It bothers me when people get ticked off at Spike Lee’s public persona, because I think that he does himself and his work a disservice by falling into the same trap that he so presciently warned the world of in what I think to be the best made and most important movie of the last twenty years Do The Right Thing. Do the Right Thing is an amazingly mature political statement that manages to be scathingly hilarious right up until the very moment that it hits you square in the stomach so hard that you can barely breath.
When Lee’s Do The Right Thing lost the Palme D’or award in 1989 to Steven Soderbergh’s Sex Lies and Videotape, there were many issues that plagued the film which continue to weigh against it for many white Americans. Why were there no sympathetic characters? Why does Spike Lee’s character Mookie incite a riot by yelling “hate” and throwing a garbage can through his employer Sal’s window bringing forth the ugly destruction of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, Wall of Fame and all? Since Mookie is constantly being told to “do the right thing”, and he is portrayed by the writer and director, is the movie a call for violence? Don’t the dueling quotes from Martin Luther King and Malcolm X that end the movie cloud the issue even more? What does he mean by “do the right thing,” when he seems to be hedging his bets throughout the whole movie? The truth however is that unlike Oliver Stone’s JFK Spike Lee chose to use his skills to illuminate an issue rather than to pummel his audience with an opinion. The tragedy is that Spike Lee does have a strong opinion and thus moviegoers were unable to separate themselves from the violent blaze of the ending and lost the true meaning entirely, which was plain and simply uttered as early as the first two words of dialog, “Wake up!” Not surprisingly these were also the final words of Lee’s previous effort School Daze.
It must be admitted that Spike Lee didn’t do much to help his audience understand the film. In fact he was so appalled that it was misunderstood and at the ways it was misunderstood that he most likely reinforced people’s misconceptions. I have long argued that although Lee’s public rhetoric is strong and opinionated Do The Right Thing is the most passionate and fair minded film that I have ever seen. Unlike the media, which scribbles down every attention grabbing outrage that Lee utters, his characters are allowed to not only debate issues, but to debate them with the best possible argument that person can use given his situational place in life.
Anyone can make a film which bysteps the other sides stronger viewpoints. Oliver Stone certainly doesn’t provide an intelligent proponent of the Warren Commission in JFK (well if there is one). JFK like Do the Right Thing is a brave political statement and masterfully made. Stone’s film is a skillful piece of propaganda. Political commercial directors should pray to be half as convincing. Stone doesn’t care about fairness. He has a point he wants to make and he was so effective that as a result of JFK there was a big furor which resulted in the release of documents pertaining to John F Kennedy’s murder. Is the world a better place because of it? I doubt it.
On the other hand Do the Right Thing was a cry by Spike Lee for the world to pay attention to the escalation of racial strife in the United States. Unfortunately, it’s fair and even tone worked against it. If you watch Do the Right Thing today it is eerily prescient of the events that would culminate in Los Angeles’ Rodney King riots. In the short term, it might have been better for Lee’s cause if Do the Right Thing had been made by Stone. Hopefully some day people will see Lee’s true even handed and gentle statement for what it is,a call to arms and a prayer for a better world. The fact that it wasn’t nominated for a best picture Oscar is a sad joke and almost as embarrassing as the separate drinking fountains of the ‘60s.
The triumph and tragedy of Do the Right Thing is that everyone has a valid viewpoint, but not many are willing to compromise. The key to the issue is black and white, and yet don’t fall into that racial trap. Although the film explores racial issues the true point is that no issue is black and white, there are no easy answers. Racism is dogma and it can’t be solved through dogmatic means. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X have been codified historically as symbols of love vs. hate and nonviolence vs. violence when in fact the truth is much more complicated than that. People feel a need to make things simple, but civil rights issues are not black and white, it is not a math problem, and there is no pat answer. It is of utmost significance that although the quotes at the end of the film take different opinions, the dominant image of these two men in the movie is of the famous photo of them smiling and shaking hands despite their differences. That was Spike Lee’s point and it was ignored.
Repeatedly throughout the film Spike Lee is practically screaming that the choice is not between black and white. It is quite simply one of love versus hate.
I saw Lee speak in Berkeley shortly before the release of Malcolm X, and he was asked, as he had been many times before, “Why did Mookie throw the garbage can through Sal’s window?” Spike had two flip and clever answers, which spoke of his anger not of the eloquence of his film. He quipped that:
1) I’ve been asked that question hundreds of times, but never by a black person.
2) How come none of these people care that a black man died? Sal has insurance. Radio Raheem is dead.
This theme is echoed in the film by the mayor’s concern not for police brutality, but for the damage that was done to public property.
Lee has a valid point when he rails against politicians, who are more concerned with property than human life, but I think that the question is still valid only when one ignores the whole of the movie.
Danny Aiello’s Sal argues quite elegantly that insurance money does not replace the sentimental value of the pizzeria that he literally built himself. He is seen as generous and loving towards the people in the neighborhood. He tells his son Pino in a beautifully written scene of his joy at having watched the children of the neighborhood grow up on his pizza. He stresses to his son that these are good people, some of them don’t like us, but most of them do. The confrontation itself actually takes place because Sal stays late to make a pizza for some of his favorite customers rather than closing up shop and going home on time. Sal’s Achilles’ heel is his temper and his intolerance.
The main confrontation in the film is initiated, by the character Buggin’ Out played by Giancarlo Esposito. Like many mini-debates within this film, both parties have a valid point. Buggin’ Out points out that since Sal’s clientele is mostly black that it would be appropriate to have an African American wall of fame as well as an Italian one. Sal counters this by telling Buggin’ Out that it’s his place. If Buggin’ Out wants to get his own place, he can do whatever he wants with it. This issue is brought up immediately in the movie’s theme Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” which notes that “none of my heroes appear on no stamps.”
Both parties had they been communicating and rational rather than confrontational could probably have avoided the whole thing. Had they each chosen love over hate, Buggin’ Out would have calmly convinced Sal of the issues importance to him, and Sal would probably have put some new pictures on the wall. Lee also tells African Americans that if they are rational and loving and it is not returned (and there is strong historical aspect for him to believe that this is the case) that they should take the appropriate steps as a last resort “by any means necessary.” Not only is there a vacant lot right next to Sal’s where a black business could be, Lee uses his film itself as his own wall of fame. For the answer is clearly one of self reliance. Buggin’ Out should have built his own place.
All of the characters in Do the Right Thing are sympathetic, most are flawed (welcome to the real world people). One character who definitely “does the right thing” is Mister Senior Love Daddy, as played by Samuel L Jackson. Spike Lee does not have him continually say “and that’s the truth Ruth” merely because it’s a goofy and fun DJ cliche. Love Daddy is Spike Lee’s actual voice, the words that he is sure of in this quagmire of racial strife. In the choice of love vs. hate, there is no doubt which side Love Daddy is on. His station is called WELOVE and there is a big sign outside of the station that spells out We Love, which Lee often uses as a background for the acts of selflessness and good will that do take place in the movie.
Love Daddy is not lazy. He is “the only 12 hour” DJ in the world. There is a much discussed scene about midway through the movie that can only be described as a montage of ethnic slurs. Lee has a little fun with the terrible names we create for people unlike ourselves. There is a joy in the creativity of the slurs. If we could move on from the fear and hatred behind those words, they would become harmless, archaic and funny. Nevertheless, at this point in time the words are filled with pain that pierces deeper than the recipient might be willing to admit. It is with hurtful pride that Lee’s African American Mookie tells Pino, “If you see a nigger kick his ass.” Just as the film seems about to explode with hate and careen into violence, Love Daddy breaks it up. Sliding from the back of the screen like a referee breaking up two fighters intent on continuing well after the round is over, he once again shouts the truth. “You all need to chill out.” This intercession by love, though perhaps artificially arranged, provides a moment of calm, an eye in the storm where Mookie literally takes a shower to cool down. Notice that Love Daddy in fact has built his own business, and uses it to honor his musical heroes that do not appear on no stamps. The real message once again is choose love, be rational, and work hard.
Lee uses many other occasions to point out his black heroes, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X are the obvious ones, but look for the basketball and baseball jerseys sported by many characters throughout the film. Look at the huge mural of Mike Tyson, who courtesy of Robin Harris is not immortalized wholeheartedly. Even the most racist major character, Pino, played by John Turturro, somehow finds the ability to worship Eddie Murphy and Magic Johnson, because to him they are somehow “more than black.” Especially notice the jersey worn by Lee’s Mookie during the first half of the film, that of Jackie Robinson, a proud man who integrated baseball by withholding his great temper and proclivities towards retribution. Robinson was no Uncle Tom, once he had shown and demanded his worth to the white world, he spoke and fought loudly for those who might follow. Here’s hoping that Lee gets Robinson’s film made someday too.
Throughout the movie Lee is constantly prodding the black characters. The movie is not a call for violence. It is a call for self-improvement for his people. Lee in effect says that when we as a people get together and do everything unilaterally to solve our problems, despite our current tragic situation, then we as African Americans will have the moral upper hand. It is the message of Martin Luther King filtered through Malcom X’s message of self reliance, education, and sweat. Do the Right Thing is a means of informing white America of the powder keg of race relations. Wake up something must be done. It is also a threat that if black efforts to obtain equality through hard work, self reliance, and education are met with continued racism and intolerance, he has no problem endorsing hate if that is the only means for his people to survive.
So why does Mookie throw the garbage can through the window? It’s not Sal’s fault that Bill Nunn’s Radio Raheem is dead. Trashing Sal’s is by no means productive. The anger should have been directed at the long gone police not at Sal. I think that many white Americans can understand the emotions behind the riot, they just do not understand why it is Mookie, significantly played by Lee, who starts the riot. Is Spike Lee saying that he believes this was the right thing to do in this situation? Out of context this is a valid opinion, but given the movie as a whole, it is Lee’s point that the tragedy of the movie is that Mookie, given the attitudes of the majority of the film’s characters had no choice but to throw that garbage can through the window.
Mookie should not be viewed as the moral center of the movie. He is almost literally used as a human rope in the race relation tug of war. Just about every character implores and demands that he choose between black and white, love and hate. Neither side of the racial war is willing to compromise. These character’s are mostly intolerant, and Mookie is in the unfortunate predicament of attempting to walk a high wire down the middle as he is pulled at by both sides. The true message of Do the Right Thing is that no one wins when people choose to believe that they have the only valid opinion. No matter who was successful in pulling Mookie from the other side he was still going to fall off the rope. Lee believes that right thing to do is to be hard working, loving and tolerant, and the examples are in every frame of the movie.
Let’s look at Mookie as a character. He is consistently caught between his race and his job. The conflict is exemplified by the two jerseys that Mookie wears during the course of the movie. As noted above, Mookie sports a replica of Jackie Robinson’s original Brooklyn Dodgers uniform, an homage to the black hero and the black area where the film takes place. After taking a midday shower, he changes into a Sal’s Pizzeria jersey. He is clearly trying to balance his racial pride with his need to “get paid, make that money.” The rest of the movie can be seen as a contest for Mookie’s support.
Start with the martyred Radio Raheem. He is treated both as a religious figure and as an example of the worst case scenario for a black youth gone wrong. He is the largest and strongest African American figure in the movie. This power is expressed by his radio, which is the essence of his identity. He plays one Public Enemy tape incessantly because it is all that he likes and plays it so loud that there is no way to coexist with him without liking his music. He is like a lot of flawed people in the world, who feel that their overwhelming loyalty to their friends is enough reason to ignore their hatred and ill will towards everyone else.
Raheem’s first major appearance with Mookie is very telling. Spike’s homage to Robert Mitchum’s tainted preacher in Night of the Hunter both illustrates Raheem’s nature and criticizes young black men, by substituting Mitchum’s tattooed hands for Raheem’s Gold LOVE and HATE version of brass knuckles. It is to Lee’s credit that he is able to have fun with the creativity of the language and style of Raheem and other misguided characters at the same time he stridently opposes the damning cliché that is the boom box carrying ghetto youth wasting his money and time acquiring gold jewelry while he desperately tries to affirm his manhood and equality with loud and blind bravado. As Sal says “these are good people” albeit one’s whose potential has been misdirected for many reasons. The movie fails to conclusively answer why these lives have gone wrong, but it argues that it is nonetheless necessary to “wake up” to them.
Raheem’s version of Mitchum’s Cain and Abel narrative of love and hate is in this version cloaked in boxing terms, which hark back to the boxing attire Rosie Perez wears while dancing to the only song Raheem likes PE’s Fight the Power. This boxing image foreshadows the agony of the violent end of these attitudes and is climaxed by the bloody pictures of Black and Italian fighters which are shown from Sal’s Wall of Fame as Raheem lies dead and Sal’s burns to the ground.
Raheem tells Mookie that there are no two ways about it. “If I love you I love you, but if I hate you I hate you.” Every issue is black and white to Raheem and if you are on the wrong side the message is clear that you had better be ready to fight. If Mookie is to be his friend he has to be on his side.
Raheem is next shown in a confrontation, with a group of Latino’s. Rather than share the music of their two cultures and grow, the two try to drown each other out. Raheem’s victory is not based on anything more than the power of his huge radio.
During the playful fire hydrant scene, Raheem appears as if Moses parting the Red Sea. The youth of the neighborhood separate and let Raheem by not out of respect for his radio’s aversion to water, but seemingly out of fear for his size, power and cool. Something they do not hold for the white motorist unlucky enough to follow him.
It is at this point that we meet Raheem’s symmetrical counterpoint in the visage of a huge racist white cop, who tells the people he has been appointed to protect and that if anyone gets out of line they will have to deal with him. The only difference between Raheem and the cop is their skin color. Both are intolerant to people different from themselves, and both exist as a function of their strength and power. They are the same flawed person, whose personality and identity are fixed, by what should be the meaningless difference in the color of his skin. It is at the hands of this cop that Raheem dies in the crucifiction like choke hold grasp of his white alter ego. His death over a radio is a tragic waste, but it is almost fated by the conflict of these two characters, who are easily the most radically intolerant in the movie. The playful early scene where Raheem proudly proclaims that hate has been ko’d by love, culminates in Raheems lifeless body, layed out in much the same postion as Tommy Smith’s black gloved posture on the medal stand of the 1968 olympics, only here the lifeless body holds up only the hand of the hate that killed him spelled out in the gold, indicative of his misguided life.
One of the interracial friendships that does exist is the one between Mookie and Richard Edson’s character Vido. Vido prefer’s Mookie to his brother Pino, because “he listens to me and you don’t.” Pino though overtly racist is still allowed by Lee time to be heard sympathetically and in his own words. He is given reasons for his hostility towards the place “he detests like a sickness.” It may even be suggested that in a world that has chosen hate over love that Pino is the most self realized character in the movie. He tells Vido to remember who he is and that Mookie is not to be trusted, a prediction that is realized by Mookie’s final decision.
According to Lee, the obvious best solution is for everyone to disregard their differences, be tolerant and get along. Unilaterally Lee is calling for his people to do what they can to have the upper hand morally, as King preached, while raising themselves up to a level that is better able to compete for respect through economic and intellectual power as suggested by Malcolm X. Like Malcolm X, Spike will not rule out violence, but anyone who watches Do the Right Thing intelligently can’t help but see his sadness at what he sees to be inevitable conflict.
From the other side of the fence though is Mister Senior Love Daddy. Because he is self aware and tolerant he sees no problem with Mookie’s friendship with Vido. The same cannot be said for Buggin’ Out, who has to be told by Mookie that Vido is “down.” Nonetheless he intolerantly warns Mookie to “stay black”.
In Buggin’ Out’s key confrontation with Sal, he argues that it’s a free country. The exact same argument is made seconds later to Buggin’ Out by John Savage, the white man in the Larry Bird jersey whose bicycle accidentally runs over his new Air Jordans. With the tables turned Buggin’ Out sadly yet humorously chalks the notion up as nonsense.
The movie’s message is not the riot at the end. The riot is only the sad result of the path not taken. The path that is taken by the older wiser characters played by Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis. At the film’s onset Dee and Davis are so at odds that they are both filmed at opposing angles.. When Ossie Davis’ Da Mayor does a nice thing by buying Dee’s Mother Sister some flowers the characters stop being filmed at opposing angles. When Dee accepts Davis’ kindness and praises Da Mayor for saving a boy from being hit in traffic, Lee lets you know that this is the right path by illuminating a street light over Davis’ head. If you’re not convinced by this point listen carefully to the sound track because a little bell literally goes off. The message of the film is in that bell going off, but because it was stuck in the middle of the film and followed by violence it was sadly ignored.
The film’s right thing to do is to get along despite our differences. Sadly everyone was too concerned with their own point of view to see that Mookie’s actions were the only course acceptable to a world that insists that you choose one side or the other.