Do The Right Thing (1989): The Legacy of MLK & Malcolm X

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The opening images are charged with the beats of Public Enemy matched by a provocative palette and a vibrant kineticism. One is reminded up a very particular point in time and a particular subculture — rap music is a part of it, certainly — but it’s indicative of so much more.

Because Do The Right Thing is shot on Spike Lee’s home turf in Brooklyn so there’s no denying the intimacy he has with the material. However, it was actually the obligatory “all persons and places” disclaimer that instilled the idea this film could be about any city. This could be Watts. This could be Detroit. This could be Ferguson. And unfortunately, in another year or two, it might just as easily be another city we’ll have to reckon with, whether due to prejudice or police brutality.

The film overwhelmingly succeeds in developing a world — that is a neighborhood — with the players who live within it. And in this regard, it does feel a bit like the Hollywood movies of old (which Lee is well aware of) where people have their types and their shtick. Take, for instance, the three stooges who shoot the bull on the street corner.

The stuttering Smiley is always making the rounds to pass out his personalized pictures of Dr. King and Malcolm X. The swaggery Radio Raheem does his own version of Reverend Harry Powell’s love-hate performance art for the benefit of the audience a la Night of The Hunter. It makes him as much as a thematic symbol as he is a larger-than-life character.

These relational dynamics feel authentically lived in, even going so far as casting his sister as his sister in the film. Likewise, the real-life couple Ruby Dee (Mother Sister) and Ossie Davis (Da Mayor), play out an antagonistic autumn romance on screen.

It gives the impression of minimal camera movements (aside from a few pans) because Lee cares about focusing on his characters head-on, photographing them in an often stylized manner with low angles. It’s not quite as precise as Ozu but having people placed up against their backdrops so overtly, it is hard not to remember. His own distinct visual language stands out emblazoned with color and the patois of his town.

Samuel L. Jackson is the groovy, smooth DJ, Mr. Senor Love Daddy, part Magnificent Montague, part Wolfman Jack. He provides the atmospherics — the soul — for the entire community, even as the heat hits record temps. It’s a portent of future attractions.

One doesn’t always think of Spike Lee as an actor per se, but it’s fitting he’s central to the action in Do The Right Thing because this feels like an extremely authentic context for him. Mookie’s current job as a lax pizza delivery boy allows him to mosey his way around the neighborhood.

Again, it acts as an invaluable narrative device to keep the story moving and yet it never feels totally manipulating. Each beat brings a fresh scenario worth discovering with every chocked sidewalk or spewing fire hydrant. Because this is a film about people and their relationship to one another.

Up until this point, the majority of the characters mentioned beforehand are African-American though that doesn’t necessarily suggest they have an entirely shared point of view. However, what gives Do The Right Thing it’s inherent conflict is bringing in a menagerie of starkly different individuals.

The prime example is Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, a pillar of the community’s social and economic scene, run by an Italian-American (Danny Aiello) and his two sons. There are the Koreans “fresh off the boat” running the grocery store across the street. Then the Puerto Rican subset of the community including Mookie’s put upon girlfriend and mother of his baby son, Tina (Rosie Perez).

Their problems and their passions feel like real 9-to-5 reality we are privy to. And the police who patrol the streets come off a bit oblivious, if not completely fat-headed. What’s gripping is how each one conveniently points their ire in another direction manifesting this never-ending cycle of bigotry.

Mookie can always be found repping number 42 (Jackie Robinson) and one of his street corner chums wears Magic Johnson’s 32. These are obvious cultural touchstones just as the white guy clamoring into his apartment wears a Larry Bird jersey. They represent the current social moment impeccably.

It’s as if everyone has misconceptions of everyone else. They are driven by ignorance and small-mindedness and no one is immune to this disease. In a telling conversation over the jukebox, Sal’s oldest boy, a general malcontent fed up with working in his father’s business (Richard Edson), talks to Mookie about how his favorite athletes and musicians like The Michael Jordans and Princes of the world aren’t just “black” they’re more than black.

Let’s put this straight. I think his assertion is totally absurd and yet I found myself thinking just before how ironic these African-American young men wearing Robinson and Magic because their lives and reputations feel so contrary to the young men who idolize them. That should hardly be seen as an offense against them.

Regardless, Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) feels affronted because there are no brothers on the “Wall of Fame” next to Pacino, De Niro, and Sinatra in Sal’s. He wants to start a boycott and at first, it’s an admittedly ridiculous idea.

No one takes him seriously because most everyone loves Sal’s pizza pies. And in his softer more hospitable moments, he doesn’t seem like such a bad guy. But this is one of the greatest revelations, even normal people — especially normal people — can seethe with hate, anger, and fear. Because the heat is not only about upping the temperature, it proves to be our dramatic barometer. We know at some point the story must blow its top.

Sure enough, Buggin’ Out and Radio Raheem are talking each other up and wander into Sal’s ready to make a stand. It’s utter idiocy. They’re being a pair of punks. They know full-well what they’re doing and yet in the same sense, I don’t think they do. It’s as if they don’t see the writing on the wall. No one does.

And everyone is once again on a different wavelength. Like Cool Hand Luke, we have a failure to communicate. Violence ensues. The fuses blow and the images are relatably chaotic and terrifying as they verge of the brutal and tumultuous. It’s insanity.

Fire shoots up the building and there’s something deeply affecting about seeing the portraits of the likes of Sinatra and Sophia Loren being licked by flames. Again, they feel like odd figures of collateral damage. All of this destruction feels directed across racial lines but surely it’s misdirected. What’s the real problem? What caused such an evening?

Is it merely angst and discontentment with the situation? Are they really mad at Sal? Are they mad at his establishment? Did he really want this boy dead? Were the police acting out of pure malice, fear, or both?

In the aftermath of the violence, I couldn’t help but bemoan the Twitter age we now live in. If this film is any indication, physical violence and confrontation is not the answer. However, I feel social media has polarized us even more — making our communities even more fragmented and our modes of communication either echo chambers of like-minded enlightened people or rival camps we can so easily demonize.

I must even admit one of the ones exacerbating this problem is President Donald Trump himself. It seems almost prescient he gets a mention in the film because some would say he is emblematic of where our country has gone in 30 years’ time. Surely, a country coming out of the Reagan years would never have guessed the future ahead (including a black president).

Ultimately, to say this is a film about racism is too vague. It needs some unpacking, some grappling with what it really brings to the fore. The issues run deep. They are partly economical. There’s de facto segregation. They have to do with police and deep-rooted traditions of tension. Racism is something taught and learned creating a feedback loop or closer still a vicious cycle. I am hardly the person to explain them all. But I’m willing to listen to others — to dialogue.

Do The Right Thing is the most unnerving piece of cinema I’ve seen in some time and I mean that only as the utmost compliment. It’s a bold expression full of energy but also more profoundly still the unmistakable threads of humanity. It’s as ugly as it is honest. Honesty, in a sense, it feels like Lee is making a valiant attempt to call out the inhumanity while still empathizing with all sides.

This even is reinforced by the two contrasting quotes he fittingly pulls from Dr. King and Malcolm X, a final testament to the picture’s message.

I must admit I wasn’t surprised by the substance of Dr. King’s quote but I do acknowledge being slightly taken aback by the sensibility of the second quotation. It’s this same duality visible in the film. Where there is a problem. Each of these men and their stances and the worlds they come out of have inherent flaws. The issue is how we get together and solve them. History has shown how messy and complex they have been and will remain if we fail to do anything. Strike that. If we fail to do the right thing.

4.5/5 Stars

“Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends by destroying itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.”–Martin Luther King, Jr.

“I think there are plenty of good people in America, but there are also plenty of bad people in America and the bad ones are the ones who seem to have all the power and be in these positions to block things that you and I need. Because this is the situation, you and I have to preserve the right to do what is necessary to bring an end to that situation, and it doesn’t mean that I advocate violence, but at the same time I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don’t even call it violence when it’s self- defense, I call it intelligence.”–Malcolm X

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