It begins with a saxophone. The dulcet tones of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” dubbed the Black American National Anthem by the NAACP, plays as the title Do The Right Thing appears on the screen. The song fades and the screen goes to black. And from that darkness emerges Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power,” roaring across the soundtrack as Rosie Perez furiously dances for nearly four minutes against a colorful backdrop.
And the music doesn’t stop there. The jazzy score (composed by writer/director Spike Lee’s father) follows the black elders of the block, while Public Enemy follows a black youth. Lee’s editing brings the musical styles into creative tension: like the different generations, they express the same longing for liberation, but in contrasting ways.
Unresolved tension flows throughout Do The Right Thing. And we don’t just see it. We feel it in every aching body, every face full of sweat. Do The Right Thing is viscerally human, and few walk away from it unshaken.
I remember the first time I shared the film. I was a sophomore in college, and finally figured out what I wanted to do with my life: I wanted to study film. I enrolled in film courses and even joined a student leadership group that taught other students pop culture criticism. In January, our group leaders asked me to present the film and then lead a discussion with the rest of the group.
I presented Do The Right Thing in the Art History lecture hall, and for two hours we sat as the blood and sweat of the film seeped into our bones.
When the film ended, most were bewildered as they tried to articulate a response. They tried in vain to figure out the eponymous “Right Thing”. If only it were that easy.
How does a film about a series of encounters, of conversations, of arguments, of debates, of clashes within a single city block of Bed-Stuy in 1989 create such an astounding effect?
For starters, Do the Right Thing perfectly captures a moment—a hot summer day in 1989—and the audience experiences it fully, in all its sweltering intensity. The orange-tinted cinematography of Ernest R. Dickerson imbues the film with the heat as it bullies this particular block. The discomfort. The sweat. The unending tension. The heat bears down, unrepentant, and we feel it.
We also feel for the characters. To describe Do The Right Thing is to describe a series of movements, interactions between various individuals and groups within a confined set of space. There’s Mookie, his sister Jade, and his girlfriend Tina. There’s Sal the Italian pizzeria owner and his two sons, Pino and Vito. There’s the Korean grocers across the street. There’s Mister Señor Love Daddy, the radio DJ down the block. The Puerto Rican kids hanging out on their favorite stoop. The Celtics fan that owns the Brownstone. Smiley the stutterer traveling the streets.
The film starts in tension, with a contrast in its music. The script addresses the same tension in a different way.
As Sal’s opens for business, Mookie’s friend Buggin’ Out enters, buys a slice, and sits down. Right before he bites into the slice, he stops and looks at the wall. He sees white faces staring back at him: DeNiro, Pacino, Sinatra. White Italian men with prominent film careers return his gaze.
Sitting in the middle of Bed-Stuy on a hot summer morning, Buggin’ Out asks a pertinent question:
Hey, Sal, how come they ain’t no brothas on the wall?
From there, the conversations build, the arguments fly, and the tensions flare as we learn about the block, its characters and history.
We spend time with all of them and grow to understand them, their personalities, their weaknesses, and their ideas. Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) is an old black man who has seen the Civil Rights revolution, and its failures, and now mostly bears the burden through alcohol. Mookie (writer/director Spike Lee) is often an emissary, tying the community together, but he’s also obsessed with money and neglectful of his family. Sal (Danny Aiello), who loves and feels loved by the community, also clings to his baseball bat—a symbol of both violence and the heartland of America.
Then there’s Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn). A young, strong, black man with a fierce sense of pride in his identity, blaring “Fight The Power” from his massive boombox as he constantly walks the block. His presence is so powerful that the camera often tilts as Radio Raheem asserts his identity.
Everyone in Do the Right Thing articulates an idea, a history, with a presence both symbolic and utterly real at the same time. The block is not just a metaphor with skin, but a fully realized, connected being of character and meaning.
Near the end of the film, Lee shows us the entire block. And we know it well, both its geography and its people. We’ve spent well over an hour watching this dynamic neighborhood function, perhaps even briefly thrive. (All the more traumatic when we see it fall apart.) We’ve watched the frays and the clashes, the arguments surrounding who belongs on the block, what it means, and how they’re going to live in it. By closing time at Sal’s pizzeria, the film quiets down to a peaceful reflection. It was a good day, right?
The block is not just a community, but a multitude of communities, each and every one with their own cultural scripts. Language, tradition, history—everyone lives by their own cultural codes, clinging to them for stability. After all, who are we without our identity?
Do The Right Thing’s characters, and their cultures, coexist in a contested space. Black, Italian, Korean, they all brush and bristle against each other on the block, cultures clashing in the real world. And they will use any means to preserve their sense of identity.
Sal holds fast to property ownership to justify the cultural barriers within the pizzeria, decorated in the colors of the Italian flag. He forbids any “jungle music” playing in his establishment. He smothers, one way or another, black cultural expression. Radio Raheem and Buggin’ Out will endure no more. Entering shortly before Sal closes up shop, they demand he put pictures of brothers on the wall. Smiley stands by them, while “Fight The Power” blasts from Radio Raheem’s boombox. Sound and fury pervades the air as everyone begins to argue. It escalates.
By the end, Sal’s Pizzeria is in flames, and Radio Raheem is dead.
In our discussion, the group leaders—who were white—described the first time they saw the film.
They walked away incredibly moved by the loss of the pizzeria. Much of their lifelong work is about the importance of place within a community, and the destruction of the cultural space in the film spoke to them. It took more time, and a second viewing, for them to realize that Radio Raheem was dead.
Their reaction was much like the rest of America when the film premiered in 1989. As a former professor of mine put it, when the film premiered it was like white and black audiences saw entirely different movies.
By the end of the film, it’s as if a part of us has been ripped away. We spend two hours with these characters, this block, this pizzeria, that radio station. Do The Right Thing moves us by illustrating their experiences and makes us sympathize with their various plights. But the film also presented us with a split. Is the path to freedom through peaceful resistance, the way of Da Mayor and the people of yesteryear, symbolized by the jazz score accompanying the elderly folks in the film? Or will the revolution be promulgated through the hip hop score of Public Enemy, led by Buggin’ Out and Radio Raheem? What’s the answer, Martin Luther King or Malcolm X? Did Mookie do the Right Thing?
The film does not rest at mere equivocation. In the morning after, Da Mayor remarks to fellow elderly community figure Mother Sister “I hope the block is still standing.” To which she replies, “We’re still standing.”
Because it’s people who make a block. It’s people who make a community. And it’s people who make a difference.
Before the pizzeria goes up in flames, the crowd—the community—processes what just happened.
-They Killed Him
-They Killed Radio Raheem
-Did It Again
-Just Like They Did Michael Stewart
-It’s Not Safe
-Not Even In Our Own Neighborhood
-It’s Not Safe
-Never Will Be
The cries continue today. Twelve year old Tamir Rice, killed two seconds after the police arrived. Eric Garner choked to death by police, his final words a desperate cry of “I can’t breathe.” Michael Brown, killed the night before his college debut. Walter Scott, with evidence planted near his corpse to justify his murder. Trayvon Marton and Oscar Grant, killed for having the audacity to exist in a way that their killers found “suspicious.” Not to mention countless more who fall dead and forgotten; Rumain Brisbon and Akai Gurley. Kajieme Powell, Tyree Woodson, Yvette Smith, Victor White III. All form a list that is both already too long and sadly unfinished.
This film blazes. It blazes with the rage against racial injustice, and it blazes with truth. Not just because the film captures what our nation was like back in 1989, but because it hasn’t really changed. We haven’t changed. Systemic racism continues, and the bodies pile up on the floor.
The heat in Do the Right Thing isn’t just the heat—it’s the symbolic state of the nation. A nation that claims to be a melting pot, but is more like a broiling swath of culture clashes, groups with various identities brushing up against each other with increasing friction as each try to eek out a living. It’s the intensity of living in a cross-cultural landscape arising from a foundation of genocide, rape, and slavery.
Do The Right Thing surrounds us with its heat. It forces us to peer into our boiling pot of a nation and deal with what gets reflected back. We can hardly bear the gaze.
“Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!”