lee’s seminal Do the Right Thing in light of a recent season of heightened racial tensions in America, it’s almost too easy to see prescience in its explosive finale – an unarmed black man strangled to death while resisting an officer and the resultant rioting and looting of a local business – but it’s the preceding hour and a half that’s even more disturbing still. Twenty-five years later, it’s a sad and unconscionable truth that the conversation, the stereotypes, the bigotry based on cyclical presumptions has changed very little since that hot summer day in 1989. It should go without saying then that Lee’s film has lost none of its cultural significance in the meantime – as an accomplished piece of filmmaking and a socio-political document of American race relations.
What one might first notice on an initial viewing of Do the Right Thing is how steeped in an unmistakable ‘80s aesthetic it is and how unlike it seems from nearly every film before it. With an eye-popping color palette, odd camera angles, extreme close-ups, and an opening Public Enemy musical cue utilized repeatedly throughout, it’s clear Lee intends to speak to a very specific moment in time (and establishes a refreshing and singular auteuristic voice in the process). In Reagan’s America, some might argue the situation for the black community worsened, and nearly everyone would agree that it certainly made no progress. Lee sets his narrative in the predominantly black Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn neighborhood and never wanders outside the parameter of a few blocks.
He introduces us to a wide range of characters that embody deeply entrenched cultural stereotypes one way or another – numerous hood-dwelling black residents, young and old, towing the poverty line, hot-tempered and territorial Puerto Ricans with a distaste for the cops, Korean storeowners who shout and curse in broken English, Anglo police officers menacingly patrolling the streets – but he focuses primarily on one lazy pizza delivery man nicknamed Mookie (played by Lee himself) and his Italian-American boss Sal (Danny Aiello) owner of the local pizzeria. On the hottest day of the summer, these characters sweat and bake in the unrelenting sun, and tensions grow rapidly high as these various ethnic groups clash over the course of the day.
The film lacks a central plot and instead chronicles the conversations and goings-on of the neighborhood’s residents as Lee tours the widespread stereotypes that we as viewers may too share. It’s an honest portrayal, even if unfavorably so, of those who reinforce these generalizations, but by crafting Do the Right Thing as a comedy Lee avoids a self-seriousness that plagues the similarly themed, yet risible Crash that supposedly tackled racism once and for all a few years back. Despite ongoing and polarized discussion on whose side Lee falls, his characterizations seem remarkably balanced. There are far more black characters for him to explore, but none is exonerated too easily. His supporting characters show their hand early and often, but his two leads – Mookie and Sal – appear nearly innocent until the film’s final moments when growing tension culminates in one irreversible, violent collision. Interestingly, when these two stumble (Sal obliterating Radio Raheem’s stereo and uttering the taboo word “nigger,” Mookie snapping and inciting the ensuing riot) their actions bear the greatest consequences.
So, what’s to be learned from this mess of prejudice and hate mongering? Has Lee simply revealed that no one’s a hero, that everyone’s to blame? Partly, yes, but he seems to take a less nihilistic, albeit somewhat ambiguous, stance on the issue. The presence of both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X loom over the entire film at first in the stuttering character of Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith) who tries to wed the ideals of the two and finally as Lee quotes both during the credits. Malcolm’s words seem to reflect what we’ve just seen, but King’s are the words Lee wants to believe in. The filmmaker shows what happens when a bubbling pot boils over, but he never condones it. The destructive reaction to Raheem’s (Bill Nunn) unjust murder explains why the neighborhood burns the pizzeria to the ground, but it’s never justified.
If there’s a sole voice of reason in all of this, it’s found in the neighborhood drunk Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) – a clever, if not wholly original, move. Very few of the block’s residents take Da Mayor’s ramblings seriously, but it’s he who seeks to restore order to the chaos. He risks his own life to save a boy who jumps out into the street, and he shields Sal and his sons from the mayhem of the destruction of the pizzeria. He also appears to be the least racist character of them all. Fittingly, then, the film’s title comes from Da Mayor’s encouragement for Mookie to do just that. It’s clear from the climactic clash where nearly all of Lee’s characters are complicit – notably the seemingly peaceful Mother Sister (Ruby Dee) chants “burn it down!” – that most decidedly do not do the right thing. But, Lee’s Mayor may very well be speaking to us, his viewers, as well.
The idea of responsibility comes up frequently throughout Do the Right Thing – both Mookie’s sister Jade (Joie Lee) and girlfriend Tina (Rosie Perez) bluntly suggest that he assume some for his life and choices. This repeated theme leads one to wonder who’s responsible for all that happens over the course of this sun-scorched day. Many viewers and detractors of the film point to the rash and unacceptable behavior of Raheem and Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) who provoke Sal into losing his cool. But, history tells us that there are more layers to the cycle of poverty and racial inequality, and thus we shouldn’t settle for such easy finger pointing.
Of course, adult men – black, white, Latino, Asian, etc. – are responsible for their own choices, but it’s undeniable that the cards have been stacked against them. Lee accurately portrays an inner-city neighborhood mentality – a notion often foreign to white suburban Americans. It’s something Sal – an Italian-American – would have understood, and yet there’s a subtle racism in his refusal to assimilate (or even entertain the possibility of doing so) to the black community that his restaurant serves. It’s an attitude that bubbles to the surface when he lashes out smashing Raheem’s radio and name-calling his customers the most offensive name possible. Buggin’ Out and Raheem are responsible for their unwarranted reaction (though Raheem certainly didn’t deserve to die), Sal responsible for his, and, closer to home, we’re all responsible for the largely unchanged status of black people in America. A lot of the conversation regarding Do the Right Thing since its release has focused on whose side is more justified in their behavior, and yet this dialogue reveals the very reason why we still need Lee’s film all these years later. Until we all accept responsibility for our role in affecting change, tragic endings like the one Lee captures here will unfortunately continue to repeat themselves.