Revisiting Do the Right Thing

A few years ago, I was floored by Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989). For a film nearly twenty years old then and over twenty years old now, it remains one of the most important offerings on societal relations in the last few decades. It is perhaps the definitive film on racial tension, precisely because it is not really about racial tension, and it does not offer some kind of simplistic answer. Taking another look at Do the Right Thing, there’s a lot to admire: the way that Lee immerses us in the neighborhood; the disconcerting kant angles hinting at turmoil to come; the way that Lee introduces us to his sharply drawn characters, each of whom approaches stereotype but never quite arrives at it; and its hyper-realistic blend of absurdist humor and chilling drama. In my first film criticism class, I wrote that I found the film “even-handed” and anti-violent even as it appears to champion violence. I based this on the following notions. Black characters are not valorized; they express the same amount of hate—and, one could say, racism, based on the scene where Radio Raheem fumes at Korean store-owners for speaking barely intelligible English—that white characters do. They also fight with one another (over sneakers, no less) and intentionally stir up trouble. They are not mere victims; Radio Raheem and Buggin Out implicate themselves in the cause-and-effect proceedings of the climax. This tragic domino effect begins with black characters’ ill-advised behavior: Radio Raheem blasts his music in Sal’s place of business and refuses to lower the volume after being asked repeatedly; Sal loses his temper and throws out racial slurs and smashes the radio with a baseball bat; after a scuffle, the cops arrive and end up choke-holding Radio Raheem to death; Mookie throws a garbage can through the window of Sal’s pizzeria, instigating a riot which leads to the burning-down of the restaurant. One can play “what if” all day, but the fact remains that if Radio Raheem had never entered the pizza place, after hours and with blaring music, none of these events would have taken place.

I’ve held my opinion on the film’s even-handedness for the last three years. In the comments section on my Courageous post, I wrote, “Any time that you have a single idea, communicated with narrow vision and a lack of complexity, you have, essentially, a sermon, regardless of whether it’s Christian or secular.” I then described Do the Right Thing as being apart from this category, calling it “conflicting, complex, and thought-provoking: it’s exploring a theme without telling you what ‘message’ you should take from it.” The point is that no one does the right thing. Radio Raheem should not have caused disruption; Buggin Out should not have provoked him; Sal should not have destroyed the radio; the policemen should not have used excessive force, and, depending on interpretation, should not have outright murdered Radio Raheem; Mookie should not have thrown the garbage can; and the mob should not have attacked Sal’s place of business. Nothing is accomplished by this violence, and Lee asks us to consider how the dialectic of love and hate operates on Brooklyn streets where the racism of every single individual bubbles right below the surface.

This apparent even-handedness manifests itself in two quotes placed on a black screen after the final narrative moment and before the end credits. One comes from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends by defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.” The other comes from Malcolm X: “I think there are plenty of good people in America, but there are also plenty of bad people in America and the bad ones are the ones who seem to have all the power and be in these positions to block things that you and I need. Because this is the situation, you and I have to preserve the right to do what is necessary to bring an end to that situation, and it doesn’t mean that I advocate violence, but at the same time I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don’t even call it violence when it’s self-defense, I call it intelligence.”

Upon revisit, I’m not so sure. On one hand, there is complexity in Do the Right Thing. The idea of a film with such a title never telling us what is the “right thing” represents layers of depth of itself. Mookie never lays out his reasoning for throwing the garbage can through the window, and Lee never offers a direct “message” that tells viewers what they should take away from it. In fact, it presents competing viewpoints (or are they?) in the form of the two quotes mentioned above. All of this adds up to a viewing experience full of questions but not answers. On the other hand, I’m now somewhat inclined to think that Do the Right Thing should more properly be seen as propagandistic: a big black fist directed toward the oppressors. It might be a visual enactment of its near-theme “Fight the Power.” The riot is not portrayed as “right,” exactly, but the fact that it is not portrayed as definitively wrong implies that violence does figure into Lee’s scheme. I wouldn’t say it advocates violence, but it doesn’t seem to be against it either, and if Lee equates (or even suggestively equates) Malcolm X’s “self-defense” with what the black crowd does to Sal’s pizzeria (the man who, you know, smashed a radio but didn’t strangle Radio Raheem to death), then obvious bias emerges and even-handedness goes out the window (as the garbage can simultaneously flies through it).

And part of me is completely fine with that. Any outrage that Lee possesses can easily find justifiable roots, and a group that has been historically oppressed need not announce its reasons for fighting the power. I would distinguish between Sal (a man who employs Mookie, good-naturedly interacts with and feeds the black neighborhood, and shows special attention to Mookie’s sister) and the cops, between an elicited racial slur born of provoked boiling blood and police brutality born of misplaced authority and downright, unprovoked hate. Lee the person might as well, but Lee the director (of this film, at least) kind of puts them on equal footing. I understand that he might be offering a continuum, on which using derogatory terms is only a few places removed from violence on the overall spectrum of racism. But, again, this lack of distinction indicates a clear position. Then, to be fair, if I labeled Courageous as a sermon, I must also label Do the Right Thing as such. It’s an infinitely more entertaining one, a much more proficiently made one, and even a more complex one, but part of me thinks it is one nevertheless (okay, maybe it’s more like a tract).

It should be noted that Lee has actually taken a stand on the film, and it aligns more with my perspective on propaganda (I’m not using that term in a deceptive sense, just as a stand-in for “public promotion of an ideal”). A writer or director’s thoughts on a film are not necessarily relevant, and a filmmaker should never be seen as possessing the definitive answer. Once it is out of their hands and it makes an entrance into the world, its “meaning” has no “correctness” or “origin.” Authorial intent holds little weight, because writers or directors can think they are doing something without actually doing it, and they can do something that they don’t think they’re doing (or don’t know they’re doing). But do with this what you will: Lee has stated that viewers who question the riot’s justification are valuing white property over the life of a black man. Additionally, he says, “I wanna clear up something once and for all. Mookie did not throw the garbage can through the window to divert the mob from jumping on Sal.” He “threw the garbage can through the window because he just saw one of his best friends get murdered in cold blood by NYPD.”

So, what do you think? Where do you fall in this wrestling match? Does Do the Right Thing give us a monologue or does it spur us to dialogue?

-Rob

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