Do the Right Thing: the Dialectic of Racial Tension

The Day of Summer

Do the Right Thing, directed by Spike Lee, frames the hottest summer day in a dialectic of racial tension. With racial tensions rising between the African-American community and Italian-American businesses, Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, a long-established Bed-Stuy neighborhood, is owned and operated by a respected entrepreneur of the community named Sal. His sons, the grumpy and aggressive Pino, and Pino’s bullied younger brother, Vito, also contribute to the living room. Regardless of which, Pino no longer wanted to work there because he “hated” a local African-American community. Their only employee, the lazy delivery boy Mookie, spends most of his time wandering the neighborhood.

Mookie also tries to reconcile with the mother of his child, Tina. The conflict begins when a young black man named Buggin Out demands that Sal include African-American faces on the Wall of Fame, which features Italian-American actors and performers exclusively. Sal refuses because it is his restaurant. He will show whomever he chooses. Buggin Out finally wants Sal to admit that he is in a neighborhood populated almost entirely by people of color. Because without them, Sal would not exist. He had to show his respect. Buggin Out will try to organize a neighborhood boycott when Sal refuses.

The Heart of Spike Lee’s Films

Do the Right Thing‘s dialectic is at the heart of all of Spike Lee’s racial tension. However, it is invisible to many critics and audiences. People always categorize Lee as a black man who likes to be angry with his various politics. However, it is objectivity apart from why the film becomes a voice, not anger’s subjectivity. The subject is the way race affects the American way of life. He focused his story on African-American characters more than any filmmaker before him. By not considering how his films relate to white society, his films relate to one another.

School Daze is not inferior to skin color because all characters are black. Likewise with Jungle Fever where it is not only about the romance between white and black. However, it is about all the social, class, and educational factors that race strives for. Malcolm X is about a man who never leaves his anger at racism. However, it is coming to understand that skin color does not determine whom he refers to as a brother. After all, it does not matter if Lee only focuses on the point of view bias.

The Dynamic Subjectivity of Do the Right Thing

The dialectic of Do the Right Thing is not just about racial tension. However, it is the tragic dynamic of miscommunication and race. A film is an act of creation from the maestro. It is at the same time symbolic yet realistic, savage yet funny, and tragic yet lighthearted. One of the reasons why the audience backed away, in the end, was because of the thought. Somehow, the people in the neighborhood and the street would not be touched by the violence in the air around them. Da Mayor and Radio Raheem, as well as Sal and his sons, know each other. It is, of course, nothing wrong will happen between the characters.

However, there is a bad thing that does happen. Raheem’s radio is killed, and Sal’s Pizzeria is destroyed. For Spike Lee, he makes the audience sympathize with Sal by liking his character and pizza restaurant. However, it is not an easy but surprising target. Again, he twists the story post-event by instrumenting Sal’s downfall, not about his character is negative. However, by identifying Mookie’s introduction and motive for making the trash can through the window, it is complexly simple: his friend died.

The Philosophical Argument of Spike Lee

In plain view, Lee arranges Do the Right Thing as a dialectic but an ambiguous argument to encourage the audience to discuss racial tension. His first sequence begins with the saxophone playing the first bar of Lift Every Voice and Sing. In the following series, Perez brings her pulsating dance of code moves and shadowboxing of Fight the Power by Public Enemy. The rap song urgently challenges the progress of ending racism in the United States during the Civil Rights Movement. By representing many strains of back-and-forth viewpoints, the audience can understand why Buggin Out should make Sal aware of his place in the black community. He should include people of color on his Wall of Fame.

On the other hand, Radio Raheem, Buggin Out, and Smiley provoking Sal can be unwise. However, Sal uses racial epithets and a baseball bat to destroy the Radio Raheem boombox, adding to the problem of violence to the victim. In each confrontation in the film, Lee, in the end, offers two quotes from Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Each describes the opposition’s view on the use of violence in solving the problem of intolerance, especially race. Simply put, he sees the dangers as well as the benefits of violence to peaceful protest. Instead of declaring his loyalty to one another, he also does a “dangerous” thing by asking the audience to answer his dialectical agenda.

Michael Griffith

Directly, Do the Right Thing is inspired by real-life incidents that permeate the historical context of the 1980s, mainly in New York City. He used Michael Griffith’s murder in 1986, a black man from Bed-Stuy was chased and beaten to death by a group of white men. After their car broke down in the middle of the night, Griffth and his two friends walked three miles before stopping at the New Park Pizzeria in the Howard Beach neighborhood, primarily white in Queens. Besides, they asked to use the phone; however, they sat down to get a piece, being told none was available.

Someone called the police about three suspicious black men in the area resting. The police came, left without incident, and the man left the pizza parlor. They were greeted by about ten white men armed with bats. They say they do not belong here. The mob hurled racial slurs. In short, they chased the black youth through the streets of Brooklyn. Griffith and his friends continued to be beaten for several blocks until they were hit by a car while fleeing. In the film, Bed-Stuy and Sal’s Pizzeria clearly show Griffith’s death, a murder that New York mayor Ed Koch compared to lynching in the Deep South.

The Black New Wave

Do the Right Thing premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1989. Still, it is his most debated but respected work. Apart from receiving an impressive number of awards and nominations upon release, Lee and his cast also won several awards. Meanwhile, the Oscar for Best Picture is far away on Driving Miss Daisy, a film that most audiences have forgotten about in the decades since its release. Lee continues to be at the forefront of cinematic discussions about race and unanswered representations of America and its history. After the Cannes premiere, the film sparked a fiery debate about what Lee wanted to achieve.

Many people were concerned that the film would cause the riot that was dramatized at its climax. Critics also questioned the summer release in the United States that threatened to mirror the film’s simmering conflict. In addition, Lee also became a new voice for black audiences, standing at the forefront of the Black New Wave filmmakers who grew up during the Civil Rights Movement and began to reach mainstream audiences with the film. It is more comprehensive with a broader lyrical plan by attracting more attention from the media and audience.

The Bed-Stuy Characters Study

Do the Right Thing alternates between Bed-Stuy characters, building through the dialectic of racial tension that fills Lee’s situations and themes. The rhythm of the film’s arrangement has a theatrical and documentary-like quality. In addition, the entire environment and characters participate as the stage and the reality of the action. He did not follow any of the characters for a long time in the film. Apart of drama alternates from individual scenes of Mookie, Sal, Buggin Out, Radio Raheem, Vito, and even Smiley on the street cooling off on an open fire hydrant.

Between transitions rarely occurs through sudden cuts. However, Dickerson’s camera movement tracks one scene. As other characters enter from elsewhere in the environment, the camera reconfigures the attention. In specific settings, he often alternates between fighting characters in a mirror editing technique that emphasizes conflict—the louder the cut and angle, the stronger the sound. In essence, he uses more visual rhythm to underline the breaking point between the characters of Bed-Stuy.

The Montage of Spike Lee

Aside from keeping it provocative, Do the Right Thing has plenty of mirror arguments, not just between Mookie and Pino, but more of a cut to montage than racial slurs. From Mookie, Pino, Puerto Rican, white cops, and Korean grocers, Lee frames the character boost in spitting out racist commentary tirades straight to the camera, breaking the fourth wall style. Each character breaks down against another race of their choosing, such as Mookie calling Pino a clove of garlic and a guinea pig or Pino responding to a series of insults by ending up heading back to Africa.

Through the sequence, Lee exposes the more significant problem of racism, permeates various races and ethnicities, and complicates the film’s racial binarism as a whole. Apart from the sequence taking the audience out of the frame, it is disguised as being social from the characters, revealing each character’s stereotypes about the other. Through the sequence and point of view of Love Daddy, he acts as the narrative that speaks in the film, announcing the event directly from the racial content.

Love and Hate

When we talk about one of the memorable and poetic monologues in the film, it is not forgotten that Lee showed Radio Raheem presenting a monologue about “love” and “hate” to Mookie during a brief meeting on the road. The sequence emphasizes where Lee detaches the frame from the narrative momentum in dealing with the public. Raheem wears a large gold ring with “love” and “hate” spelled on the right and left hands, respectively. He tells the mystical story by again representing Raheem’s shadow box straight at the camera. Each punch marks how “love” or “hate” has the upper hand in the ongoing battle. Borrowing moments from The Night of the Hunter by Charles Laughton, it features Robert Mitchum as a murder confession with the words “love” and “hate” tattooed on his hand.

Mitchum tells a story of good and evil in a graphic display where his fingers intertwine. The sequence exemplifies the film’s storybook conflict between a crime confession and the innocent children he tries to kill. Back in Do the Right Thing, the dialectic places Raheem at the center of the film’s racial tension between love and hate, echoed by the philosophies of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X quoted at the end of the film. Caught between two opposing views, Raheem, in the future, becomes the victim of conflict in the climactic scene. In addition to regulating the environment and the audience in introspecting, the characters provide a lesson in the middle of the film. His death becomes a catalyst, a symbol of profound interpretation in the monologue.

The Climax

With no climax ending, the question of Mookie’s guilt permeates the final scene, which takes place the following day. Mookie approaches Sal to discuss the previous week’s salary. They argue about Mookie’s responsibility for the restaurant’s destruction and whether Sal owes Mookie. Mookie reminds Sal that he will get insurance to rebuild his job. However, Sal squeezes out the $500, tossing them at Mookie, one after the other. Mookie grabs them after bouncing off his chest, throwing them all back on top of his $250 paycheck. He gets out of the frame by heading to visit his girlfriend Tina and their son.

Suppose the audience thinks that Mookie saved Sal and his kids from the crowd violence the night before. In that case, Sal will indeed be able to replace if not restore his pizzeria. Mookie will also have an earned salary. It could be; it is everything that will change on the way. However, it is not as easy as imagined. The destruction of Sal is an allegory in showing the rarity between whites and blacks, along with Korean immigrants, among the catharsis of character learning.

The Cathartic Solutions

By distracting and exciting audiences using ambiguous questions, Do the Right Thing is a self-exploration of the measure of understanding. The film makes society tries to define what is right and what is wrong. Bed-Stuy becomes an environment where residents function as living murals, a rich representational cinematic art that provokes the audience to investigate right and wrong.

It continues to be an open wound just as racism remains a gap in the world’s identity web, not just America’s. By making films such as BlackKklansman and Da 5 Bloods, Lee’s vitality as a filmmaker stirred up limited discussions between race and ethnicity in cinema. He will always try to challenge conventional discourse modes in providing cathartic solutions to Hollywood and the audience.


About the author

Salman Al Farisi is the owner of Calxylian and is an elitist who has enjoyed and studied various mediums. He earned his Bachelor of Arts in 2020 from the Haluoleo University, Indonesia, where he studied English Literature, Film Criticism, Cultural Studies, Literary Theory, and Literary Criticism. He lives in Kendari in his mom's basement, now unemployed and ghostwriter, life with his cats, and is looking for the future.

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