Polarization of the Races in Do the Right Thing
Jerome Christensen's essay, "Spike Lee, Corporate Populist," focuses on Spike Lee's financial motives in the making of the film Do the Right Thing. He also critiques an essay by W.J.T. Mitchell, The Violence in Public Art: Do the Right Thing," which is a positive review, saying that "by taking Lee's wish for Lee's act...Mitchell does the wrong reading" (Christensen 582). This will be a focus of my paper: not just what Lee's intentions were, but what he actually accomplished. I will also try to explore Lee's intentions when he produced Do the Right Thing, but in less detail. I will look at what Lee intended and what he ultimately achieved in his film, and try to reconcile these two things.
In a very broad view, instead of promoting anything positive, like racial reconciliation, Lee has created a film that does nothing more than serve to widen the gap of reconciliation between blacks and whites, whether he intended to do so or not, as I will try to show in this essay. To begin, I will give an overview of Do the Right Thing, then explain how the film widens the gap of racism rather than trying to eliminate it, using several main points in my argument, along with several authors.
John Simon, author of "My Thing, Right or Wrong," is very critical of Lee's film. Simon sees the film as controversial, but not good (Simon 45). He says that the film needs to be either impartial to both sides of the issues, or be clear about which side it is taking; Do the Right Thing, he says, accomplishes neither of these (46). "In Sal's Country," by Jacquie Jones, is much more enthusiastic about the film. Leaving the decision of whether the film 1 was right or wrong up to the viewer is the most satisfying part, she says (Jones 34-35). Despite differences in interpretation, however, all of the authors seem to agree that Do the Right Thing is a controversial movie. Not only do I see the film as controversial, I see it as depressing, as I will show after an overview of the film. Following the overview, I will discuss the end of the movie, the riot scene, and some of the main points of that scene. Next, I will try to point out several oddities of choosing one particular character to end up as the loser in the movie. Third, I will explain what I think were the motives behind Spike Lee's usage of two quotes at the end of the movie, one from Martin Luther King, saying that violence was never justified, and the second by Malcolm X saying that violence was justified in certain cases. I will also look briefly at the question of why Lee cleaned up his to-be-filmed neighborhood so drastically, instead of leaving the drugs, criminals, and garbage.
To begin with, the movie takes place over the period of one very hot summer day in Brooklyn, New York, in the poor, mainly black neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant. The main characters are an unusual group. Sal, Italian by descent, runs Sal's Famous Pizzeria, along with his two sons, Pino and Vito, both in their early twenties. Spike Lee himself plays the part of Mookie, the streetwise and lazy pizza delivery boy. There are "two choruses observing and commentating on the action" (Simon 46), as John Simon says, in "My Thing, Right or Wrong." One is a group of three men in their forties or fifties, who apparently do nothing but sit around all day cursing at each other and poking fun at everyone around them.
Although they seem to be bums, the three men appear to be enjoying themselves, and don't seem to be uncomfortable at all. The second chorus is a group of three young men and a girl, who, throughout the movie seem to do not much more than comment on the action 2 going on around them, "from a youthful point of view" (46).
There is obviously a division of the older generation and the new here; the young people give a very different view than the older people. Finally, there are two older people in the movie who give a different perspective than either of the other two groups. Mother Sister sits in the window of her house and chats with passersby during the day, continually insulting and scorning her would-be wooer, Da Mayor. Da Mayor is not elected to any office; in fact, he is the kindly neighborhood wino. He loves Mother Sister, who will have nothing to do with him, and attempts to win her over with roses and compliments, all to no avail (at least until the end of the film).
Da Mayor is something more than just a wino though. When he sees a child in danger, he grabs him from in front of a car, finally getting a small compliment from Mother Sister. It is Da Mayor who admonishes Mookie to "do the right thing," no matter what it is. The main theme of the movie is centered around two different conflicts which set the stage for the eruption at the end. The first involves the Wall of Fame in Sal's Pizzeria, upon which are pictured famous Italian-Americans. A black youth, the bespectacled Buggin' Out, gets angry over the Wall. Why, he asks, are no "brothers" in any of the pictures? This leads to an angry confrontation between Sal and Buggin' Out, with Mookie finally interceding and propelling Buggin' Out from the pizzeria. Buggin' Out leaves with the final declaration that he is going to organize a boycott of Sal's. The boycott fails miserably; everyone Buggin' Out talks to laughs at him.
The second conflict is between Sal and another young black man, Radio Raheem. Raheem is a hulking, sullen man who walks around the neighborhood all day carrying his giant chromed boom box blaring the same song: "Fight the Power" by Public Enemy. Raheem enters the pizzeria with his boom box 3 playing at full blast, and gets angry with Sal when he (Sal) tells him to turn the volume down. They argue, with Raheem eventually getting his pizza and leaving the store incensed. Raheem and Buggin' Out are two young men who show a distinctly different side of the picture than the older Mother Sister and Da Mayor.
With these two characters, Lee continues to establish the division of young and old. Mookie is a sort of neutral character in these initial confrontations, not taking the side of either young or old. However, Mookie does play a pivotal role in the end. He is well liked by Sal and one of Sal's sons, and in fact seems to be almost a part of the family. Although lazy and unreliable, Sal doesn't fire him (this might be due in some part to Sal not being able find any other help). Mookie also happens to be friends with both Buggin' Out, whom he keeps from fighting with Sal in the early part of the movie, and Radio Raheem. The movie not only catalogues the day, and the various noteworthy incidents occurring in it, but the movie goes about clearly dividing the neighborhood The end of the film is the important part, with the final showdown pitting Buggin' Out and Radio Raheem against Sal.
At closing time in the pizzeria, Sal has just finished telling Mookie that he (Mookie) is like a son to him, and that there will always be a place at Sal's Famous Pizzeria for him. Immediately following this, Buggin' and Raheem come banging on the door, demanding to be let in to get one last slice of pizza. Upon entering, Raheem turns up the volume on his ghetto blaster, and Buggin' Out and Sal enjoin in a frenzied flurry of words. Sal, growing angrier and angrier, finally smashes Raheem's boom box. At this time the formidable Raheem grabs Sal and starts choking him. The two combatants struggle their way out the door and into the street, and a dog-pile quickly develops. The police arrive shortly, 4 and manage to pry Sal and Raheem apart after much yelling and confusion. Raheem continues to struggle however, and in the ensuing melee he is killed by a policeman. The policemen put Raheem's body into a squad car, and beat a hasty retreat. The crowd becomes agitated, obviously, but vacillates on the issue of what exactly they should do. Finally, Mookie grabs a metal trash can and strides over to the pizzeria, then smashes out a window. This sets off an immediate chain reaction, as the riotous crowd totally destroys the pizzeria, and burns it down.
Why did Mookie decide to destroy the pizzeria, when the crowd could have dispersed without any further incident? Mitchell says that Mookie used an attack on the pizzeria to divert the crowds attention away from Sal and his sons, thus saving them from assault (Mitchell 897-898). However, no violence was directed at Sal in any manner. The crowd was upset, but they were neither verbally nor physically threatening towards Sal.
What Lee was saying is that violence is justified when you are righting a wrong (although something noticeably missing is that it was not Sal, but the police who killed Raheem accidentally, while Raheem was trying to kill Sal). An example that points towards Lee advocating violence is brought up by John Simon: the use of the "Fight the Power" song by the rap group Public Enemy throughout the movie (Simon 50). Fight what power? Fight the police? Fight the government? The only other words that I could decipher from the song when listening to it during the movie besides simply, "...fight the power," were a few profanities, so the lyrics to the song are not of much help. Also, Joe Klein notes in an article entitled "Spiked?" that Public Enemy is overtly racist, and extremely anti-Semitic (Klein 15). Klein points to an example of Public Enemy's press agent, Professor Griff, as saying that "Jews were responsible for 'the majority of wickedness that goes on 5 across the globe'" (Klein 15). Lee has chosen to use a group throughout his movie that is very racist, and an interesting question is: why? Perhaps the only way to discern Lee's reasoning is by looking at what power is being fought against in the movie. Is Lee advocating an attack (perhaps not just physical) on the white well-to-do establishment? Perhaps, as (white) Sal seems to be the only person in the movie who has any financial prosperity at all. This leads into the next question: why choose Sal out of all the people in the movie to pick on?
Throughout the movie, Sal seems to be one of the very few people who really cares about those around him. Despite Mookie's often being late for work, and taking far too long to make pizza deliveries, Sal doesn't give up on him. Sal is kind to Da Mayor, giving him small jobs and money despite the fact that Da Mayor is generally a bum. Sal talks fondly of the kids in the neighborhood who "grew up" on his pizza. Also noteworthy is the fact that the pizzeria is one of only two or three pieces of commercial real estate in the neighborhood. Sal seems to be the closest thing to a good person in the neighborhood, and his pizzeria is one of the only prosperous establishments in the neighborhood. Yet it is Sal who ends up as the loser in the end. Klein says that Sal's restaurant being attacked shows that Lee is telling blacks that "white people are your enemy, even if they appear to be sympathetic" (Klein 15). Sal isn't perfect, and even uses some racial slurs, but he certainly isn't a militant racist, especially when compared to other overt racists in the film. The treatment of Sal, combined with the use of the "Fight the Power" song, could provide the following argument: Lee saying that violence is all right if you feel that you've been wronged. In addition to these problems (the extremely racist Public Enemy rap group, and the use of Sal), Lee fails to provide a realistic setting. Thomas Doherty, in a review of Do the Right Thing, says that Lee refuses "to filter black life through a racial 6 prism...[and Lee] sets his sights at street level and frames his own conversations" (Doherty 35). The position set forth in this quote, however, is inaccurate; although the movie was filmed on location in New York City, Spike Lee admits to sanitizing the particular block that is seen in the film. According to Marlaine Glicksman, he cleared out three crack houses, and reconstructed sets from gutted buildings (Glicksman 12). He also made sure to keep anything like a drug addict or drugs off of the screen, as well as clearing trash and refuse from the streets. Spike Lee himself addresses this issue in an interview that he participated in with Glicksman, saying that "there's no need to show garbage...because not every single block in Bed-Stuy is like that" (Glicksman 16). He goes on to say that there isn't a need to show black people living in poverty, because not all of them do. In regard to drugs, Lee says that the drug issue is too large to be a subplot of the movie, which was intended to focus on racism (Glicksman 16). Lee's answer to the question of the cleaning-up operations, however, really sidesteps the real issue: if the film is supposed to present real issues, then shouldn't it (the film) be as realistic as possible? There is no one who can deny that drugs, trash, and poverty are huge issues in the inner city, that, even if they couldn't be dealt with properly, should not have been airbrushed away.
Lee does ignore the drug and poverty issue, which seems again to point towards how he actually feels about the issue of violence, but then creates another question by displaying two quotes at the end of the movie. One is from Martin Luther King, who calls violence self-defeating and "immoral" (Mitchell 899). King also says that "the old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind" (899). The second quote is from Malcom X, who says, "I don't even call it violence when it's in self-defense, I call it intelligence" (899).
Why Lee chose to display both quotes is an interesting question. Was Lee trying 7 to say that people should turn off King and start following Malcom X's logic through a series of riots? No, but the impression was that Lee does go to some trouble to attempt to further polarize two sections of society: lower-class blacks and middle-class whites. It is not only by placing the Malcom X quote last that Lee shows he is more in agreement with Malcom; by using violence, and not showing any negative consequences, Lee shows without a doubt whos camp he is in. Lee's camp is the one that believes in violence to achieve objectives.
Lee seems to be trying to say that the right to do whatever is necessary is something that needs to be protected. However, what "right" is Malcom X, and Spike Lee through him, talking about? There is no right to riot. There is no right to destroy property. There is no right to exact vengeance on people who you feel have wronged you; yet all of these seem to be rights that Lee proposes need to be protected.
Not everyone sees it this way, however. Jaquie Jones says that Lee doesn't make a judgment as to whether or not the right thing was done (Jones 34). To her, the enjoyment of the film is in making the call for herself on what the right thing actually was (35). I agree that it was an intriguing film with a thought-provoking ending, and that there was satisfaction in deciding who did the right thing, if anyone. However, I disagree on the issue of Lee's impartiality. In watching and thinking about the film, the viewer is forced to decide that Lee's own beliefs show through.
Mitchell says Lee risks distortion of his pure motives by commentators, in the violent act of the destruction of the pizzeria (Mitchell 897). Yet, for the average viewer, Lees true motives cannot be examined in detail, except through watching the movie Do the Right Thing. Very few people will read the in-depth articles that attempt to dissect the intentions of the Lee, the filmmaker. What Lee failed to do, 8 if in fact he was not promoting violence, was present his ideas clearly in his film. After reading several essays on Do the Right Thing, you might think you are better able to interpret what Lee was trying to express. However, the true indicator of Lees motives is his film, not an interview with him, or an essay critiquing the film. Lee had one forum (his film) to present to everyone at once whether or not he was saying that violence was acceptable. So, if Lee does present a muddy picture in this forum, his film, he not only risks misinterpretation, he invites distortion and speculation. Lee also discourages the notion that his film is a work of art that he doesn't take sides in, when he is asked if he has "full artistic control" (Glicksman 14) over his films. Lee replies, "We made the films we wanted to make" (Glicksman 14).
Each person viewing the film is left with an impression. The impression that I was left with was this: Lee was not attempting in any way to promote forgiveness or healing between races in Do the Right Thing. He chooses the wrong people to victimize, and the wrong people to make into the victors. Unfortunately, the film also sides with Malcom X on the issue of whether or not to use violence to achieve your ends. Lee barely even gives a hint of the possible negative ramifications of violence, which include polarizing the races, and death and injury to individuals. Lee shows a sort of happy ending, with Mookie and Sal apparently making up. No one really gets hurt as a result of the riot itself (insurance takes care of Sal), and this is not a realistic end to violence and burning. Radio Raheem is killed, and pushing aside Da Mayor's pleas to the crowd to break up and going home, the film presents an answer to this act of violence: more violence. Lee, who could be a great force in tearing down racial barriers, has merely raised the wall by laying a few more bricks, through his lack of an all-around positive force, black or white, in the movie.
Christensen, Jerome. "Spike Lee, Corporate Populist." Critical Inquiry 17 Spring 1991: 583-595.
Doherty, Thomas. "Do the Right Thing." Film Quarterly 43 Winter 1989-1990: 35-40.
Glicksman, Marlaine. "Spike Lee's Bed-Stuy BBQ." Film Comment 25 July/August 1989: 12-16+.
Jones, Jaquie. "In Sal's Country." Cineaste 17 no. 4 1990: 34-35.
Klein, Joe. "Spiked?" New York 26 June 1989: 14-15.
Mitchell, W.J.T. "The Violence of Public Art: Do the Right Thing." Critical Inquiry 17 Spring 1991: 881-899.
Simon, John. "My Thing, Right or Wrong." National Review 4 Aug. 1989: 45+. 10
(c) 1997, Timothy G. Emerick, in association with YCA
All rights reserved.