by Walker Valdez
The film Do the Right Thing, written, directed and produced by Spike Lee, focuses on a single day of the lives of racially diverse people who live and work in a lower class neighborhood in Brooklyn New York. However, this ordinary day takes place on one of the hottest days of the summer. The film centers on how social class, race and the moral decisions that the characters make have a direct effect on the way people interact with each other. It starts with the film’s characters waking up to start their day and climaxes with a neighborhood riot after police officers excessively restrain and kill a young black man named Radio Raheem for fighting an older Italian American restaurant owner named Sal in his pizzeria, and then outside on the street. The film, although released in 1989, with its social commentary on the effect that race has on police brutality is just as relevant today as when it was released 26 years ago.
Though the movie ultimately shows how dangerous it is to react to others based on race, ironically, Lee portrays characters stereotypically in the movie through their language and aesthetics. Spike Lee indulges in stereotypes by using iconography to represent the different racial groups in the film (Etherington-Wright 236). He does this in numerous ways such as having Italian American characters wear crosses and tank top shirts. He also does this in his portrayal of Radio Raheem wearing an African medallion necklace while carrying a large boom box playing loud rap music. Even tertiary characters such as a group of Puerto Rican friends are shown listening to salsa while speaking Spanish and drinking beer on the stoop of their apartment building. Lee also points out that his characters recognize that their different ethnicities can lead to a power struggle by having them openly insult each other through ethnic slurs in both a comic and serious fashion. Lee also shows this when his black activist character Buggin’ Out tells Mookie, who is a black man employed by a white man, to “Stay Black” insinuating that Mookie should never strive to be a Tom or a sell-out (Etherington-Wright 238).
Throughout the film, the characters not only point out the differences in their race, but also display the ideas found in Marxism through their social interactions. According to Understanding Film Theory, “Marxism was conceived as a revolutionary theory that attempted to explain and expose the relations of power in capitalist societies” (Etherington-Wright 83). It also says that Marxism’s founder, Karl Marx, was “concerned with the apparent division between the ruling and the working class” (83). In the film, Buggin’ Out verbally attacks a property owning white man for running over his new Air Jordans and then asks him “What are you doing in my neighborhood?” In this brief scene Lee is able to show how a character in a poor neighborhood feels the psychological need to compete with others economically. This is an example of the Culture Industry and Buggin’ Out displays this because he buys the latest shoes and does not want to feel that he was literally and symbolically being run over by a man who was much wealthier than he was (86).
The film is set in a predominantly black neighborhood and the only two families seen that own businesses are either Italian American or Korean American. Therefore, some of the black characters like them because they are business owners and others dislike them for the same reason. However, at the end of the film the only business owner whose business is vandalized and burned to the ground is a white man’s. Lee shows that, although there is conflict between Korean Americans and African Americans, the history between whites and blacks is much more conflicted. Furthermore, even though many of the black characters love Sal’s pizzeria, they do become aware of what Sal really thinks of them when he feels threatened out by Buggin’ Out and denies him the chance to put a picture of a black man on the pizzeria wall. The movie also clearly shows how by denying the picture, Sal keeps control over the black patrons in his restaurant. The two films clips that will be discussed will be analyzed by using both a racial and Marxist perspective. The first clip shows black and Hispanic characters in conflict over material possessions, but ultimately respecting each other, and the second clip shows Mookie coming to the realization that as much as he tries to moderate peaceful relations between white and black characters at some point he feels he has to fight for what he thinks is unfair, even if it means losing his job over it.
Do the Right Thing Analysis of Scenes
The first selected scene begins with a record being played that brings in the sound of conga drums while the camera fades to the next scene where we find a group of Puerto Rican men who fit a perceived ethnic Puerto Rican image while the salsa music of Ruben Blades is heard loud. Spike Lee opening the scene with heavy use of iconography enforces stereotypes by choice of the men’s clothes, language, and facial appearance. The man in the center speaks in Spanish, referring to his beautiful land Puerto Rico, while his friend disagrees with its beauty by calling it a nightmare. The scene is successful in portraying that this corner of the majority black neighborhood is very different from the rest. While the two friends begin to argue the camera pans away to reveal that the loud salsa music actually comes from an old boom box which begins to blend with loud rap music cluing the viewer that Radio Raheem must be near. The camera pans to the right and starts from the ground, moving up stopping at the large newer stereo being held by two large African American hands wearing gold knuckle jewelry, showing Lee’s use of fetishization by focusing on half of the body and not the face. As the camera pauses, the viewer can read the words Super and PRO stereo and Raheem’s music is heard much more clearly, showing signs of economic excess. The jewelry and the stereo’s excessive noise and size represent economic power and status. The camera pans up to Raheem’s serious face and the African medallion hanging on his neck once again shows iconography. While the camera focus on Raheem, the sound of the Puerto Ricans yelling that their salsa music is being drowned out is heard. The camera rotates to the right again and passes green bushes that represent a tropical climate as the salsa music starts to be heard again.
The man in the center recognizes that Radio Raheem is issuing a challenge of power by standing next to them blaring loud rap music that many black youth identify with. This challenge of power has both racial and economic symbolism because it is essentially seeing not only whose stereo plays louder music, but also whose culture is the more dominating one. When the Puerto Rican man walks over to his boom box, which has a Puerto Rican flag sticker on it, it is clear that his stereo is not as new and when he turns up the volume louder the viewer realizes it’s not as loud either. Raheem then turns up multiple knobs and drowns out the salsa yet again, letting the Puerto Rican man know that in this power struggle he has just lost. He responds by turning down his music again and saying “You Got it Bro” to which Raheem responds by smiling and pumping his fist in the air. This two minute scene, although entertaining, in reality represents the whole movie in the way the different races want to feel acknowledged, powerful and respected by the other races in the film. In this scene Raheem proves he is more powerful and it is a precursor for the many confrontations that he faces throughout the film.
The second selected scene begins minutes after Radio Raheem has been killed by the police because of their response to a street fight between Radio Raheem and Sal. This scene represents how disbelief turns to outrage, as the characters shout the names of other victims of police violence. At this point the viewer begins to realize that this may not have been a freak accident and in fact that has been happening repeatedly in this neighborhood. The residents of this lower class neighborhood are now all aware that it is the norm for them to be victimized by police. The older man saying “They didn’t have to kill the boy,” points out that Radio, though large and intimidating, was still a fairly young man.
When the camera pans to Mookie’s shocked face, it reveals that Mookie has decided that there is something wrong with standing next to these three white men while the rest of his neighbors and friends watch. The way they stand is very important because Sal is standing in the center and his two sons are standing behind him. Mookie is also next to him, but his body is slightly away from them showing that he is reconsidering his position towards them. He looks to Sal, then back at the neighborhood and begins to walk away from Sal and his sons. The act is very significant because Mookie felt a loyalty to Sal through employment, but now a line in the sand is drawn. After Mookie leaves, Sal’s facial expression becomes tenser because he realizes that at least he had someone in the neighborhood literally on his side who ethnically looked like the rest of the residents who at the moment are not happy with him or his sons.
Seeing that tensions may escalate, the character Mayor tries to pacify the crowd, but they do not take him seriously due to his alcoholism and the fact that he is dressed poorly. At this point the crowd is upset, but have not decided to commit any acts of violence yet. The camera panning from a largely black crowd to three white men staring at them shows that Sal and his sons may have more economic status, but they do not have the numbers. Pino’s face shows that he may have been expecting this to happen all along. This scene is very fascinating because at this point Sal and his sons are not just a symbol of wealth, but are now a symbol of any injustice committed against the people of the neighborhood by someone who is white or economically more powerful than they are. It is ironic because Raheem was actually choking Sal before the police came, but the residents do not acknowledge that. As Mookie runs with a trashcan towards the pizzeria, he is not only smashing Sal’s store, but is showing his outrage and anger for being made to feel powerless by the police. Sal’s voice in slow motion can be heard yelling “No!” but by then it is too late. As the residents loot the store it shows that they are tired of being made to feel powerless by the police and by all those who are economically better off. While some destroy the store, others go for the money showing that they are desperate to regain the power that they felt that they never had. While the neighborhood residents destroys the pizzeria, Sal is taken to the other side of the street where he is forced to watch in disbelief as not only his store is being destroyed, but also his economic superiority over them becomes destroyed as well, thus proving to be a remarkable scene.
Director Spike Lee chose to create a film that is able to both entertain and emotionally resonate with an audience by pointing out that when racial and social disparities are not properly addressed by those in power, they can ultimately lead to acts of extreme violence by those who feel powerless. The film is realistic in its approach that a melting pot of different cultures and races doesn’t mean that everyone will live happily ever after. Lee knew that in order to make a film about social issues he needed to embrace the stereotypes in order to criticize them. At one point in the film the police officers are driving through the neighborhood and say “What a waste” while they are driving by. The residents outside at the moment were not committing any acts of violence, but in a brief instant it shows that the officers whose job it is to protect the community do not respect the residents they serve, and also hints at what is to come later in the movie.
The film expertly lets the conflict build slowly instead focusing on the ridiculousness of stereotypes such as the Asian store owner with a thick accent, or the overly agitated and hyper active young man who can be seen as very pro black. The film shows the viewer that these issues concerning race exist, but the characters do not directly confront them until the very end of the film. It is important to emphasize that these issues are not solely with race, but also who is in control. It is the combination of the two that takes things to a boiling point. Comic scenes like a boom box show down ultimately prove to be more about power and less about who’s got better music, and a riot does not usually form without years of feeling that the system created for a group’s protection does not benefit their best interests. Do The Right Thing is more than just a film on police brutality or racial identity, it is about the beauty and ugliness that exist, not only in a low income community, but in our selves.
Do The Right Thing. Dir. Spike Lee. Perf. Spike Lee, Danny Aiello. Universal, 1989. DVD.
Etherington-Wright, Christine, and Ruth Doughty. Understanding Film Theory. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Print.