Do the Right Thing….Or Don’t

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November 24, 2013 by NowhereButPop

by Andrew Doscas

For some reason Spike Lee always derives great pleasure in revealing that it’s only white people who feel the need to ask him if Mookie, the main character in Lee’s breakout film Do the Right Thing, did in fact do the right thing in the films climax.  It’s almost as if he gets a kick at some misperceived racial divide in intellect that the climax of his magnum opus has exposed.  Whenever he says this, I can’t help but get the feeling that he’s congratulating himself for confusing a bunch of white people, because it reinforces, for himself, that white people just don’t understand Black America.

The biggest misconception that America has about Spike Lee is that he’s a racist.  He’s not; but he is most likely prejudiced against white people, and probably blames White America for everything bad that has happened to black people across the globe.[1]  What he does well though is make good movies.  He Got Game and Do the Right Thing are two movies that I have to watch every time there’re on TV.  My biggest criticism with Spike Lee Joints is that he thinks his movies are more revelatory and transcendent than they really are, as if they were divulging some secret about American culture to Americans.  It’s for this reason that on top of being his greatest work, Do The Right Thing is most likely one of Spike Lee’s favorite movies of all time.

Even though the film ends in an orgy of violence, chaos, and even death, the most visceral thing to realize is that there isn’t any character in the film whose hands are clean.  No one is absolutely innocent within the confines of the film.  To be truthfully ironic, no one does the right thing at all in the movie.  In fact, all the major characters, in one way or another, facilitate the violent climax at the end of the film.

Much of the controversy about the film surrounds the ending wherein a trio of white cops beat Radio Raheem, a black man, to death after his fight with Sal, an Italian pizzeria owner.  Because the focal point of Radio Raheem’s death comes from the fact that it was racially charged, viewers remember Radio Raheem as being a martyr of sorts, some innocent bystander who was swept up as an unfortunate causality.  What people forget though is that, while his death is a tragedy that was motivated by a deterioration of race relations, Radio Raheem was still an active figure in inciting the riot at the end of the film even before his death.

The immediate spark to the riot was that after refusing to turn off his radio, which was being blasted loud enough to hear down the block, Sal destroyed his radio with a baseball bat, prompting Radio Raheem to beat the shit out of Sal, which then led to a brawl between Sal and his sons, and some of the local black youths.  The music, Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” isn’t the racially dividing mantra that Lee would have us believe.  Lowering the radio isn’t a black vs. white thing, as all the older black residents of the area would yell at Radio Raheem and tell him to lower the volume of his radio.  Radio Raheem’s music can’t be seen as a racial tool because people of different races had the same grievance with it.

Imagine you’re eating at a restaurant, and then some guy walks in with boombox, the size of a seven year old, blasting out a song at the loudest possible volume.  Now imagine if that same person refused to turn off said boombox and proceeded to grew increasingly aggressive to management and patrons of the restaurant.  There’s no way that anyone would find this guy to be sympathetic; you’d think he was some rude and obnoxious hoodlum with no respect for anyone else.  That guy is Radio Raheem, because if he had just turned off his boombox, Sal wouldn’t have erupted as he did, and the whole riot wouldn’t have happened.

Buggin’ Out’s bugged out reaction to seeing a wall of an Italian restaurant plastered with pictures of famous Italians is equally baffling, as it’s after seeing this that he decides to crusade against Sal’s pizza.[2]  If their roles were reversed, and a white person demanded to see famous white people on a mural of famous black people in a restaurant owned by a black person, there’s no way you wouldn’t think that white guy is a rabid racist.  Speaking of racist, Sal’s son Pino is a violent racist and proud of it, as he expresses his resentment of the black community to everyone who hears it.  He even makes fun of and tries to beat up his brother Vito for befriending some of the black people in the neighborhood.  He is consistently the most morally flawed character introduced in the movie as his actions and beliefs seem to be unmotivated.

The rioters at the end of the film, most of whom were introduced earlier are the most dangerous example as they represent mindless violence for the sake of violence.  The mob first gathers steam to watch Radio Raheem pummel Sal, just as a group of middle schoolers would encircle and encourage two of their peers in a fight.  They wanted the entertainment of seeing one person beat the shit out of another.  After the murder of Radio Raheem, the mob didn’t not have a reason to become riotous, but it doesn’t excuse their bloodlust.  They begin to attack white firefighters, who are trying to put out the fire that is now blazing in the pizzeria, for no reason.  These firefighters are trying to help and protect the neighborhood and instead the mob is trying to attack them and prevent them from putting out the fire.[3]

What I don’t understand also is why the mob felt the need to then threaten the Korean boutique owner and his family.  Why would they then turn their violent attention to him, someone who had nothing to do with the fight or the death of Radio Raheem?  The truth is because in the middle of the fray, they wanted to keep the violence and destruction going.  They were in the ultimate “Us vs. Them” mindset wherein they wanted to attack anyone who wasn’t like them.  That’s why it took the Korean man’s declaration that he was “Black, I no white” to quell their anger.  In their racist anger they wanted to take down anything that wasn’t a part of the black community, namely Sal’s pizzeria and the boutique owned by the Korean man and his family.  When the mob turned their destructive energies towards this random Korean family, to became the point wherein they lost any credibility as it was then that they just wanted an outlet for their anger and chaos, regardless of who the target was; they wanted to victimize and to brutalize as they had felt had been done to them.

The only character who is an absolutely virtuous person is Jade, the younger sister of Mookie.  Time and time again she tries to calm the tempers that flare around the neighborhood, but to no avail.  Jade constantly tries to do the right thing, but her circumstances won’t ever allow her to succeed.  Mookie is an absent father who neglects his girlfriend Tina, who has a rotten mouth of her own.  No character besides Jade has any moral high ground to stand on that eventually excuses their own participation in the violent riot at the film’s end.

The central question to the movie is if Mookie does the right thing by smashing the front window of the pizzeria thus diverting the mob’s rage from Sal and his sons to the pizzeria.  Superficially the answer is no, he doesn’t, but actually the answer is yes, yes he does.  It’s probably not the right answer according to Spike Lee, but I don’t want to ask him.  What I do know though is that Do the Right Thing is a movie where nobody does the right thing.


[1] Keep in mind that he stopped talking to his father after his father married a white woman.

[2] For someone who’s presumably spent his entire life in the neighborhood, it’s kinda hard to believe that Buggin’ Out just noticed the wall for the first time.

[3] The imagery of whites hosing down black people isn’t lost on me, and I’m fairly certain that that is what Spike Lee was going for, to show that under certain situations race relations might not have advanced as much as we’d like to believe.  But again, this time around the black people in the neighborhood were the instigators as they were trying to violently obstruct the putting out of a fire

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