It is impossible to question the relevance of Spike Lee’s 1989 magnum opus without turning a blind eye to the history as well as the undeniable reality of the hatred that plagues us. Originally intended as a pointed response to the Howard Beach incident that took place in 1986, Do the Right Thing has transformed into a definitive commentary on the fraught race relations in America.
For any viewers who are watching the film for the first time or if they happen to be revisiting Spike Lee’s masterpiece, it will be hard to dissociate from the overwhelming backlash against police brutality after the murder of George Floyd and watch Do the Right Thing in a vacuum. That’s good because it does not exist in a vacuum; it is a political manifestation of a social reality that Malcolm X rightly called “the American nightmare.” The greatest tragedy about the legacy of the film is that it is still important. Even after all these years of “progress”, the questions that Lee raised about a system that perpetrates prejudice refuse to disappear.
Do the Right Thing can boast of many artistic achievements, but perhaps its greatest strength is the recreation of the infinitely nuanced atmosphere of a Brooklyn neighbourhood. On a sweltering summer day where everyone is fried alive, Lee introduces us to hyper-real characters like Radio Raheem (played by Bill Nunn), who loves his precious boom box more than anything else in the world and the perpetually inebriated Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) whose delusions of grandeur are endearing among countless other memorable people. At the centre of it all is Mookie (played by Lee himself), a young Black man working at Sal’s (Danny Aiello) pizzeria while having to come to terms with the fact that he is a father.
Over the course of the day, the racial tensions in the neighbourhood are taken to their logical conclusion: a “racial explosion”. The dialectic that Lee employs is uniquely ambiguous, ensuring that we empathise with the humanity of the people in the frame before we are forced to witness their faces contorted in ugly expressions of prejudice. Ernest Dickerson’s masterful cinematography is charged with volatile energy, always transgressive and restless. Do the Right Thing‘s technical glory is evident to everyone who sees it, but the effective visual narrative is just a tool to amplify the impact of its politico-philosophical message.
The origin of the conflict is something that still exists today, the inevitable question of representation. When Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) notices that there are no Black celebrities on the Wall of Fame (even though Sal’s son Pino loves Magic Johnson and Prince), he feels that it is his moral obligation to demand representation especially due to the fact that Sal’s business is primarily funded by the members of the Black community. These are questions that have been raised before by Black leaders like Malcolm X who always emphasised the importance of supporting Black-owned businesses in Black neighbourhoods in order to realise the dream of independence. That’s exactly why the young Black kids laugh hysterically when a white man tells them that it’s a free country – it hasn’t been that way for the marginalised and the oppressed.
Lee’s central thesis is predicated on the balance between Martin Luther King Jr.’s preachings of non-violence and Malcolm X’s insistence on self-defence. Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith), a mentally challenged man, makes a living by selling pictures of Martin and Malcolm around the neighbourhood. These images are a constant reminder of the struggles that they have endured throughout their history and the sad revelation that those who speak truth to power are often assassinated. Lee clearly supports one leader’s idea over the other. While talking about the famous ending quotations in the film, he said: “I think you really have to concentrate on what the final coda of the film is: the Malcolm X quote, not the Martin Luther King quote.”
To be fair, even King started re-evaluating his philosophy in the final years of his life. The “non-violence or non-existence” chant does not mean anything when Black bodies are being subjected to arbitrary death by a system that is inherently flawed. In Lee’s neighbourhood, every action has a deeper symbolic meaning. Scuffing someone’s new sneakers is an act of violence and bashing Radio Raheem’s boom box is certainly a declaration of war. After doing the latter, Sal and his sons engaged in the fight just as much as the members of the Black community. However, it is only Radio Raheem who gets brutally choked to death by the police officers. Do the Right Thing makes us acknowledge that we are complicit in our collective silence, unable to do anything as yet another Black man is killed right in front of our eyes.
Some of the critical response to the film when it first came out was abhorrent, claiming that Lee intended to start “race riots”. It is indicative of the racial paranoia that is often present in such problematic public discourse because the rioting and the looting that takes place in the film is a response. It is a scathing indictment of the capitalist framework that values materialism above all else. Sal’s pizzeria is burnt down by the angry community but their anger is justified. None of it will ever compensate for the loss of human life that took place for no reason at all except prejudice and hatred. Similar criticisms have also been directed at the Black Lives Matter protests happening in America, clearly evading the undeniable emotional turmoil that is urging people to reject the system that hates them so much.
Do the Right Thing is an indispensable part of the continuing struggle for civil rights and human rights. With the help of his dynamic camera and his unforgettable characters, Lee successfully constructed a brilliant microcosm within which he tackled some of America’s central problems. Those problems refuse to go away while many “patriots” desperately cling to the perforated illusion of America’s status as the greatest democracy in the world. Although Lee used Malcolm X’s quote about self-defence to end his masterpiece, this one seems more appropriate in the context of the film: “Stop sweet-talking [the white man]. Tell him how you feel…. [Let him know that] if he’s not ready to clean his house up, he shouldn’t have a house. It should catch on fire and burn down.”