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Still trying to do the right thing, 31 years later

On the persistent relevance of Spike Lee’s third film
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FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY
FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY

Do the Right Thing, an acclaimed feature from notable Black director Spike Lee has tragically become topical again, 31 years after its release. Lee’s third feature, the film follows a host of characters in Brooklyn’s Bedford–Stuyvesant neighbourhood on a very hot summer day. 

Racial tensions grow between the Black and non-Black residents throughout the film, culminating in the tragic death of Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) at the hands of the police after a scuffle with Sal’s pizzeria’s owner. It is in this murder that Do the Right Thing shares discomforting parallels with our current reality, reflected in the events surrounding the death of George Floyd. 

For one thing, there are similarities between the natures of the murders: improper methods of restraint applied by police officers. This parallel is one that Lee himself recently acknowledged. But perhaps more notable are the similarities in the aftermath of the deaths. 

The crescendo of racial tension doesn’t end at Raheem’s murder. The large group that had gathered and witnessed the events at Sal’s erupts — first into anger and then into destruction and looting after Mookie (Spike Lee), an employee of Sal’s, throws a trash can through the window. They witnessed an injustice, and they responded. As have the protestors who have taken to the streets in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

Even with the acclaim that Do the Right Thing received, there was sizable discourse on its perceived moral stance, especially with the aforementioned scene featuring the destruction of Sal’s. The film is called Do the Right Thing after all.

The audience, as spectators, has to interrogate and investigate — what is the right thing? And what is the film saying the right thing is? This provocative energy and attitude clearly left some critics with a sour taste in their mouths. Some because of the film’s perceived inability to answer the question it was posing, and others because of its perceived answer to it. 

David Denby of New York Magazine, for one, called the conclusion of the movie “a shambles, and if some audiences go wild, [Lee is] partly responsible.” Joe Klein, also of New York Magazine, was even more explicit, calling Mookie’s action “one of the stupider, more self-destructive acts of violence.”

Klein also echoed Denby by commenting that “if black kids act on what they see, Lee may have destroyed his career.” Stanley Crouch in The Village Voice, meanwhile, described the film as a “rancid fairy tale” — a declaration that clearly hasn’t aged well. 

There are parallels to the responses that some have had to the current protests — people condemning the protesters and their actions instead of what they’re protesting against. But there are also people not understanding what’s being protested: missing the forest for the trees. This is the absence of moral nuance and the desire to have only simple, ahistorical, contextless conversations about race and racism.

Do the Right Thing is decidedly inconclusive, despite its declarative title and attitude. This seemingly oxymoronic relationship between its title and its content is reflected in the parts of its ending that are so often ignored or underplayed.

I’m speaking of Smiley (Roger Smith) placing a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X in the burned-down remains of Sal’s. And I am also speaking of the final shot, which features seemingly contradictory quotes from both Black revolutionary icons:

“Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends by destroying itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.”

— Martin Luther King, Jr.

“I think there are plenty of good people in America, but there are also plenty of bad people in America and the bad ones are the ones who seem to have all the power and be in these positions to block things that you and I need. Because this is the situation, you and I have to preserve the right to do what is necessary to bring an end to that situation, and it doesn’t mean that I advocate violence, but at the same time I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don’t even call it violence when it’s self- defense, I call it intelligence.”

— Malcolm X

The tapestry Lee weaves in Do the Right Thing is complex, and at times paradoxical, as race relations often are. As Peter Travers noted in his review in Rolling Stone, “The black community has been struggling for years to reconcile those two philosophies.”

But in that final photo of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. posing together, Lee presents these two seemingly contradictory ideals and suggests that they are both part of the same picture. Violence, like many things, is many things, and not always all at once. It is often condemnable and immoral. Yet institutions like the police dispense violence — excessive and otherwise — and it is defended as moral and lawful. 

The systems of law and order in society have endlessly monopolized violence. It is why they are the state. But they have also allowed the people whom the state is supposed to protect to be subjected to said violence. It has inflicted this violence on those people. 

Even now, police are attacking reporters and firing rubber bullets at protesters. When the law and institutions that should serve all the people fully do not do so and when the systems of society fail the people in it, what is the ‘right thing’ to do then? How can Black people do the right thing in their situation, facing the injustices they face? How can they be expected to?

The violence in riots is not a political strategy — it’s the emotional response of a people against a system that has violently abused them for centuries. When protesters angrily take to the streets, they are responding to more than just one murder. They are angry about more than just one cop and more than one police force. They are asking for repercussions for the institutions of justice that continue to fail and abuse them.

The ones that respond to emancipation by allowing segregation.

The ones that create urban ghettos and communities with limited access to basic necessities.

The ones that respond to Black crime with over-policing and harsher sentencing.

The ones that allow themselves to be held hostage by police labour unions.

The ones that refuse to self-examine — that refrain from introspection and never hold themselves accountable. 

Sal’s pizzeria and its contradictions — existing in a Black community, implicitly saying it’s for Black people but refusing to fully be for Black people in a meaningful sense — becomes a symbol for the institutions of the world that continue to fail Black people when it counts.

One cannot claim to condemn violence and also blame and judge victims of violence for their rage. One who condemns violence must condemn the original source of the violence, and that is the system and its institutions.

Martin was right. But so was Malcolm.