Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing caused an uproar upon its initial release in 1989 because of the fear it would incite race-related riots. In the current political climate, it would be much easier to find films like this being made but that’s only one among many reasons as to why this film works at achieving everything that it sets out for. Watching Do the Right Thingalmost thirty years ever since its release, what catches me is the fact that this film so distinctly feels like it could have been made today and it would still invoke the same reaction that it did back in 1989. This is not a movie that shows itself as one above racism but it is a film that presents an ordinary day in which racial tensions are so prominent, not merely between black and white Americans – because this is not the very limit to which racism can extend itself in our world today. But because it is still so commonly seen under that light, it only makes the impact of Spike Lee’s film all the more clear.
In its setting of the neighbourhoods of Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, you already find yourself in a space that feels so familiar. It looks like any other area in America. But for its residents, you already feel that this very space is the whole world to them; whether it be the many African-Americans residing in the area, the Italian-Americans, Jews, Koreans, and Latin-Americans. It is also the hottest day that this neighbourhood has ever witnessed, with Sal’s Famous Pizzeria being a popular spot for the residents. It is also where our main character Mookie, played by none other than the film’s writer, director, and producer Spike Lee, is employed as a pizza deliveryman. For as much as familiarity already set foot the film’s message into place, it is also the least of where the film finds itself also at evidently its most powerful. You already feel that because it seems like an area you know, you already have a set image in mind as to how it would look like on a regular day.
Noting how our protagonist is played by Spike Lee himself, you already are given an observer’s perspective to the racially-charged implosion that takes place within the area. You’re placed at the very center of the tension, but the way in which you respond to the scenario all makes itself clear from the fact that there are no good guys or bad guys in this story to which is being told right in front of your eyes. In a character like Mookie, what you are made to see is the way in which race relations are like in America at that point in time. It’s a perspective like this that elevates the power of the message in Do the Right Thing, because the damage as caused by racism does no limit itself to merely being single-sided. From the perspective of an African-American who grew up within this environment, you see everything the way in which he does, because it makes you understand a set of eyes different from your own – one set of eyes that has come to accept this tension as being ordinary in his own life. He is not a hero, but a passive protagonist that has been built by the way his environment continually pushes him.
The film’s title is also rather poetic in a sense, because the only instance in which it is ever explicitly mentioned in the film is in a brief scene in which Mookie talks with Da Mayor. He tells Mookie “Always do the right thing,” to which he responds “I’ve got it, I’m gone.” There is never a set definition about what is the “right thing” because in a world that only implodes thanks to misunderstandings of where anger has founded its own roots, there is no solution. There is no solution because of the way in which our society has come to understand the way in which racism has only caused damage to the world in which we live in. People have only been asking themselves in the many years to come about whether or not Mookie has truly “done the right thing” in the film’s climax, but in Spike Lee’s own eyes that is only a calling card because in the grand scheme of things, it is only hate that breeds more hate and it is all part of a stigma that does not only limit itself to the idea of race relations. You would normally think that it all starts just from stopping hate, but such an evil is so complicated it has virtually zero solution.
This is also a film that sets power dynamics into place the more it shouts, first by its performances and by the way it sets its own visual style into place. From a performance like that of Danny Aiello’s Oscar-nominated role as Sal the pizzeria owner, you feel inside of an established presence the influence that he has over his own customers and even his own employees. But to talk about how Spike Lee sets afoot the perfect visual style in order to get this film’s message across, it all comes clear from his use of Dutch angles in the particularly explosive climax. You feel the anger on all counts, but when you see from the way in which the actors are positioned giving a sense of power within said presence. You already know that this will play something of significance from the noted opening of the film in which you have Rosie Perez dancing to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” But as the lyrics to said song go, “Our freedom of speech is freedom or death, we’ve got to fight the powers that be!” they also come forth in order to highlight what about this issue is so complicated to begin with, because this whole film shows an ordinary neighbourhood that is in some way, trying to fight for the top – but you ask yourself to what gain because it all erupts into violence.
Going back to the film’s own establishment of black-and-white morality issues, you already find a greater presence left behind from the fact that you find the colour red everywhere you look. In a scene that alludes to The Night of the Hunter, Radio Raheem is telling the story of “love” and “hate” with rings across his fists that resemble Robert Mitchum’s tattooed fingers. The colour red plays great significance in highlighting the issues at hand because red is a colour that is associated both with love and anger. Everyone in Do the Right Thing is angry to some extent, but to what degree do we as a society understand where that hate finds itself coming forth? This is a world that has moved forth through the prominence of hatred but is it impossible to allow love to run present within such an angry climate? For all we know, Radio Raheem is just a harmless figure who wants to share what it is that he loves most with the people who he meets, with the fact that he blasts “Fight the Power” on his own boom box at an almost deafening rate – which is already enough to incite anger in his own community.
This isn’t a film that is limited to merely being about the problem with racism’s prominence in our society, but it’s a film that is angry because of the way we choose to understand how such problems have remained so prevalent. But because Spike Lee has given this film the title “do the right thing,” you are left wondering what truly is the “right thing” one can accomplish in an environment that is already so complicated by its own sense of power dynamics. In a character like Mookie, you can already see that he is an observer of such a climate for it is told from a perspective that has been victimized by racism over the years thus it leads to the response that comes forth in the film’s climax. But the most important thing that a film like Do the Right Thing can accomplish is the fact that it allows empathy with every perspective whose story is being told, because this is not a film about heroes and villains because such an issue is far more than the black-and-white ideals that we have set in mind for why it moves the way in which it did. This is a film all about fighting the powers that be, and that very power is fuelled by hatred – and it all can combust at any given moment. It becomes less a question of “what is the right thing” and more a question of “how much are we willing to understand about our world?” thus solidifying the film’s importance.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Universal.
Directed by Spike Lee
Screenplay by Spike Lee
Produced by Spike Lee
Starring Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Richard Edson, Giancarlo Esposito, Spike Lee, Bill Nunn, John Turturro, John Savage
Release Year: 1989
Running Time: 120 minutes