The Lasting Significance of “Do The Right Thing”

Jack Deering

Dr. Boyd

ENGL 129

27 April 2018

The Lasting Significance of Do the Right Thing

    Spike Lee’s eye-opening film Do the Right Thing chronicles the fictional events that transpire during an extremely hot day in a Brooklyn neighborhood in 1989. The escalation of conflict begins when a black character nicknamed Buggin’ Out questions why there are no black people featured on the “Wall of Fame” in the neighborhood’s popular pizzeria, which is owned by Italian-Americans. As the scorching day progresses, the racial conflict in the neighborhood continues to escalate and eventually culminates with the killing of a black man by a white police officer who uses a fatal chokehold. Throughout the film, Spike Lee explores racial tensions in the Brooklyn neighborhood, a microcosm of the greater New York City area and the United States. In effect, he exposes the ugly reality of racism and police brutality towards black people in America long before these issues became part of the mainstream media through more recent movements like Black Lives Matter. The larger project of the film, then, is to reconfigure the national discourse around the Civil Rights Movement in America by shifting it away from the passivism of Martin Luther King Jr. and towards the more radical activism advocated by Malcolm X, who viewed violence in self-defense as not “violence,” but “intelligence.”

    The first instance in the film that comments on police treatment of black people establishes the atmosphere of distrust in the police within the black community. Thirty minutes into the film, two officers arrive at the scene where a few black men aimed water shooting from a fire hydrant at a white man’s car. As one of the police officers shuts off the fire hydrant, he threatens that if the fire hydrant comes back on, “There’s gonna be hell to pay! You’ll come and answer to me goddammit!” When the other officer attempts to question a witness, who is referred to as the “mayor” of the block, the mayor replies, “Those that’ll tell don’t know, and those that know won’t tell.” This statement and the refusal of the mayor to report on what he witnessed underscores the distrust that minorities have for the police. Rather than cooperating with the police, many minorities refuse to assist police officers investigating crimes because they distrust the officers. This incident from the mayor, according to critic Brian Johnson, also reflects the reluctance of many black people to work with the police and could signify the beginning of the “snitches get stitches” mentality (2015:25). Due to distrust towards police, many people prioritize the demands of criminals over the demands of justice. This atmosphere of distrust often results in police officers and minorities working against each other, rather than with each other, throughout the United States today.

    In addition to bringing awareness to the distrust in police, the film calls attention to racial profiling issues by police, an issue that further exacerbates the distrust. After the statement from the “mayor,” the officers give up on questioning witnesses, and one officer suggests to the car owner, “I suggest you get to your car quick before these people start to strip it clean.” This racist comment by the police officer emphasizes the racial profiling of black people that plagues many police departments; this officer assumes that the black neighbors on the street are prone to criminal activity. If the same incident had occurred in a white neighborhood, the officer likely would not have made this comment. The same officers whose duty it is to promote justice can sometimes make racist assumptions about people from minority groups. Many communities throughout the United States continue to suffer from racial profiling, and this profiling can be especially oppressive when it comes from police officers, as it did in Do the Right Thing.

    In addition to racial profiling issues, the film heightens awareness of the shared perceptions of wastefulness that exist among police and black people. Later in the day, flanked by dramatic music, the same two police officers drive by three older black men spending time together outside on the sidewalk. This scene features close-up shots of the faces of the officers and the faces of the black men as the officers drive by. The faces of both the police officers and of the three black men are all very scrutinizing, as if all of the men are thinking I’ve got my eyes on you or I know what you’re up to. As the police officers stare down the black men, one of the officers utters in a disgusted tone, “What a waste.” Then, before the officers are out of the black men’s sight, one of the black men delivers the same comment, “What a waste,” in a more angry, frustrated tone. The comment from the police officer encapsulates the view that many officers have about black men, which is that they are lazy and unproductive; in fact, the men are of retirement age and are simply spending time together. On the other hand, the comment from the black man captures the sentiment that many black people have about police officers in their communities, which is that having so many cops in black communities is wasteful because the officers are not performing their required duties of maintaining peace and safety in the communities. The same black man further emphasizes his negative perception of the police by complaining that he was “so rudely interrupted by New York City’s finest” with strong sarcasm on the word “finest.”  These perspectives of police officers seeing black people as a waste and black people seeing police officers as a waste still exist in today’s America. With these perceptions, the atmosphere of support that is necessary between police and black people erodes; without police supporting black people and black people supporting police, effective law enforcement is not possible. These negative perceptions contribute to an unproductive and contentious relationship that can ultimate result in tragedy.

    Lee brings awareness to the ultimate tragedy that can result from the atmosphere of racism, racial profiling, and distrust, which is the unjustified killing of black men by police. The film calls attention to this issue through Radio Raheem’s tragic ending. In the film, the tensions between the police officers and the black neighbors come to a crescendo after Sal violently smashes Radio Raheem’s stereo. Raheem tackles Sal, pins him against the ground, and attempts to strangle him. Upon spotting the chaos, police officers arrive on the scene and pull Radio Raheem off of Sal. Officer Long puts Raheem in a chokehold with his baton and continues to tighten his grip as a black man shouts, “You’re killing him!” Others watch in fear and despair, fearing the Radio Raheem will lose his life. The films cuts to a close-up shot of Radio Raheem’s face as it falls lifeless, at which point Officer Ponte utters, “Gary, that’s enough.” The film then cuts to a shot of Radio Raheem’s shoes shaking inches above the ground, revealing that Officer Long has essentially hung Raheem to his death. The officers then let Raheem’s lifeless body fall to the ground, and they shout at him to “Quit faking it!” and “Get the fuck up!” Realizing what they have done and all of the witnesses looking at Raheem, Officer Ponte demands, “Let’s get him outta here.” After the police drive Radio Raheem away, the camera pans across various neighbors who say, “It’s murder. They did it again just like Michael Stewart,” “Murder! Eleanor Bumpurs! Murder!,” “Damn, man, it ain’t even safe in our own fucking neighborhood,” “Never was, never will be,” and “It’s as plain as day; they didn’t have to kill the boy.” As all of these neighbors make these comments, Smiley’s cries of agony can be heard in the background.

    The tragic killings of black people by police were not a temporary problem near the film’s release in the late 1980s. The continuing severity of the problem is evident; since the film’s release in 1989, many more black people have, like Radio Raheem, been killed by unjustified violence from police. These victims include Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Walter Scott, Eric Garner, and Philando Castile. Eric Garner’s death in 2014 was eerily similar to Radio Raheem’s. Like in Radio Raheem’s death, a New York police officer put Eric Garner in a chokehold, despite the fact that the New York Police Department banned the use of chokeholds in 1993 (NY Times). Although the officer eventually released Garner from the chokehold, he pinned Garner’s face to the ground while four other officers restrained Garner. Garner pleaded for his life as he struggled to say “I can’t breath,” eleven times, and he was pronounced dead at a hospital an hour later. Do the Right Thing brought a greater awareness to the violence that police are capable of inflicting on black people, and this issue has continued for the nearly thirty years since that have passed since the film’s release. The people in communities where these tragedies occur wrestle with them the same way that neighbors in the film did, by lamenting that another innocent person has been killed, struggling to comprehend why the officer had to use lethal force, and crying out in agony.

    The response of the neighbors to Radio Raheem’s death points to the shift from the passivism of Martin Luther King Jr. towards the more radical activism advocated by Malcolm X in response to oppression. After the police have driven away, Mookie picks up a metal trash can and heaves it through the window of Sal’s pizzeria. The angry crowd then storms the restaurant, destroying everything inside of it. Watching from a distance, Sal shouts, “That’s my place!” and Vito comments, “Fucking n*****s.” These comments from Vito and Sal are reflective of the sentiments that many people feel in the wake of rioting and looting spurred by police brutality. They view the rioters as irrational and animal-like. Many people focus on the tragedy of business establishments being destroyed, rather than the real tragedy that spurs this dramatic response: the death of an innocent black man at the hands of police. Spike Lee himself captured this idea when he said, “The critics are focusing on the burning of the pizzeria, and nobody ever mentions the death of Radio Raheem, because to them Sal’s property is more important than another death of a young black kid, another black “hoodlum” (Johnson 2015:25).

    Whereas Martin Luther King Jr. would likely have viewed the violent response from the crowd as “impractical and immoral,” Malcolm X would likely have seen it as “intelligence” and “self-defense.” By choosing to include a violent response from the crowd, Spike Lee calls attention to the reconfiguration of black peoples’ mode of resistance to oppression. Instead of embracing the peaceful passivism of Martin Luther King Jr., the marginalized are now turning to Malcolm X’s ideology of a more radical activism in the form self-defense. The emphasis of this shift is further reinforced when Smiley walks into the pizzeria and places a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X on the burning Wall of Fame as the song “Fight the Power” plays in the background. Through their violent reaction to Raheem’s killing, the Brooklyn neighbors are fighting the powerful, oppressive system with the ideology promoted by Malcolm X. Rather than peacefully calling attention to issues of racism rampant among powerful people, the crowd in Do the Right Thing is more literally fighting the oppressive power. The violent, or “intelligent,” actions of self-defense in Do the Right Thing resemble the many responses to police brutality since the film’s release in 1989. In response to unjustified police killings of black men, violent riots have ensued in Los Angeles in 1992, Ferguson in 2014, Baltimore in 2015, and Charlotte in 2016. Like the riot in the film, all of these riots have been characterized by shattered glass, looting, and fire. The form of protest promoted by Martin Luther King Jr. has shifted to the one advocated by Malcolm X and remains strong today. Although many continue to echo the sentiments of Martin Luther King Jr. in arguing that these violent responses are immoral and unproductive, these violent protests are an effective mode of calling the media’s attention to racial issues in America.

    In conclusion, by telling the story of a quarrelsome, tragic day in a Brooklyn neighborhood, Spike Lee brings awareness to both the racism that black people face on a daily basis and the devastating effect it has on marginalized communities. In a wider sense, Lee explores violence as a response to oppression, and he transforms the national discourse about racial justice by shifting it from Martin Luther King’s ideology of peaceful protest to Malcolm X’s perspective of self-defense. The significance of Lee’s message continues in today’s polarizing society, and one of the closing scenes in the film serves as an poignant reflection on current issues of race and society in America. The morning after Radio Raheem’s killing, the neighborhood’s popular radio host expresses his sentiments when he professes, “My people, my people. What can I say? Say what I can. I saw it, but I didn’t believe it. I didn’t believe it, what I saw. Are we gonna live together? Together, are we gonna live?” The camera pans up to the radio host gazing out the window; below the window in big letters is the word “LOVE.” Through the words and imagery of this scene, Spike Lee sends a message that maintains significance today. If we are “gonna live together” we must cultivate an atmosphere of trust instead of distrust, of support instead of opposition, and of love instead of hate.



Do the Right Thing. Directed by Spike Lee, performances by Danny Aiello, Spike Lee, and Bill Nunn, Universal City Studios, 1989.

Mays, Jeffery C. “3½ Years After Eric Garner’s Death, Family Still Waits for Closure.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 25 Feb. 2018,

Samuel Builds-the-Fire and “one chip of human bone”

Sherman Alexie begins his chapter “A Train is an Order of Occurrence Designed to Lead to Some Result” with an excerpt of a poem by a Native American poet named Ray Young Bear. This poem serves as an enlightening backdrop for the chapter, as many parts of the poem relate to the experiences of Samuel Builds-the-Fire. The poem, titled “one chip of human bone,” reads as follows:

one chip of human bone


it is almost fitting

to die on the railroad tracks


i can easily understand

how they felt on their long staggered walks back


grinning to the stars.


there is something about trains, drinking, and

being an indian with nothing to lose.


The title of the poem, “one chip of human bone,” emphasizes the graphic nature of Samuel’s implied death at the end of the chapter. At the end of the chapter, Samuel is passed out and face down on the railroad tracks as a train approaches. Samuel’s body is likely obliterated by the force of the train, and chips of his bones are likely spread about. Samuel has now become reduced to simply “one chip of human bone” to any passersby. Additionally, the connection between the poem and the chapter is further strengthened by the statement that the railroad tracks “rattled like bones in a stick game” as the train approached(Alexie 138).

The lines of the poem containing the phrase “it is almost fitting / to die on the railroad tracks” underscore how Samuel’s death on the railroad tracks could be interpreted as “fitting.” Samuel’s death follows his devastating firing from his job as a maid at a motel. After being fired from his job, Samuel goes to the bar and drinks for the first time, which is especially significant because “all his life he had watched his brother and sisters, most of his tribe, fall into alcoholism and surrendered dreams” (133). Up until this point, Samuel had resisted the temptation to drink, but losing his job has driven him to finally consume alcohol. Samuel spends a long time at the bar and becomes very drunk, and he eventually collapses on the railroad tracks. Samuel’s death on the railroad tracks could be construed as “fitting” because the tracks symbolize the path to a successful life. By securing a job as a maid, Samuel was on the path to a more successful life, but his boss firing him was the train that eventually killed him.

The following lines of the poem, “i can easily understand / how they felt on their long staggered walks back / grinning to the stars” emphasize how Samuel must have felt as he drunkenly left the bar. Samuel definitely had a long, staggered walk, as Alexie writes, “He staggered from locked door to locked door, believing that any open door meant he was home (Alexie 137). In these lines of the poem, Young Bear is referring to drunk Native Americans who could be contemplating suicide. Young Bear describes the disillusioned natives as “grinning to the stars” to imply that the suicidal natives, as is Samuel, are happily thinking about the fact that their death will allow them to leave life on earth and the reservation. Additionally, Ray Young Bear can “understand / how they felt” because he himself is a Native American who lives on a reservation, specifically the Meskwaki tribal settlement. Thus, he is likely familiar with stories of depressed, drunk Native Americans similar to Samuel.

The closing lines of the poem highlight the idea that the combination of “trains, drinking, and / being an indian with nothing to lose” can be deadly. The massive train is the ultimate and direct cause of Samuel’s death. Samuel’s drinking exacerbated the depressive emotions he experiences after losing his beloved job. If an indian has nothing to lose, they lose nothing when they die. The “something” to which Young Bear refers is the idea that these three factors can lead to the death of a Native American. Additionally, the fact that the word “indian” is not capitalized underscores the fact that Samuel, like many Native Americans, felt unimportant and neglected. The three factors stated in these final lines prove to be a fatal concoction for Samuel.


Alexie, Sherman. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Grove Press, 2013.

Parker, Robert Dale. “To Be There, No Authority to Anything: Ontological Desire and Poetic Authority in the Poetry of Ray A. Young Bear.” Modern American Poetry,

“Ray A. Young Bear.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation,




Short Reflection 2: “Po’ Sandy and The Gray Wolf’s Ha’nt”

Many similarities can be observed between Charles Chesnutt’s short stories “Po’ Sandy” and “The Gray Wolf’s Ha’nt.” These short stories, which appear in Chesnutt’s collection of stories titled The Conjure Woman, take place in the Jim Crow South after the Civil War. The stories are narrated by a white man named John who has recently moved with his wife from the North to the South, specifically to a vineyard in North Carolina. Julius, a black coachman who works for the white couple, often recounts tales that offer insight into slavery and the pre-civil war South. Both “Po’ Sandy” and “Gray Wolf’s Ha’nt” feature commentary on the connection between Julius’ tales and the horrors of slavery, a description of a relationship between two slaves that is torn apart by death, and an ulterior motive advanced by Julius in his tales.

Before Julius begins to tell his tale in both “Po’ Sandy” and “The Gray Wolf’s Ha’nt,” John makes a comment about Julius tales and the insights they offer into slavery. As Julius prepares to tell his tale of Po’ Sandy, John comments that some of Julius’ stories “disclose many a tragic incident of the darker side of slavery” (Chesnutt). Before Julius recounts the story of Dan and Mahaly, John states that Julius stories contained “the shadow, never absent, of slavery and of ignorance” (Chesnutt). These statements by John frame Julius’ tales as commentary on the horrors of slavery and the tragedies that slaves endured. Through John’s comments, Chesnutt reveals that Julius’ tales are not meaningless fiction; they offer insights into the lives of slaves and their relationships with each other and with their masters.

Both stories center on a relationship between an enslaved man and an enslaved woman that is eventually torn apart through a tragic death. In “Po’ Sandy,” the relationship is between Tenie and Sandy. Tenie, a conjure woman, changes Sandy into a tree so that he will not be sent to work for another family. One night, before Tenie can change herself and Sandy into foxes so that they can run away to freedom, Tenie is forced to help a family whose mother is sick. Sandy remains a tree, and before Tenie returns, Sandy’s master orders the tree that is actually Sandy to be cut down for lumber. Sandy experiences, a tragic, painful death as he is cut down. Similarly, in “The Gray Wolf’s Ha’nt,” a relationship exists between Dan and Mahaly, who are both slaves. When Dan learns that the son of a conjure man is interested in Mahaly, Dan hits the son, who eventually dies. The conjure man eventually discovers that Dan killed his son, and he devises an evil plan to exact revenge on Dan. After convincing Dan that a witch in the form of a black cat is disturbing Dan, the conjure man changes Mahaly into a black cat and transforms Dan into a gray wolf capable of killing the black cat. When the Mahaly (in the form of a black cat) arrives at Dan’s cabin, Dan bites Mahaly by the neck and kills her. Mahaly’s bloody, gruesome death resembles Sandy’s gory death upon being cut down.

Additionally, both stories contain an ulterior motive behind Julius’ tales, and this ulterior motive is to save something that John wants to destroy. In “Po’ Sandy,” Julius’ true motive is to prevent the schoolhouse from being torn down because he wants to use the schoolhouse as a church. In “Gray Wolf’s Ha’nt,” Julius’ true motive is to prevent John from clearing up a portion of woods because the woods contain Julius’ bee-tree which presumably supplied Julius with ample honey. In both of the narratives, John discovers Julius’ ulterior motive at the very end of the story. Julius’ use of elaborate tales with ulterior motives demonstrates his high level of intelligence.

Chesnutt’s short stories “Po’ Sandy” and “The Gray Wolf’s Ha’nt” follow a remarkably similar structure with similar plot elements. The similar aspects in these two stories highlight important ideas emphasized by Chesnutt. John’s comments that precede Julius’ tales affirm that Julius’s tales offer insights into slavery. The similar focus of a relationship torn apart by death illustrates the terrible tragedies endured by slaves. The complexity of Julius’ tales that actually hide ulterior motives underscores the intelligence of Julius, an intelligence that was held captive by slavery.



Chesnutt, Charles W. The Conjure Woman. Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1899,

Short Reflection 1: William Craft’s Narrative and The Pilgrim’s Progress

One of the most significant allusions that William Craft utilizes in his narrative is his allusion to John Bunyan’s novel The Pilgrim’s Progress. The Pilgrim’s Progress was published in two parts by John Bunyan. Part 1 was published in 1678 and Part 2 was published in 1684. The Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegory about the idea of Christian salvation. In the novel, Bunyan chronicles the journey of a pilgrim named Christian who travels from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. Multiple times in his narrative, William Craft alludes to The Pilgrim’s Progress and compares his journey to that of Christian’s.

The first allusion to The Pilgrim’s Progress occurs on page 70, when William is approached by an officer in Philadelphia who is suspicious of William’s intentions. The officer informs William that his master must prove he has a right to bring his slave to Philadelphia, which causes great unease for William and Ellen. However, William states, “We knew it would never do to turn back to the “City of Destruction,” like Bunyan’s Mistrust and Timorous, because they saw lions in the narrow way after ascending the hill Difficulty; but press on, like noble Christian and Hopeful, to the great city in which dwelt a few “shining ones.” (Craft 70). The “City of Destruction” to which Craft refers is the undesirable place of sin where Christian begins his journey. In this allusion, Craft compares the awful and dangerous South to Bunyan’s allegorical City of Destruction. Additionally, he compares his desire to persevere in the face of difficulty to Christian’s desire to continue towards “the great city.”

Craft again alludes to Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress while Craft is travelling on train from Baltimore to Philadelphia. Craft states, “I, like Bunyan’s Christian in the arbour, went to sleep at the wrong time, and took too long a nap” (74). This comparison to Christian further solidifies Craft’s suggestion that his journey from slavery in the South to freedom in the North was very similar to Christian’s journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. This specific reference to sleep emphasizes that both Craft and Christian struggled and were not perfect on their journeys to salvation.

The third allusion to The Pilgrim’s Progress occurs on page 78, when Craft writes, “The sight of those lights and that announcement made me feel almost as happy as Bunyan’s Christian must have felt when he first caught sight of the cross. I, like him, felt that the straps that bound the heavy burden to my back began to pop, and the load to roll off” (78). At this point in Craft’s narrative, Craft knows he has finally reached the north, specifically Philadelphia, which means he is on free land. Upon the realization of his freedom, Craft feels great happiness and relief. The scene with which Craft compares his arrival to Philadelphia is when Christian arrives at the Holy Cross in The Pilgrim’s Progress. When Christian arrives at the Holy Cross, the burden of sin finally leaves him, and he is reenergized for the rest of the journey. While the burden is lifted from William Craft when he arrives in Philadelphia, the burden of sin is lifted from Christian when he arrives at the Holy Cross.

In conclusion, William Craft’s allusion to John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress adds significant value to Craft’s narrative by performing various functions. Firstly, the comparison roots Craft’s narrative in Christian theology and compares the Crafts’ escape to the journey of Christian. Additionally, the allusion gives Craft’s narrative additional legitimacy and authority, as The Pilgrim’s Progress is a very significant literary work. Finally, by comparing his escape to that of Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress, William Craft exposes the blatant hypocrisy that many Christians of the 1800s used to defend and promote slavery.



Keeble, N.H. “The Pilgrim’s Progress: Overview.” Reference Guide to English Literature, edited by D. L. Kirkpatrick, 2nd ed., St. James Press, 1991. Literature Resource Center Accessed 28 Jan. 2018.

“Overview: The Pilgrim’s Progress.” Gale Online Encyclopedia, Gale, 2018. Literature Resource Center Accessed 28 Jan. 2018.