Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” (1989) depicts a hot-summer day in Brooklyn, New York, that slowly boils into an explosion of racial tensions. Its wide cast of characters have many things in common: they all eat and shop in the same streets, they each endure the oppressive summer heat, they all have more or less the same economic background, and they all have that indelible New York identity. Unfortunately as the day goes by, small conflicts make them forget their similarities and make them only focus on their differences resulting in tragedy.
When it was first released, several newspapers stated the film could incite black audiences to riot. Even though no such riots occurred, Lee criticized the critics for implying black audiences could not restrain themselves. As a white Canadian male who randomly saw the movie on TV in Quebec City two years ago, I can’t really speak to the racial tensions of the times in that part of the world. The most I know about African-American culture is what I learned during a course in Cultural Studies at the University of Sherbrooke. We didn’t watch “Do the Right Thing,” but we did listen to “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy, which plays a prominent part in the movie.
Although the movie focuses on many characters, most of the action takes place at a pizzeria owned by Sal Frangione (Danny Aiello) an Italian-American who has lived in the neighbourhood for 25 years. Mookie (played by Lee) delivers pizzas for him. Sal has two sons, Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson). Sal treats Mookie like a respectful employee, Vito sees him as a friend, but Pino wears his racism on his sleeves. He frequently uses the “n” word when talking about African-Americans who live in the neighbourhood, yet Mookie points out he never uses that word when it comes to black athletes or artists.
Outside the pizzeria the rest of the neighbourhood characters go about their day like a well-oiled machine. There is Radio Raheem (Bill Nun) a hulk of a black man who walks around with a boom box blaring Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” The late great Ossie Davis plays the local drunk called Da Mayor, who has his eyes on Mother Sister (Ruby Dee), who has her eyes on the streets from the window of her brownstone. A trio of older men (Robin Harris, Paul Benjamin, Frankie Faison) sit on the same street corner every day and provide comments on the day’s events. They are of course known as the Corner Men. Every village, small town, or neighbourhood has men like that. Providing the soundtrack for all of these people and many other young people suffering the heat in the street is Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson) the local radio DJ.
As the clock turns, tensions begin to rise. Radio Raheem annoys both Puerto Rican men and Sal with his loud music. Teenagers open a fire hydrant to cool off, causing the police to intervene. Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito), a friend of Mookie, is angry at Sal for not putting any pictures black men on the pizzeria’s wall of fame. Instead Sal has it covered with pictures of prominent Italian-Americans such as Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro. Sal has a valid argument: it’s his place he can do what he wants. But Buggin’ Out won’t let it go, and by the time the sun sets, all of the day’s hatred and racial tension will explode into the pizzeria. Some of the hatred will even come out of Sal’s mouth in a moment of anger.
Spike Lee, who also wrote the movie, is smart enough to show that racism doesn’t just flow one way. Not everyone is guilty, but not everyone is innocent. Pino is openly racist and is not helping anyone with his prejudices. On the other hand Buggin’ Out almost gets into a fight with a white man for stepping on his shoes and asks him why he decided to live on his side of the street.
A clever thing Spike Lee the director does is have some of the characters speak directly to the camera to spew out the things they are thinking, but dare not say in public. This use of soliloquy shows us what is happening beneath the waves in theses character’s minds and makes us wonder whether or not some of us in the audience actually think like that too. It’s a clever device, which Lee would later use again in “25th Hour” (2002) with Edward Norton.
So how much has changed in America between 1989 and today, in terms of racism? Again, I can only offer the opinions of a white Canadian observer watching from afar. Culturally speaking things seem to be no doubt different. Another song we listened to in Cultural Studies was Ice-T’s “Cop Killer” (1992), which was perceived as glamorizing the killing of police officers. Now Ice-T plays a cop on NBC. Yet racial tensions are by no means gone. Was it not only last month that a black teen was shot and killed in Florida because a neighbourhood watchman thought he “looked suspicious?” That was definitely not doing the right thing.