Spike Lee's 1989 film Do the Right Thing seems a contradiction in terms: an entertaining Hollywood film with a disturbing political message. Intended by Lee as a wake-up call to America (the film's narrative begins with Señor Love Daddy [Samuel Jackson], a radio DJ, urging his listeners to "Waaaake up"), the film implies that underneath a thin surface of affability between blacks and whites in America lurks a mutual hatred, resentment, and distrust that makes outbreaks of violence between them inevitable. The film's action takes place on the hottest day of summer in the Brooklyn neighborhood Bedford-Stuyvesant, the heat serving as a catalyst to bring simmering racial tensions to a roiling boil. The film culminates in a violent race riot in which African Americans loot and burn Sal's Famous Pizzeria, the only white-run business on the predominantly African-American block. The riot is set off by the death of Radio Ra-heem (Bill Nunn), a young African-American man who dies when a white policeman uses unnecessary force (a fatal choke hold) to restrain him from an attack on Sal (Danny Aiello), the owner of the pizzeria. Radio Raheem attacks Sal in retaliation for Sal's having demolished Radio Ra-heem's boom box with a baseball bat. After Radio Raheem dies, voices in the crowd call out the names of Michael Stewart and Eleanor Bumpers, evoking the memory of two 1988 real-life instances in which black people died because of the use of unnecessary force by the police.1
By setting Do the Right Thing in a white-owned Italian pizzeria and having Sal attack Radio Raheem's boom box with a baseball bat, Spike Lee also alludes to the Howard Beach incident in Queens, New York, which occurred when three black men whose car had broken down in an all-white Italian neighborhood stopped at a pizza parlor to eat and make a phone call. When they left they were chased by a gang of white youths carrying baseball bats who screamed racial insults at them and ordered them out of the neighborhood. One of the black men escaped, one was caught and beaten, and the third, Michael Griffith, a West Indian immigrant, panicked and ran out into an expressway. He was hit by a car and killed. None of the white youths was convicted of causing Griffith's death because the defense depicted the black men as troublemakers with police records, making the incident seem like a street fight rather than a hate crime.
As Spike Lee has stated in an interview, the deaths of Michael Stewart and Eleanor Bumpers at the hands of the white police and the failure of the courts to punish those who had caused the death of Michael Griffith in the Howard Beach incident epitomize the racist oppression under which blacks live in America. "There's a complete loss of faith in the judicial system," he comments, "And so when you're frustrated and there's no other outlet, it'll make you want to hurl [a] garbage can through a window."2 These considerations motivated him to make a political film about a race riot, told from an African-American perspective, that would raise consciousness about racism in America and pose the question of how black people should respond to racial inequality and physical oppression. Is violent retaliation the way? At the end of the film, Lee juxtaposes two statements, one by Martin Luther King and one by Malcolm X. King writes that "Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral." Malcolm X states: "I am not against using violence in self-defense. I call it intelligence." Lee gives Malcolm X the last word.
Interestingly, in this regard, the destruction of Sal's Famous Pizzeria at the end of Do the Right Thing does not occur as a spontaneous outpouring of wrath by the crowd. It is deliberately instigated by Mookie, who works for Sal and is the character Spike Lee plays in the film. After witnessing Radio Raheem's death at the hands of the police, the crowd is angry but not violent. Then Mookie, who has been standing by the side of Sal and his two sons, abruptly changes sides. He walks across the street, picks up a garbage can, empties its contents onto the street, walks back across the street to Sal's Famous Pizzeria and hurls the garbage can through the front window. This action arouses the onlookers from their stunned quiescence. Following Mookie's lead, they loot, trash, and set the pizza parlor on fire. In the published script of the film, Lee writes "Mookie hurls the garbage can through the plate glass window of Sal's Famous Pizzeria. That's it. All hell breaks loose. The dam has been unplugged, broke. The rage of a people has been unleashed, a fury. A lone garbage can thrown through the air has released a tidal wave of frustration."3
The film generated enormous controversy when it was released. Some reviewers felt the film was an incendiary call for a black uprising and predicted race riots (which never happened) following the film's release in the summer of 1989. One reviewer quipped, "Let's hope it doesn't open in a theater near you." The majority of reviewers, however, admired the cinematic brilliance and originality of the film, and praised Spike Lee's sympathetic, humorous, even-handed portrayal of its black, white, and Korean characters. But many of even the most admiring critics had problems understanding why Spike Lee had Mookie, the character he plays, set off the race riot. Was Spike Lee implying that Mookie did the right thing? Was Spike Lee advocating violence?
According to Lee, only white viewers of the film had to ask. The African-American viewers he spoke to were never in doubt.4 In numerous interviews and commentaries on his film, Spike Lee clearly states that he intended viewers to understand that Mookie did the right thing in starting the riot in order to express outrage at Radio Raheem's death at the hands of the white police. As he writes in a final word at the end of the companion volume to Do the Right Thing, "Am I advocating violence? No, but goddamn, the days of twenty five million Blacks being silent while our fellow brothers and sisters are exploited, oppressed, and murdered, have to come to an end. Racial persecution, not only in the United States, but all over the world, is not gonna go away; it seems it's getting worse (four years of [George Herbert Walker] Bush won't help). . . .Yep, we have a choice, Malcolm or King. I know who I'm down with."5
While Spike Lee clearly agrees with Malcolm X that violence in self-defense is a justified form of protest, and intends audiences to feel that Mookie did the right thing in sparking the attack against Sal's Pizzeria, Spike Lee did not make Do the Right Thing as a strident racial agitprop film that celebrates violence. The production designer Wynn Thomas remarks on the special care he took in making Sal's Famous Pizzeria a cut above the way actual pizza parlors in poor neighborhoods look, in or der to create an environment people would like on an unconscious level, and hence would regret seeing destroyed.6 The power of Do the Right Thing and its effectiveness as political cinema lies not in its making an airtight case that Mookie did the right thing, but in its success in opening up a dialogue between the positions of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. A photograph of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X smiling and shaking hands that reappears throughout the film and is its final image works powerfully on our imaginations, preparing us to read the written statements of the two men which appear at the end of the film in the spirit of "both/and" as opposed to "either/or." Do the Right Thing is best understood as a vehicle not for solving the dilemma that Malcolm X and Martin Luther King's opposing views create, but for making us contemplate two opposing views together, and thereby forcing our minds into new pathways of understanding.
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