Spike Lee Does the Right Thing
A Film Review of Do the Right Thing by Christopher Wostenberg
The Spike Lee Joint (Spike Lee’s term for his films) Do the Right Thing has been on my mind a lot recently. I have only seen the movie once, but it is such a powerful movie that it stays with you. It is one of those movies that introduced me to a time and place much different than what I am familiar with, specifically late 1980s in the predominately African-American area of Brooklyn known as Bedford-Stuyvesant (Bed-Stuy for short). Additionally, it got me to think more about racism and police brutality, two concepts I am fortunate not to have to experience first-hand or contemplate on a regular basis. Therefore, Spike Lee was successful in accomplishing his goals with the movie. The reason the movie has been on my mind recently is that, unfortunately, it has become more relevant in today’s society as there has been increased racial tension and police brutality across the nation.
The movie is about the predominately African-American neighborhood of Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, during the hottest day of the summer in the late 1980s. Throughout the movie, many different aspects of the community are explored, but a central part focuses on Sal’s Pizzeria, which is owned and run by an Italian-American family, a father and his two sons, who do not live in the neighborhood. The main character is Mookie, the local pizza delivery boy for Sal who knows everyone in the neighborhood. Tension is introduced when Buggin’ Out demands Sal puts up African-American photographs on the Wall of Fame or he will organize a boycott of Sal’s Pizzeria. Few take Buggin’ Out seriously, but he gathers a few others to join his cause including Radio Raheem, a man obsessed with his large boombox that blasts Public Enemy, and Smiley, a mentally disabled man trying to sell pictures of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X. The three enter Sal’s at the end of the day demanding that Sal change the Wall of Fame. This leads to a heated debate where Sal destroys Radio Raheem’s boombox, which causes a fight to occur between the characters. Eventually, the police come to break up the fight and in the process choke Radio Raheem to death. A small riot then ensues on Sal’s initiated by Mookie throwing a trashcan through the window and ending with the pizzeria burning down.
Ultimately, the movie deals with the community of the neighborhood and how it is only really judged when it is at its worst. At the core, Bed-Stuy is no worse than any other place where there are many different people living together. No matter what, tension will exist in a community as everyone has various views on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Taking the idea first introduced by Ray Bradbury in his short story “Shopping for Death,” which was turned into a television episode for the Alfred Hitchcock Presents show, that humans become more unhinged as the temperature raises, Lee uses this as a backdrop to explore racism in the community.
The brilliance of Do the Right Thing is in the subtle and realistic way Spike Lee portrays racism. Unlike other movies on the subject, there is no villain or truly hateable character. All the characters have their flaws and are slightly racist, which is enhanced throughout the movie by the heat and escalation of events. Both points of view of the arguments, whether it is racial or otherwise, are represented equally, making it hard for the viewer to pick a side. None the characters are extremists that want other races to be exterminated or treated as inferior; instead, it is more that they don’t understand each other and want to have self-imposed separation. One scene that represents this is when Radio Raheem and a Puerto Rico group have a music fight where each increases the volume on their respective boomboxes. This shows a very pacifist way of dealing with a conflict as both sides do not like the other’s choice in musical style that is representive of their culture. Throughout the battle, the camera slowly pans back and forth between the characters without ever containing both in the frame. This helps to illustrate the gentle nature of the dispute and who is currently winning.
Most of the other conflicts up until the end of the movie are similar in manner to this where the characters find low key ways of fighting, be it verbal or otherwise. In all the conflicts the viewer is waiting for the tension to boil over with a physical fight as the atmosphere becomes hotter and the world becomes unbalanced. Artistically, this is demonstrated by sharper and faster cuts, louder audio and more extreme camera angles, especially in the final confrontation between Radio Raheem and Buggin’ Out with Sal and his family. All of these artistic effects disorient the audience, unhinging them like the characters. Eventually, the characters’ worst nature comes out as racial slurs vomit out of their mouths followed by a physical release of their anger. Like the bystanders at Sal’s, the audience is forced to watch, but unable to prevent what they know will eventually happen.
Now that a physical fight has broken between multiple people, the argument becomes unmanageable for anyone character to control, thus the police have to step in to restore the peace. Unfortunately, the police over step their bounds and apply a choke hold on Radio Raheem that leads to his death and makes matters worse rather than better. This scene is extremely hard to watch as it happens quickly and chaotically at first, but ends with a shot of Radio Raheem’s sneakers as they hang in air until they stop moving. By focusing on the sneakers, the shot elicits images of a lynching, a truly unsettling idea of uncontrolled racism in the United States. Afterwards, the cops leave, which causes localized rioting of Sal’s. While brief, this scene changes the perspective of the movie from racism to police brutality and the outcome of it for the community. By the time the tension and anger reaches the point of rioting, no one person can stop or control the eventual outcome which is destruction of the community, either in part or whole. Spike Lee illustrates this by the fact that while Mookie and Sal try to reconcile, there will now always be a divide between them. Additionally, the neighborhood will have to go on without its favorite pizzeria and defining character of its community, Radio Raheem.
All of this leads to the ultimate question of the movie, “What is the right thing?” Critics and viewers all debate: did Mookie do the wrong thing by throwing the trashcan through the window? What could have prevented the outcome of Radio Raheem’s death? And other similar questions. I personally think this is simplifying the message of the movie and the world we live in. I am going on record as saying the only truly wrong act in the movie is the police killing Radio Raheem. The rest of the actions by the characters are justified in one view or another and can be argued as “right.” The world is not black and white, but full of shades of grey, thus actions are not all right and wrong. This is highlighted by how Spike Lee chooses to end the movie with conflicting quotes about violence by Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Overall, this is why I think the movie’s depiction of racism is excellent because it does not limit it to the clear-cut case with a defined villainous racist group like the neo-nazis in American History X, the anti-Semitism of Gentlemen’s Agreement or the KKK in Mississippi Burning.
Favorite Scene: My favorite scent in Do the Right Thing is the introduction of Radio Raheem. Mookie is out delivering pizza and runs into Radio Raheem with his giant 1980s boombox blasting Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” Radio Raheem shows Mookie his newly acquired knuckle rings, one that reads “hate” and the other “love.” Radio Raheem then proceeds to tell Mookie and the audience the story of love and hate.
There are many reasons why this scene is great. One, it demonstrates that Spike Lee is a part of the cinema world, by playing homage to a lesser known film called The Night of the Hunter, where the scene is originally from. Additionally, he adds to the scene by making it very much his own by weaving it into a film that is much different than The Night of the Hunter. Where The Night of the Hunter is a thriller about a corrupt minister-turned-serial killer looking to steal $10,000, Do the Right Thing is a social commentary about racism and police brutality. The scene sums up the whole movie as we are all battling our love and hate and the battle never really ends. Hopefully, it will end with love conquering hate, but this is not guaranteed. Visually, the scene is good as it is a static camera shot that focuses on Radio Raheem, but as he punches “love” and “hate” comes out at the audience. Everything is intensified by the actor’s relationship to the camera and not the other way around. I think it is a very subtle scene with its gentleness making it better because of it.
While the movie might be hard to watch because of its honest depiction of racism and police brutality in America, I encourage you to give it a watch sooner rather than later. As has been demonstrated, these themes are not going away anytime soon. I would like to know your thoughts on what the “right thing” is of the title; maybe you can convenience me to see the film in a different light.
Next time, I will review my favorite animated film from the last decade, but you will have to wait to found out what it is. Until next time, I leave you with this philosophical quote from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal to contemplate, “If everything is imperfect in this world, love is perfect in its imperfection.”