Take 25: Do the Right Thing
Do the Right Thing toys with the audience. Spike Lee steers the film like a bumper car, erratically and joyfully, plunging headlong into every collision, allowing the pressure to build so that the experience feels increasingly tenuous. Lee is a master puppeteer, unafraid to allow for a broad range of emotions to cascade in seemingly random patterns. The opening credits are played over a montage of Rosie Perez absolutely lighting up the dance floor while “Fight the Power” blares in the background, followed by an abrupt cut to Smiley’s morning speech about Malcom X and MLK outside of the church. The contrast is rich, setting the tone for the essential question Lee is asking, what does it mean for Black people in America to do the right thing?
I could write one thousand words about how shameful it is that the plights of the characters in Do the Right Thing are still so resonant for contemporary Black Americans. The struggles against gentrification and police brutality remain massively politicized issues, with the added variable of for-profit prisons creating incentives for highly influential political groups in America to reap the rewards of our incarceration epidemic. These issues that feel so relevant to politics in America today were also being highlighted in the national consciousness when Do the Right Thing was released in 1989. A year prior, in 1988, not only did Public Enemy drop the film’s fight song “Fight the Power”, NWA further emphasized the sentiment with “Fuck the Police” — prompting protests. Three years later, footage of Rodney King being brutally beaten by police would shock the nation, and kick of a whole other set of protests.
Lee frames this simmering tension within a single day, full of folks going about their ordinary lives. The world Lee creates is full of familiarity — everyone knows each other and has forever. They adjust to the quirks and rough edges of their neighbors and Lee allows them all to occupy highly stylized blocks of space. There are many frames of this film that I would hang stills of on a wall as an art piece, evocative of urban landscape portraits in fine art museums. These early scenes are vibrant and full of the lackadaisical energy that accompanies a deep summer heat wave. Kids run for ice cream and scream in the cool water of a loosened hydrant. Mookie and Tina share one of the sweetest, most intimate, love scenes I’ve ever seen on film, as ice drips over a tightly framed torso on a sweltering summer day. The heat is as much a part of the narrative as Sal’s refusal to comply with Bug’s request for representation.
More and more I notice that extreme heat is used in films as a cinematic technique that reveals the saturation of both physical color and the deepest personas of characters on screen. The heat in this film is a metaphor for the escalating tension which will eventually erupt into flames consuming Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, but it’s also a useful tool to bring people out of their houses and on to their stoops. Everything takes additional effort on those oppressively humid summer days on the East Coast, and polite acceptance of annoying neighbors is one of the first concessions most urbanites need to make.
I think back to the first time I watched Apocalypse Now, watching the scene (spoiler!) where Clean is killed during a boat ambush on a Vietnamese river while he listens to the tape his mother sent him. As his body lies covered in blood and his fellow soldiers wail over his death, the voice of his mother lists all of the things she looks forward to watching him experience when he returns from the war, finally ending on a reminder to Clean to “do the right thing, stay out of the way of the bullets, and bring your hiney home in one piece…’ cause we love you very much.” It is an especially devastating moment in a film full of darkness.
I wonder if Lee saw Apocalypse Now a decade before wrapping up Do the Right Thing. I wonder if and how Francis Ford Coppola’s exploration of how a person whose psyche is subjected to the horrific paranoia of war can discover layers of their own nature that feel unfamiliar or scary, but necessary for survival, could have impacted his editing process. I wonder if part of what it means to “do the right thing” is to question who or what is worth the risk of not bringing your hiney back home to Mama like she asks. What does it mean to do the right thing when the proprietor of Sal’s Pizzeria refuses to hang imagery that resembles his clientele, instead opting for the likeness of Coppola’s own prized talent (Deniro, Pacino, etc.)? To me, it feels like Lee is showcasing the catch 22 systemic racism forces upon Black Americans. He uses Mookie and Buggin’ Out to illustrate how living in a society that routinely devalues your existence yet also threatens death if you dare to extract yourself from its grasp can lead individuals to react with anguished force in an effort to avoid comprehensive lack of power.
There are no squeaky clean heroes in this film but at the same time just about everyone is redeemable. Every group of people who occupy this block of Brooklyn expose their prejudices, from Mookie, to Pino, to the Puerto Ricans who compete for airspace with Radio Raheem, to the Korean shop owners, to the white cops who patrol the neighborhood. A scale of morality can be applied to their various actions, but the final quote that rolls on screen from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reminds us that violence only begets violence. Malcom X, on the other hand, has the final word when he suggests that meaningful progress without violence may not be possible. How then, does one do the right thing?
When Radio Raheem blasts his radio in Sal’s establishment there are competing networks of power and respect at play. The escalation from Sal bashing his radio with a baseball bat to Radio Raheem being murdered by a police officer while the neighborhood looks on, is the impetus for the final eruption of pain and anger and resentment leading the neighborhood to burn down the pizzeria that all of them had defended and refused to boycott a few hours earlier. It’s fitting that the film is book ended by Smiley and his picture of Malcom X and MLK shaking hands and laughing. These men had vastly different beliefs about the path to equitable American life for nonwhite racial groups, and doing the right thing looked radically different to each of them. While they both strived to better the lives of their fellow Americans, they both met the same tragic fate. This is not a movie about cause and effect — this is a movie about emotion and reaction, about existing in a cage you’re told to be thankful for.