(An excerpt from The Righteous Way – Infinity Edition)
In these times of continued racial tensions and unjustified police shootings, it can sometimes be difficult to do the right thing. The lines between competing values, morals, and ethics can be blurred by fear, stress and other emotions. The appearance of having no choice can force people to make rash decisions. Doing the right thing is oftentimes easier said than done. Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing is one of the best examples.
In 1989, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing compelled society to look at Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn and the effects of racial tension and police brutality. The timing of Do the Right Thing came when New York City was being shaped by the Central Park jogger attack, the murder of Yusef Hawkins, and the election of its first black mayor, David Dinkins. In August of 1989, Yusef Hawkins was shot to death in a predominantly Italian-American Brooklyn, working-class neighborhood. Italian-Americans remained in urban centers longer than any other white ethnics, and the movie mirrors African-American and Italian-American tension in New York City through its characters and plot.
The Central Park jogger case was one of the most publicized crimes igniting much racial tension in New York City by the media. In reaction to the case, real estate developer, now President of the United States, Donald Trump, took out full-page advertisements in major newspapers advocating for the death penalty and the repealing of civil liberties. By 1991, high crime rates in New York City started to decline under Mayor David Dinkins’ Safe Streets, Safe Cities program which reduced crime by adding police officers to city streets. During this era, news media had a focused interest in crime, criminals, race tensions and punishment.
Do the Right Thing was written, produced and directed by Spike Lee. An interesting aspect is about the title of the film is when Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) tells Mookie to “…always do the right thing,” but in moments of racial tension and conflict the movie makes it appear that the right thing is not so clear. Do the Right Thing impacted the American cultural landscape through original visual storytelling, making it one of the most critical and popular American films.
In the film, Spike Lee plays Mookie, a non-ambitious black man living in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Mookie delivers pizza for a local pizzeria owned by Sal (Danny Aiello). Sal has been in the neighborhood for twenty-five years and has two sons, Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson). They work with Mookie in the Pizzeria. Pino strongly dislikes blacks and does not get along with Mookie. Pino’s younger brother Vito is friends with Mookie but finds himself in constant conflict with his older brother Pino.
Sal’s pizzeria is the focus of the story. A heated tension arises when Mookie and Pino begin arguing over race, which leads to a series of scenes in which the characters spew racial insults into the camera. While at Sal’s, Mookie’s opinionated friend, Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito), questions Sal about his Wall of Fame, a wall filled with pictures of famous Italian-Americans. Buggin’ Out tries to convince Sal to put up pictures of black celebrities since Sal’s pizzeria is in a black neighborhood and most of his customers are black.
In the opening scene, Spike Lee’s girlfriend Tina (played by Rosie Perez) dances aggressively in a boxing costume to the sounds of Public Enemy’s Fight the Power. Her dance moves coupled with punches, sets an aggressive and violent tone for the theme of hate. In contrast, the following scene of Mister Senor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson) at Love FM sets a peaceful and accepting tone for the theme of love. His role as a radio personality shows the localized use of radio as a mass medium of communication. Throughout the film, he acts as a sort of mediating overseer of all events throughout the neighborhood and tries to resolve or mediate conflicts and tension.
Pino, who strongly dislikes blacks is portrayed as someone who buys into the social expectation theory. Pino doesn’t know why he dislikes blacks, but his disposition is based on a set of unspoken beliefs about blacks and the neighborhood his father refuses to leave. Meanwhile, Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn’s) constant playing of Fight the Power through his boomboxserves asan example of the magic bullet theory. The story and characters are influenced by the music as they react to racial confrontations on the hottest day of the summer.
Raheem wears a four-finger ring on his right hand of the word love and has matching four-finger ring on his left hand of the word hate. He is a source of tension throughout the film with his never-ending enveloping stream of “Fight the Power” blaring out of his boombox. His four-finger rings serve as a subtle symbol of the status of New York City urban life in 1989. Raheem’s overbearing presence is clearly felt and even the camera angles make him appear larger than life.
Raheem tells a story with his brass knuckles “love” and “hate” in which the conflict between the two is intense but in the end, love is victorious. The film climaxes when Buggin’ Out accompanied by Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) and Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith) confront Sal, demanding he change the photos on the wall. Radio Raheem’s boombox blares in the pizzeria and refuses to comply with Sal’s demands to shut the radio off. Buggin’ Out calls Sal and his sons guineas while saying that they’re closing down the pizzeria for good until they change the Wall of Fame.
Sal, in a fit of frustration, tells him he will “tear his nigger ass,” then destroys the boombox with a baseball bat. Raheem attacks Sal, leading to a huge violent fight that spills out into the street, attracting a crowd. The police arrive, break up the fight and apprehend Radio Raheem and Buggin’ Out. Despite the pleas of his fellow officers and the onlookers, one officer refuses to release his chokehold on Raheem, killing him.
The dramatic ending mirrors how police-community relations have declined due to excessive force by some police officers. Realizing that Raheem has been killed in front of onlookers, the officers place his body in the back of a squad car, and drive off, leaving Sal, Pino, and Vito unprotected. The onlookers, enraged about Radio Raheem’s death, blame Sal and his sons. Mookie grabs a trash can and throws it through the window of Sal’s pizzeria, sparking the crowd to rush into the restaurant and destroy it, with Smiley finally setting it on fire.
The film showed many of the stereotypes held about being black in the 1980s, but its representation of racial tensions in urban communities exemplifies how doing the right thing is oftentimes easier said than done in complex, high-emotional situations. But the more we can discuss these issues in an honest way, the more likely we are to find the right way to handle them as a society. This serves as a reminder that it takes awareness, strength, compassion, patience and understanding to be righteous – but it can be done with daily practice!