Rated R for language, nudity, and realistic violence. I remember that one of our teachers showed this to us in school. I don't know how. Like, at all. Now that I'm a teacher, I couldn't get permission to show this under any circumstances. I mean, I'm not even upset. This movie blew my mind and opened the world of Spike to me, but I'm floored that it happened. It's weird that I only know this because I'm a teacher. I thought, "Yeah, I could just give a permission slip." Not so much. It's a pretty brutal R when it gets to the violence. R.
DIRECTOR: Spike Lee
I tend not to change up the lineup of movies I write about. I love Do the Right Thing. It's one of those few movies that I own in both DVD and Blu-ray. Okay, that might not be the best litmus test because I'm not the biggest fan of The Last Picture Show. I probably watched this a little over a week ago. You can't help but apply Do the Right Thing to the racial climate in America and how little has changed since 1989. I thought it was such a movie that should be watched in response to police brutality. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised that there's now another video of another black man being killed basically for being black. Did I pick to write about Do the Right Thing because of the events in the news? No. But I'm certainly happy to write about it because this has got to stop.
I can't say that I get into every Spike movie. I really love Spike. He's one of those directors that raise my eyebrows when I hear of another project from him. Nothing has really ever moved me as much as Do the Right Thing has. I hope that's not a commentary or something on me, besides the fact that you can now pinpoint my tastes. The thing I love about Do the Right Thing is that Spike, in the course of a two-hour film, stresses both the complexities and the simplicities about race. Maybe the words "white privilege" is never officially vocalized in the film, but it explains how everyone feels like they are on the outs, but that those feelings may not reflect the reality of the situation.
Mookie's block of Harlem is comprised of flawed individuals. Spike, in the shoes of Mookie, himself is the best of the flawed, with the exception of Mister Senor Love Daddy. As a pizza delivery man, he's allowed to be the avatar for the audience. He's an outside observer to every narrative running throughout the story. He's friends with everybody, but he also gets on half of his friends' nerves. Mookie works really well to show how a setting can be the most important character in the story. Yes, Mookie is the protagonist and main character of the story. But most of the goals of the story are about maintaining the status quo. Mookie is fundamentally counter-revolutionary. He's riding this really tenuous line of working for people that he both respects and loathes. Sal, for all of his talk about how Mookie is part of his own family, has some really racists attitudes. He's raising a son who is aggressively, next-level racist. And Mookie, because he needs a paycheck, must bite his tongue any time something that runs his way. He doesn't even that good of a job at that. He's this diplomat of what it means to survive. He's allowed to say "so much" before he's at risk of being jobless.
Why does Radio Raheem break our hearts so? When I watched this in high school, I had no idea. No idea. I lived in a very comfortable suburban environment. I thought that this happened once in a blue moon and that Spike was commenting on that. He created this gentle giant (who's not all that gentle, but you get my point) that has very simple needs. He wants to have his music. Radio makes sense from both sides of the conflict. Radio Raheem has the right to play his music. It's not like people are sleeping and he's blasting "Fight the Power" wherever he goes. No, this is mostly in the middle of the day. His demand can be annoying, but these are one of those things that's just considered irritating rather than anything insidious. If a customer brought in Raheem's boombox while I'm trying to talk to him, I'd also be annoyed. But Sal's reaction is vitriolic. That's where the lesson is. Sal and Raheem's storylines really intersect in this place that explains the theme of the story.
People want what they want. Raheem wants his music because it has the message of "Fight the Power." Sure, the song is a bop, but that also defines his identity. The song is meant to be aggressive and in your face because the message needs to be taken from it. The image above of Raheem's Love / Hate insignia reflects this attitude. Sal is incapable of making the logical leap that Raheem or Smiley have made. They come across as simpletons, talking about something that would never really affect Sal. All Sal hears is colored-people's music. He's trying to talk and someone else is co-opting his Italian identity. This is mirrored in Buggin' Out's protest about the Italians on the walls. Admittedly, Buggin' Out is probably part of the reason that Sal can't hear Raheem and his concerns regarding race, but that's another matter. Sal, in his request, isn't hearing that he's telling Raheem to stop talking about the most important thing to him. He's hearing noise and a drowning out of his Italian identity.
It's probably what makes Buggin' Out so infuriating. Buggin' Out has a point. Sal's lack of colored representation on the wall is problematic. But Buggin' Out starts at a point of aggression. Buggin' Out's identity is one of confrontation without consequences. He wears that badge of martyrdom, despite the fact that it tends to be the others around him who face the consequences of that martyrdom. I really don't think that Buggin' Out really cares about the imagery on the wall. Instead, he likes the attention that he gets by saying that he's morally outraged by the pictures on the wall. He also knows Sal's buttons. Sal's core goal is honoring his culture. But he also, when not provoked, has a love for the community. Pino doesn't understand that love. Pino, as a foil for Sal, works wonders because it forces Sal to audibly confirm why he stays in this neighborhood. Remember, this is a day that started with Buggin' Out starting a protest of his shop, yet Sal talks about his love for his customers and his community, which falls on Pino's cultural deafness. Yes, Sal is a racist, but he's in a spot where something can be done about it. I don't want to make Sal a Christ figure, despite his sacrifice at the end. But his sons represent the good and bad thieves. They are both tugging on Sal in certain directions. But again, Sal is not Christ. He has NONE of the answers. He's just a guy who is in this place of potential movement.
The riot makes the movie. It's a very good movie up to that point. It's a great movie from that point on. I said that Spike complicates the discussion about race throughout the story. In the riot scene, he simplifies it. It's the face of the police officer with his baton on Radio Raheem's neck that strips away all pretension of what people think race is. There's a scene before that where representatives of every ethnicity talk to the camera and say what they think of another race. It's hate filled anger that is in the subconscious of all of the characters, and by proxy, in the back of all of our thought processes. But there's a moment where we all kind of get together when Raheem is being choked. Radio Raheem died because he was a black man. The police officer probably defended the choice because Raheem was a giant. But there's a moment where everyone just stares at the offending police officer. Raheem was done fighting. He was incapable of running or of fighting. Yet, he collapses to the ground, dead. Buggin' Out, in victim fashion, adorns himself with Raheem's sacrifice and the city explodes. The heat wave that covers the city has that explosion that we knew was coming. And it's Mookie who destroys Sal's.
Mookie destroying Sal's raises so many questions. I need to learn to distance myself and realize that it's not just one reason that Mookie throws the trash can. Mookie is us. Spike playing Mookie is no accident. If the song throughout the movie is "Fight the Power", a second-person imperative, Spike as Mookie is no accident. We are the ones meant to fight the power and to take to action. He's someone who respects Sal more than his peers, and he's the one to diffuse the tension with violence. That image of MLK and Malcolm X that Smiley continues to show the audience is the reminder of the complexity of nonviolent response. I will always preach nonviolence, but it is eternally frustrating when one side will continue to use violence to push an agenda and that they get away with it. Those quotes at the end offer no solution to a complex problem.
But Mookie throwing that trash can in the window probably saved lives. Rather than killing Sal and his boys, Mookie takes something that can be replaced. Sal can't see that. The building is a child to him. Mookie's right: Sal is going to get a sweet insurance payout and ride again. We know this happens because Mookie appears in other Spike Lee joints. But Sal is also right. That building was made by him. Any amount of money can't replace the work that went into decades of service towards the community. There is no right answer. It's the story of reality. There are people who abuse their role as police officers that we can't touch. This week, it is George Floyd who proved that. But we can hurt each other pretty easily. Because there is no easy for us, there's no easy answer for the movie either. Spike presents two seemingly paradoxical philosophies by MLK and Malcolm X. He talks about the value of nonviolence and the necessity for violence.
The reason that Do the Right Thing keeps showing up on my favorite movies is that it doesn't offer a cookie cutter view of race relations. There are so many white knight movies that leave a bad taste in my mouth. If life was that easy, there wouldn't be an issue. But Spike presents the real problems to why race is a problem. There are people who can talk all they want and there's not going to be consequences and others who will get choked out simply because they've been associated with being intimidating. To the family and friends of George Lloyd, I'm so sorry. I see you.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.