"Do the Right Thing" is Unapologetically Black
by Dr. Meskerem Z. Glegziabher and Dr. Keon M. McGuire
Dr. Glegziabher is a postdoc for outreach and community engagement at Arizona State University’s School of Human Evolution & Social Change where she works with members of historically marginalized communities to highlight their experiences and narratives through programing and events. Dr. McGuire is an assistant professor in Arizona State University's Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College and his research examines how race, gender, and religion inform the everyday lives of racially minoritized communities.
::SPOILER ALERT:: The following piece analyzes in some detail certain pivotal scenes in the film that readers who have not yet watched the film may wish to avoid.
If there is one thing that can be said about Spike Lee’s third feature film, Do the Right Thing (1989), it is that it is unapologetically Black. Accompanying production company logos prior to the opening scene, Do opens up with a “mournful variation” (Johnson, 1993/1994) of James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Affectionately referred to as the Black National Anthem, Lee makes it clear that Blackness is a nation to whom this story’s allegiance belongs. This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Lee’s previous work; after all Lee’s production company, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, is an explicit indictment of the U.S. government’s broken promises to former slaves during Reconstruction. In many ways, this film serves as an indictment of American anti-Black racism.
Set in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York -- where the movie was actually filmed over an 8-week period in 1988 -- Do The Right Thing chronicles a day-in-the-life of Mookie (Spike), a young Black father who works for Italian American Sal’s (Danny Aiello) pizzeria. Billed as the hottest day of the summer, the film grounds itself in the multiethnic, multiracial, and intergenerational true-to-reality portrait of working-class folks in Do-or-Die Bed-Stuy. From the vibrant and radiant colors of clothes and building walls; to Mother-Sister (Ruby Dee) and Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) serving as embodied elder wisdom; and to the opened fire hydrants that transform sweltering hot concrete blocks into pleasurable temporary water stations, this film is exceptionally local.
Do the Right Thing is also a cultural time capsule that reflects the style, feel and cultural expression of late 1980s/early 1990s Black America. From the clothes, boombox, four-finger rings, hairstyles, and shoes—it was Spikes purposeful placement of Jordans in She’s Gotta Have It and now Do the Right Thing that generated its cult-like following—Do captures the pulse of post-Civil Rights and post-Black Power Black America that also pays homage to where it came from. Most notably this is expressed through the films soundscape—an intergenerational dialogue between jazz and hip-hop. Scored by his father, composer and jazz bassist William Lee, the films musical soundscape is a character unto itself. Certainly this is true of the movie’s theme song, Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” As Chuck D is oft noted for saying “hip hop is the CNN of the ghetto,” it is only fitting that he pens the political protest rally cry that becomes the films leitmotiv and figurative representation of Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn). As Spike Lee has stated, “there would be no Do the Right Thing without a ‘Fight the Power’.”
It would take a song of that magnitude to carry the weight of the heavy hitting issues confronted in this film.
Sense of Belonging
The ongoing assertion and contestation of legitimate belonging—both of one’s own and of others—serves as a thematic thread that links most of the major characters in the film and is the undercurrent to the more explicit tensions around racism explored in Do. Sense of belonging is explored both in moments of reflection as well moments of confrontation. During a quiet conversation with his father Sal (Aiello), Pino (John Turturro) implores his father to sell the pizzeria and open something closer to home. Repeating his refrain of not wanting to be in the Black neighborhood of Bed-Stuy, Pino argues “they don’t want us here. We should stay in our own neighborhood…stay in Bensonhurst…and the n*ggers should stay in theirs.” In another reflective scene, the middle-aged ML (Paul Benjamin), “Sweet Dick” Willie (Robin Harris), and “Coconut” Sid (Frankie Faison) discuss how the recently immigrated Korean, Sonny (Steve Park), has managed to establish a thriving grocery store in “our neighborhood”, while the Black residents who have been there for generations and presumably have a more legitimate claim to the neighborhood have not been able to establish a similar business. While ML and Sid bemoan spending their money at the Korean grocery and long for the days when they might patronize a Black-owned business, Willie points out that Sid has a lot of nerve since he “got off the boat too.” Despite apparently being an immigrant himself, as a Black man Sid feels he has a stronger claim on the neighborhood. This claim is generally supported by his fellow (presumably native born) Black companions and his immigrant status is only brought up briefly to make a point during an argument.
In contrast legitimate belonging is heatedly contested during the sneaker confrontation between Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito) and Clifton (John Savage)—who seems to be the only white neighborhood resident in the film—where Buggin Out angrily asks, after Clifton states that he owns a home in the neighborhood when asked why he was there, “Who told you to buy a brownstone on my block in my neighborhood on my side of the street? Yo, what you wanna live in a Black neighborhood for, anyway?!” Clifton’s response that “it’s a free country and a man can live anywhere he wants” is itself quite telling of a privileged worldview. Like Sal, Clifton’s (and implicitly Sonny’s) claims on the neighborhood’s spaces are predicated on legal/financial ownership. In a similarly heated exchange, a group of teenagers led by Ahmad (Steve White) confront the elderly wino affectionately known in the neighborhood as Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) and question what gives him the right to proclaim himself “Da Mayor” of the neighborhood when all he does is walk around drunk all day. While it’s clear that the confrontation starts as just some bored kids starting trouble—rather than any deep seated resentment towards Da Mayor’s popular nickname—the dismissal of any claims to space by the homeless by pointing to their seeming lack of productive contribution to society (in this case specifically the neighborhood) is indeed a frequently utilized narrative tool with often very tangible detrimental effects on homeless city dwellers.
This narrative around the lack of productive contribution is also closely related to the stereotypes of laziness and aggression that characters like Pino—who refers to the neighborhood’s Black residents as “animals”—and the officers who routinely surveil and over-police these neighborhoods (both in the film and in real life), draw upon to justify their explicitly racist statements and behaviors.
The Banality of Racial Violence
Spike Lee was reportedly inspired to write the film by a 1986 incident that occurred in the predominantly working-class Italian-American neighborhood of Howard Beach in Queens, New York. After their car broke down nearby, a Black man named Michael Griffith (a resident of Brooklyn) and his two friends were walking when they got into an argument with 3 white men. Afterwards they headed to a pizzeria and as they left they were accosted by the 3 men they had initially argued with along with ~ 9 other white men and beaten with fists and bats as they shouted racial slurs and told the black men they didn’t belong in the neighborhood. In an attempt to run away from his attackers, Griffith was hit by an oncoming car and died at the scene. One of his companions was also severely injured although Griffith was the only one who died. Several of the attackers were eventually convicted of charges ranging from 1st to 2nd degree manslaughter. Lee’s use of an Italian pizzeria and the bat used by Sal in the film were all nods to the Howard Beach incident.
The film reaches a climax when Radio Raheem is killed by a police officer who strangles him with a chokehold. Instead of Michael Griffith stumbling into the street, through the figure of Radio Raheem, Spike reminds us that for Black and Brown folks “falling” into the hands of the police can be as dangerous as oncoming traffic. The death in itself is harrowing in its similarity to the death of Eric Garner by Staten Island police officer Daniel Pantaleo in 2014. Seeing police from the underside of capitalism and racism demonstrates that for many Black and Brown citizens the police are not always a safe haven, but instead an occupying and brutalizing force. Arriving a year after NWA released its own protest record against police violence -- Fuck the Police -- and two years before the infamous Los Angeles police attack against Rodney King, Do puts policing itself on trial.
This is driven home by to whom spike dedicates the film, in addition to Michael Griffin: the families of Eleanor Bumpurs (66 year old mentally ill woman shot and killed by police in the Bronx during a forced eviction attempt), Arthur Miller (35 year old community leader from Crown Heights, Brooklyn who was shot and killed by choke hold while in police custody), Edmund Perry (17 year old recent Honors HS graduate from Harlem who was shot and killed by plainclothes policeman who claimed that Perry and his brother attempted to mug him), Yvonne Smallwood (28 year old Bronx woman who was severely beaten by police officers who claimed she became “extremely violent” with them while protesting her husband’s traffic ticket and arrested her for assault. She died 6 days later while still in police custody from complications resulting from her injuries) and Michael Stewart (25 year old man initially arrested by NY Transit police for spray-painting graffiti in the 1st avenue subway station then severely beaten while in police custody and died after 13 days in a coma), who were all black New Yorkers killed in the recent years before the film. Notably, all of the officers involved in the killings were either found not guilty or weren’t indicted by a grand jury.
Less of a polemic proclamation, Do the Right Thing offers an invitation to audience members to ask themselves: what is an ethical response to the extreme violence of police chokeholds and the mundane violence imposed upon working-class Brown and Black folks through state neglect?
The Making of Do The Right Thing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_I5vV4WKc-o
Do the Right Thing 20 Years Later: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l6kVN1coXDw
Chuck D on making “Fight the Power”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zYHPWzg0iXA
Tawana Brawely Case (referenced in the “Tawana told the truth” graffiti in the film): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tawana_Brawley_rape_allegations