The Enduring Urgency of Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” at Thirty
Spike Lee’s third feature, “Do the Right Thing,” returns to movie theatres this weekend in honor of the thirtieth anniversary of its release. Lee dedicated the movie, in the end credits, to the families of Eleanor Bumpurs, Michael Griffith, Arthur Miller, Edmund Perry, Yvonne Smallwood, and Michael Stewart—six black people, five of whom were killed by police officers, as the character Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) is, in the film’s climactic scene. (Griffith was killed by a white mob.). Three decades later, with police forces virtually militarized and with the judicial system largely granting officers impunity for killings committed on duty, the shock of the movie is that, even as many cultural and civic aspects that it represents have changed, its core drama—the killing of black Americans by police—continues unabated and largely unredressed.
“Do the Right Thing” isn’t a comprehensive representation of a cross-section of Bedford-Stuyvesant, the Brooklyn neighborhood where it is set, but a vision of private lives with a conspicuous public component—a sense of community and of history that’s a crucial aspect of identity. The movie’s individuals are boldly sketched with expressive exaggerations, not characters with deeply developed psychology but ones who bear the marks, the scars, and the emblems of history, and who also bear the pressure of the white gaze, the police gaze. No less than Lee’s script, his aesthetic offers a sharply original way of looking at the lives of black people—and of looking at life at large from a black person’s perspective. “Do the Right Thing” is grand, vital, and mournful; it is also, crucially, proud, a work not only of the agony of history—and of present-tense oppressions—but also of the historic cultural achievements of black Americans, and it takes its own place in the artistic history that it invokes.
The movie’s bright palette, its sense of contrasts of light and color, its distinctive and prominent addresses by characters looking in high-relief and fish-eye closeup at the viewer, its sense of bold declamation and assertive movement: all suggest a personal sense of style that builds on the cinematically disjunctive methods of the nineteen-sixties. They also evoke a cultural history—visual, dramatic, and tonal—informed by such artists as Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin and John Coltrane. Lee’s artistic collaborations are central to the movie’s rich sense of an artistic gathering, including the cinematography of Ernest Dickerson, the production design, by Wynn Thomas, and the costume design, by Ruth E. Carter. The score was composed by Lee’s father, Bill Lee, a bassist who has recorded with many major jazz musicians and appears on a wide range of albums, including Clifford Jordan’s classic “Glass Bead Games.”
“Do the Right Thing” starts where Lee’s 1988 film “School Daze” ends—with a call to “Wake up”—but here it comes through by way of local media and in the context of art. It begins with one of the cinematic voices of the era—with Samuel L. Jackson, in the role of Mister Señor Love Daddy, the d.j. of a radio station operating from a storefront perch, where he’s on the air, watching the streets and orchestrating its moods with music, reporting back on what he sees and inflecting the moment with musings that connect the music to the community at large. In one spectacular monologue, Mister Señor Love Daddy recites his list of dozens of classical black musicians whose records he plays, beginning with Boogie Down Productions and ending with Mary Lou Williams.
The cultural clash at the center of “Do the Right Thing” is one that foreshadows major changes in the recent media landscape. The fast-talking young man called Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito) goes to Sal’s pizzeria for a slice, where Sal (Danny Aiello), the sympathetic but hotheaded owner, has photos of celebrities assembled into a “wall of fame.” Buggin Out notices that all of the photographs are of Italian-Americans (including Frank Sinatra, Liza Minnelli, and Joe DiMaggio) and asks why there aren’t any photos of black stars, given that the pizzeria is in a mainly black neighborhood. Sal’s answer—“Get your own place, you can do what you want to do”—doesn’t, of course, satisfy Buggin Out, who tries to organize a boycott of Sal’s. It doesn’t work, but Radio Raheem—who has already incurred Sal’s wrath by refusing to turn down his boom box, playing Public Enemy, in the pizzeria—ultimately decides to join him. (Raheem’s musical passion is also reverently devotional; his gesture is a crucial symbolic act of a black customer bringing his culture into a white-owned space.)
“School Daze” was more overtly tough-minded and more analytical in its portrait of divisions within the student body at a historically black university. In “Do the Right Thing,” Lee depicts a different sort of division, one that’s of deep political import but isn’t directly dramatized: the apparent ideological division between Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, which echoes bitterly through the film’s final tragedy. It’s exemplified in Lee’s placement of a quote from each at the end of the film. Dr. King’s quote begins, “Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral”; Malcolm’s concludes, “I don’t even call it violence when it’s self-defense, I call it intelligence.” The division is both presented and symbolically resolved in the photo of the two leaders together that the character Smiley (Thomas Guenveur Smith) decorates and sells—and which Lee puts on the screen after the two quotes.
Lee, as Mookie, the deliveryman for Sal’s, plays a role that symbolized his own position in Hollywood at the time, as an employee of a white-run business and a mediator between it and the black community. When Buggin Out first challenges Sal about the photos on the wall, Mookie walks him out of the pizzeria and admonishes him for putting his job in jeopardy. But after the murder of Raheem, Mookie—at first standing alongside Sal and his sons (John Turturro and Richard Edson) in confronting the crowd in the wake of the killing—walks off, grabs a metal trash can, returns, and throws it through Sal’s window. That action sets Mookie’s neighbors to ransacking the pizzeria—culminating in Smiley lighting the match that torches it, as the elderly woman called Mother Sister (Ruby Dee), wise and bitter and rueful, calls out, “Burn it down.” (She’s one of only three prominently featured women in the movie; there’s another virtual movie lurking behind this one, which pays more attention to the public role of women in the community.)
With “Do the Right Thing,” Lee was letting Hollywood know that it, too, was on the wrong side of history—and was doing not just wrong but harm. Nonetheless, what’s astonishing about the response of Raheem’s friends and neighbors to his murder isn’t the trashing of Sal’s; it’s their restraint—the handful of police officers manage to leave, dragging away Raheem’s body and arresting Buggin Out, with little incident. The rage directed at Sal, for his obtuseness and for his words and acts of hatred, is in its own way symbolic—the blood is on the hands of the police officers, who’d likely go unpunished. It’s their gaze at peaceable black people that foreshadows the trouble to come; it’s their derogatory remarks about the neighborhood, in private conversation with Sal, that suggest the hatred and contempt motivating their official behavior.
In “Do the Right Thing,” Lee—in challenging the cultural segregation of Sal’s wall—challenges the very nature of a public space as private property. Here, too, Lee evokes the burden and the responsibility of history. The very theme of private property in public space was a crucial one in the civil-rights movement, when white segregationists attempted to maintain a ban on black people in their restaurants and stores by asserting that the facility was their private property. The notion was overturned in the definition of “public accommodations” in the Civil Rights Act of 1964; but those laws had nothing to do with another sort of public space, the media as a crucial part of civic life; though the concept is now widely recognized, the practice is still woefully inadequate.
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“Do the Right Thing” was released the same year as “Driving Miss Daisy,” which won the Oscar for Best Picture; Lee’s film wasn’t nominated. Today, the industry mainstream, or whatever’s left of it, is at least superficially more diverse, and sometimes substantially so, as with “Creed” and “Black Panther.” But some things haven’t changed: Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman,” which was a Best Picture nominee this year, lost out to “Green Book,” another regressive tale of interracial friendship.
History virtually pierces the screen in one image from “Do the Right Thing” that’s unbearable to watch—a closeup of Raheem’s feet, kicking and dangling off the ground, while he’s being choked by the police. It’s an image that evokes a hanging and suggests a lynching; to watch it now is to see it in the context not just of a long and horrific history of acts of racist violence against black Americans but also of the police brutality that, thirty years after the film’s release, continues. “Do the Right Thing” is, regrettably, not a work of history but a film set, in many ways, in the present tense.