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, www.nytimes.com/2018/02/25/nyregion/eric-garner.html.