Wed. Jul 24th, 2024

The Day of Summer

Do the Right Thing, directed by Spike Lee, sets the stage on the hottest summer day, presenting a dialectic of racial tension. The film portrays escalating racial tensions between the African-American community and Italian-American businesses in the long-established Bed-Stuy neighborhood. Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, run by the respected entrepreneur Sal, has been a part of the community for years. Sal’s sons, Pino, known for his grumpiness and aggressiveness, and Vito, who is bullied, also work at the pizzeria. However, Pino no longer wishes to work there due to his animosity towards the local African-American community.

Mookie, the lazy delivery boy, spends much of his time wandering the neighborhood and trying to reconcile with Tina, the mother of his child. The conflict arises when Buggin Out, a young black man, demands that Sal include African-American faces on the Wall of Fame, which currently only features Italian-American actors and performers. Sal firmly refuses, asserting his right to choose whom he showcases in his restaurant. Buggin Out argues that the neighborhood is predominantly populated by people of color, and without their support, Sal’s business would not thrive. He insists that Sal should show respect by acknowledging their presence. When Sal refuses, Buggin Out seeks to organize a neighborhood boycott in response.

The Heart of Spike Lee’s Films

The heart of racial tension in Do the Right Thing lies in the film’s dialectic, and this aspect is often overlooked by many critics and audiences. Spike Lee is frequently categorized as an angry black man with various political agendas. However, the film’s voice is not about subjective anger; it presents objectivity regarding how race affects the American way of life. Lee’s focus on African-American characters sets his storytelling apart from other filmmakers. His films do not solely revolve around how they relate to white society but how they relate to one another.

In films like School Daze, where all characters are black, skin color becomes insignificant in determining superiority. Similarly, Jungle Fever is not solely about the romance between white and black individuals but delves into the social, class, and educational factors intertwined with race. Malcolm X portrays a man who battles racism and anger but eventually comes to understand that skin color should not dictate his perception of brotherhood.

In the end, whether Lee’s films focus on a particular point of view or bias is not the crucial aspect. The primary emphasis lies in the profound exploration of racial dynamics and its impact on society.

The Dynamic Subjectivity of Do the Right Thing

The dialectic in Do the Right Thing goes beyond racial tension; it delves into the tragic dynamic of miscommunication and race. The film is a masterful act of creation, simultaneously symbolic and realistic, savage yet humorous, and tragic yet lighthearted. As the story unfolds, the audience is led to believe that the characters in the neighborhood and on the street would avoid the escalating violence in their surroundings. Da Mayor, Radio Raheem, Sal, and his sons know each other, and it seems like nothing wrong will happen between them. However, a terrible event does occur: Raheem’s radio is destroyed, and Sal’s Pizzeria is ruined.

Spike Lee skillfully makes the audience sympathize with Sal by presenting him as a likable character and showcasing his beloved pizza restaurant. However, this sympathy is not an easy or expected outcome. Lee artfully twists the story post-event, orchestrating Sal’s downfall not by portraying his character as inherently negative but by revealing Mookie’s motivation for throwing the trash can through the window: his friend had died. The simplicity of Mookie’s action is complex in its implications, shedding light on the intricacies of human emotions and actions in a tense and tragic situation.

The Philosophical Argument of Spike Lee

In Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee skillfully constructs a dialectic argument that encourages the audience to engage in discussions about racial tension. The film’s opening sequence features the saxophone playing the first bar of Lift Every Voice and Sing, followed by Perez’s pulsating dance moves to the song Fight the Power by Public Enemy. This rap song urgently challenges the ongoing struggle to end racism in the United States, particularly during the Civil Rights Movement.

Throughout the film, Lee presents various conflicting viewpoints, allowing the audience to comprehend why Buggin Out wants Sal to acknowledge his place in the black community by including people of color on his Wall of Fame. However, the actions of characters like Radio Raheem, Buggin Out, and Smiley, who provoke Sal, can be seen as unwise. The situation escalates when Sal resorts to racial epithets and destroys Radio Raheem’s boombox with a baseball bat, adding to the problem of violence and victimization.

In each confrontation, the film concludes with quotes from Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, each expressing their opposing views on the use of violence in resolving issues of intolerance, particularly related to race. By presenting these contrasting perspectives, Lee highlights the dangers and potential benefits of violence versus peaceful protest. Rather than taking sides, Lee dares to challenge the audience by asking them to grapple with the complexities of his dialectical agenda.

Michael Griffith

Do the Right Thing draws direct inspiration from real-life incidents that were prevalent in the historical context of 1980s New York City. One significant event that influenced the film was the murder of Michael Griffith in 1986. Griffith, an African-American man from Bed-Stuy, was tragically chased and beaten to death by a group of white men. The incident occurred after Griffith and his two friends had car trouble and had to walk three miles before stopping at the New Park Pizzeria in the predominantly white neighborhood of Howard Beach, Queens.

Upon entering the pizzeria and requesting to use the phone, they were denied and told that there were no available seats. Someone in the area called the police, reporting three suspicious black men at the pizzeria. The police arrived, left without incident, and the three men left the establishment. However, outside, they were confronted by a mob of about ten white men armed with bats, who proceeded to hurl racial slurs at them and chased them through the streets of Brooklyn, insisting that they did not belong there. The mob continued to beat Griffith and his friends as they tried to escape, resulting in them being struck by a car during their attempt to flee.

In the film, the settings of Bed-Stuy and Sal’s Pizzeria serve as clear representations of Griffith’s tragic death, which then-New York mayor Ed Koch likened to a lynching in the Deep South. This real-life incident serves as a powerful and haunting backdrop for the racial tension and conflict depicted in the film.

The Black New Wave

Do the Right Thing premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1989 and remains Spike Lee’s most debated yet respected work. Apart from receiving an impressive number of awards and nominations upon its release, Lee and his cast were also honored with several accolades. However, the coveted Oscar for Best Picture ultimately went to Driving Miss Daisy, a film that has largely been forgotten by most audiences in the decades since its release. Nevertheless, Lee continues to be at the forefront of cinematic discussions surrounding race and the representation of America and its history.

Following its Cannes premiere, Do the Right Thing sparked a fiery debate about the filmmaker’s intentions. Many people expressed concern that the film might incite real-life riots similar to the climactic events portrayed in the movie. Critics also questioned the decision to release the film in the United States during the summer, fearing that it could mirror the simmering conflict depicted on screen.

In addition to these controversies, Lee emerged as a new voice for black audiences, standing at the forefront of the Black New Wave filmmakers. Growing up during the Civil Rights Movement, this group began to reach mainstream audiences with their films. Do the Right Thing further solidified Lee’s position as a prominent filmmaker, attracting widespread attention from both the media and the audience due to its comprehensive and impactful approach.

The Bed-Stuy Characters Study

Do the Right Thing skillfully alternates between Bed-Stuy characters, building tension through the dialectic of racial tensions that permeate Lee’s situations and themes. The film’s arrangement possesses both a theatrical and documentary-like quality, with the entire environment and characters participating as both the stage and the reality of the action.

Lee avoids following any single character for too long in the film, opting instead to alternate between individual scenes featuring Mookie, Sal, Buggin Out, Radio Raheem, Vito, and even Smiley cooling off on the street by an open fire hydrant. Transitions between scenes are rarely abrupt, as Dickerson’s camera movements smoothly track from one scene to the next. When other characters enter from different parts of the environment, the camera dynamically adjusts its focus, keeping the attention engaged.

Notably, the film employs a mirror editing technique during specific confrontational scenes, emphasizing the conflicts between characters. The visual rhythm, accompanied by the sound, serves to underscore the breaking points and intensify the tensions between the inhabitants of Bed-Stuy.

The Montage of Spike Lee

Aside from its provocative nature, Do the Right Thing contains numerous mirror arguments, not just between Mookie and Pino, but in the form of a cut-to-montage showcasing racial slurs. Lee frames the characters delivering racist commentaries straight to the camera, breaking the fourth wall style. This includes Mookie, Pino, Puerto Ricans, white cops, and Korean grocers, each expressing their prejudices against another race of their choosing. For instance, Mookie calls Pino a clove of garlic and a guinea pig, while Pino responds with insults referring to Africa.

Through this sequence, Lee exposes the larger issue of racism, which permeates various races and ethnicities, and complicates the film’s portrayal of racial binarism. Despite the sequence taking the audience momentarily out of the narrative frame, it serves to highlight the social context from which the characters’ stereotypes arise. Love Daddy’s narrative voice, acting as a mediator, directly addresses the racial content of the events unfolding in the film.

Love and Hate

When discussing one of the memorable and poetic monologues in the film, it is essential not to forget that Lee portrayed Radio Raheem delivering a monologue about “love” and “hate” during a brief encounter with Mookie on the street. In this sequence, Lee separates the frame from the narrative momentum to engage the audience directly. Radio Raheem wears a large gold ring with “love” and “hate” spelled on his right and left hands, respectively. He narrates a mystical story while demonstrating his shadowboxing skills directly at the camera. Each punch symbolizes how “love” or “hate” gains the upper hand in their ongoing battle.

This moment in the film draws inspiration from Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter, where Robert Mitchum’s character has “love” and “hate” tattooed on his hands during a murder confession. Mitchum’s character tells a tale of good and evil through a gripping display of his intertwined fingers.

In Do the Right Thing, this dialectic positions Radio Raheem at the center of the film’s racial tension, embodying the struggle between love and hate, as echoed by the philosophies of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X quoted at the end of the film. Caught between two opposing views, Radio Raheem becomes the victim of the conflict in the climactic scene. This powerful moment not only engages the audience and the characters but also serves as a lesson in the heart of the film. His death becomes a catalyst and a symbol of profound interpretation in the film’s monologue.

The Climax

In the absence of a climactic ending, the question of Mookie’s guilt lingers in the final scene, which takes place the following day. Mookie approaches Sal to discuss his salary for the previous week. They argue about Mookie’s responsibility for the destruction of the restaurant and whether Sal owes him payment. Mookie reminds Sal that he will receive insurance money to rebuild the business. However, Sal angrily throws $500 at Mookie, who catches them after they bounce off his chest, and he throws the money back on top of his $250 paycheck. Mookie then leaves the scene to visit his girlfriend Tina and their son.

The audience may believe that Mookie’s actions saved Sal and his children from the violent crowd the night before, and therefore Sal will be able to replace or rebuild his pizzeria. Mookie will also receive his earned salary. However, it may not be as straightforward as imagined. The destruction of Sal’s pizzeria serves as an allegory, highlighting the deep-seated tensions between whites, blacks, and Korean immigrants, and the catharsis of character growth and understanding. The film subtly reflects the complexities and challenges of racial relations in society.

The Cathartic Solutions

By provoking and engaging audiences with ambiguous questions, Do the Right Thing becomes a self-exploration of the nature of understanding. The film prompts society to grapple with defining what is right and wrong. Bed-Stuy serves as an environment where residents function like living murals, creating a visually rich representation that encourages the audience to contemplate matters of right and wrong. The issues addressed in the film remain like an open wound, just as racism persists as a fracture in the global fabric of identity, not limited to America alone. Through films like BlackKklansman and Da 5 Bloods, Lee’s vitality as a filmmaker continues to ignite crucial discussions on race and ethnicity in cinema. He consistently challenges conventional discourse, offering cathartic alternatives to Hollywood and the audience.

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