In the long and notable list of American films, few have reached cult status—and one of them is 1989’s Do The Right Thing, which was written, directed, and produced by one of America’s leading film visionaries, the iconic Spike Lee, whose brilliance in ideology and filmic language won for him many awards in both local and international competitions. Incidentally, the film was inspired by an actual event involving white teenagers who chased and eventually killed a black man in Howard Beach, New York (Sickels, 1989).
The colorful and storied locale of Brooklyn, New York, where ethnic communities have long learned to co-exist, is the chosen environment for the movie. Because of its controversial discussions of bigotry and racial conflict, Do The Right Thing was beset by much criticism, particularly on scenes and ideas that may trigger violence in the African-American audience, and result in riots. Hot tempers and bad moods are the reasons behind all of the grave occurrences that transpired on the single day featured in the film, which is coincidentally recorded as the hottest day of the year.
Lee’s cinematography, evident in the film’s sensual details, works towards the reinforcement of this particular mood (Scott, 2006). The neighborhood showcased is inhabited mostly by Latinos and blacks, while the Sal’s Famous Pizzeria is run by Sal himself, an Italian-American, and the neighborhood grocery is owned by Koreans—a situation that provides many possible conflicts coming from culture and ideology combination. All the featured characters, within their own storylines, personify stereotypes within a typical ethnic American community, and work together to emphasize the communication chosen for the film.
This is the exposition of the black cultural identity through the language of cinema, which is made via the presented relationships of blacks and people of other racial origins, and through the visualization of the ethnic neighborhood’s identity within the American context. II. Characters Typical of Brooklyn, where a substantial number of ethnicities have established residence and set up shop, stereotypes abound. The Italian Sal, whose main focus is his family restaurant, makes sure things are kept within his own as he requires the participation of sons Pino and Vito.
Like most Italian families, Sal’s is defined by its dissolved boundaries between family and business, where the members are expected to help out all the time. Elder son Pino is shown to have problems with his black neighbors, while the younger Vito, of the easygoing personality, has an affinity with them—specifically with his best friend, Mookie. Spike Lee essays the role of Mookie himself, who is a deliveryman working at Sal’s yet still lives off his sister’s home and money. At work, his performance is less than exemplary, best described as a slacker employee.
To complete the picture, he has an infant son by his Puerto Rican girlfriend, whom he hardly supports. Through Mookie alone, blacks are represented as irresponsible in terms of obligations to family. Many other characters, of a multitude of ethnic backgrounds and persuasions, are written in the film to provide texture and racial focus. Lee’s technical prowess is at play in full force in the film, with his ability to build tensions among the characters in a gradual way, leaving the audience prepared for the final outcome that serves as the focal point of the whole story (Canby, 1989). III. Social and Cultural Perceptions
Contempt is a very strong and pronounced statement throughout the whole movie, seen as a reaction to the presence of other cultures: the glorifying of one’s culture over another, as depicted by Sal’s refusal to post pictures of black people on his restaurant’s Wall of Fame, and is actually an affirmation of Pino’s prejudice over non-whites; the local store, situated in the midst of a community where unemployed African-Americans live, is owned and managed by Koreans; the white majority of the locale’s police force, which is ironic considering the neighborhood is mostly African-American; and the aftermath of Radio Raheem’s death, which is defined by riots initiated by blacks.
The unbearable heat, the fiery tempers, the already-established issues among the people in the neighborhood—all these seemed to work together to effect an escalating manifestation of violence. In each featured situation, violence is shown in varying degrees, which ultimately result in the riot—yet the film does not turn the spotlight on implied heroes and villains; Spike Lee wrote the story in a way that would leave the audience to make their own judgment.
Because a violent situation in this context falls in the subjective realm and lies in each character’s objective. each viewer must come up with his or her own introspection (Emerson). IV. Self-Defense and Violence African-American history as we know it is largely shaped by the contributions of two men—Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. In the course of their work, they had made statements that have become the basis of many philosophies and missions. At the end of Do The Right Thing, Lee appropriated statements from these two great men: one dismisses violence as a means to an end, that incurring such to achieve racial justice is both immoral and not at all practical; while the other allows violence only if it is used a venue for self-defense.
Spike Lee intentionally used these two different opinions to give African-Americans—as well as others—the power of choice, made through informed thought and complete introspection, on the present perceptions bestowed upon blacks as a result of violent events that are identified with them. Violence in itself is irrational behavior, and this is manifested in several scenes in the film. The event that sparked the riot involved two minor characters—Buggin Out and Radio Raheem Buggin Out expressed his plans to boycott Sal’s restaurant because the Italian disallowed black photos on his wall, while the communist-minded Radio Raheem often insisted on playing his boom box at top volume. This prompted Sal to bar the loud music, which was actually the proverbial last straw for both Buggin Out and Raheem. A commotion ensued, one thing led to another, and finally they had a full-blown riot with blacks once more as the perpetrators.
The character of Mookie, while still drawn through a stereotype, is given the most intellect and reason as compared to the other black roles. But he is also shown to have a modicum of violence in him as he smashes Sal’s window with a garbage can, most logically a reaction to the unjust treatment he had received as an employee (Johnson, 2008). Spike Lee obviously designed the two sub-plots strategically to convey a balance in character portrayal, within the context of violence, its origins and effects (Hinson, 1989). However, Lee deals his ultimate statement by showing the murder of Radio Raheem in the hands of a white police officer, which was caused by the violence resulting from the need to defend one’s self.
The white officer, seeing Radio Raheem in a fight with Sal and Pino, obviously made the assumption that the blacks started the violence, and the best way to end it is to immediately kill the culprit, with nary a thought on the contrary. V. Violence in the Real World Strangely enough, Do The Right Thing was released three years before the infamous Los Angeles riots of 1992, which were sparked by the controversial verdicts of four LAPD officers for beating Rodney King in 1991. The event was the worst civil unrest documented in L. A. history, resulting in 50 people killed, over 4,000 injured, 12,000 arrested, and about $1 billion in damaged property (USC, 1998-2008). Perhaps to further discuss the underlying intents and reasons for this irrational behavior, Spike Lee is set to premiere L. A. Riots in 2009 (Goldstein, 2008).
But recent events now confirm that collective violence can no longer be exclusively accorded to African-Americans, as evidenced by the 2004 case of 12-year-old Nicole Townes being beaten to a coma by 6 women and girls at a party (Hall, 2004), as well as many other reported incidents that have been initiated by groups not based on race or ethnicity, nor were they found with reasons substantial enough. In many cases, violence is not anymore a question of self-defense; in most, it is a rite of passage, or an issue of control and power relations, or even an act of discrimination against the helpless. In the light of these occurrences, Lee’s inclusion of the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. , and Malcolm X rings with complete relevance.
Violence is indeed immoral, but Lee possibly immortalized the statements to encourage audiences to reserve judgment until all aspects have been reviewed, to identify when the reasons are within the context of injustice, and to propose a way of thinking that goes beyond the parameters of culture, race, and class—specially if it is the only available option for self-defense.
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40 Acres & a Mule Filmworks. Scott, Cynthia (2006). “Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing: An Explosive Film That Continues to Spark Questions About Racism in America”. Associated Content website, retrieved on 20 July 2008 from http://www. associatedcontent. com/article/26545/spike_lees_do_the_right_thing_an_explosive. html? cat=40 Sickels, Robert (1989). “Do The Right Thing”. Film Reference website, retrieved on 20 July 2008 from http://www. filmreference. com/Films-De-Dr/Do-the-Right-Thing. html University of Southern California (1997-2008). “Los Angeles Riots, 1992” USC website, retrieved on 19 July 2008 from http://www. usc. edu/libraries/archives/la/la_riot. html