Spike Lee’s incendiary, stylish film Do the Right Thing is a wonderful example of race relations in the late 1980s; in the face of police brutality and gang warfare in the ghettos of America, a fine line exists between black pride and equality, portrayed elegantly and energetically by director Spike Lee. Multiculturalism is at a razor’s edge in this film, with many members of the community being one arbitrary offense away from being beaten or killed by an insensitive police force, or prejudiced, conflicted whites in their own neighborhood. The events of the film are representative of the theory of interest convergence - much of the resistance from whites in the film revolve around the maintenance of their business by shunning the 'undesirables.' Everyday racism also comes into play throughout the film, given the attitudes of whites toward blacks presented in the film. In my thesis, I will posit that "Lee's Do the Right Thing provided a fascinating and powerful portrait of black culture which intensely explores themes of multiculturalism, police brutality and codes of behavior in the midst of a hot, racially-charged environment."
The film takes place in a predominantly black neighborhood of Brooklyn, where blacks and Italians have a shaky racial relationship. The owner of a pizzeria, Sal (Danny Aiello) and his sons (John Turturro and Richard Edson) exist in a vacuum among an urban community in the middle of a heat wave. An issue arises based on two black members of the community (one named Radio Raheem) insisting that Sal put up pictures of black people on the walls of his pizzeria, due to the community in which he works. He refuses, citing the fact that only whites own the business. According to Tyson, "it's in the psychological interest of working-class whites whose own experience of being underpaid and exploited by wealthy whites makes them need to feel superior to someone else" (p. 371).
In this thesis, I will use academic literature both within and without the course to look at the film Do the Right Thing through the context of critical race theory, as well as its status as a major contribution to black cinema. First, I will note Guerrero's and Rhines' studies of the film as both a bastion of multicultural portrayals of the race conflict in the 1980s and the gender attitudes contained within. One particular focus of the portrayal of gender within the black community will be the title sequence, which merely focuses on an undulating Rosie Perez dancing to the title song as the credits (shown in stylized African-inspired fonts and designs) are displayed around her. Following that, I will examine outside literature from Tyson, Cashin and Tanner, and others to note the film's status as a piece of critical race theory.
One vital tenet of critical race theory is everyday racism - "in many ways the most emotionally draining, stress-provoking forms of racism are the rule, not the exception" (p. 369). The actions of whites in the film are an example of everyday racism - Sal does not think he is being racist, but merely protecting his business by maintaining a solely white presence in this black neighborhood. The refusal to put pictures of black figures on the walls, however well-argued the resistance, is only shunned upon by Sal because of his own, institutionalized prejudices against blacks. He sees them as trash, and despite needing them to further his business he does not want the pizzeria to become black.
The actions of the police are indicative of everyday racism as well - in the era of the film, Rodney King-style police brutality is the rule instead of the exception, leaving the blacks of the community with an institutionalized fear of the police, as they are far too easy to come down on the members of the community at the slightest provocation. This is made clear at the death of Radio Raheem, whose actions are returned with afatal beating.
The defining moment of the film – Mookie (Spike Lee) throwing a garbage can into Sal’s window, sparking a race riot – is one of the most powerful images in black cinema, as it showcases a defiant image of rage at the death of a man due to racism (Radio Raheem). There are many who have differing opinions as to whether or not Mookie “does the right thing” by doing this; in one way, Mookie may have saved Sal’s life by throwing the trash can, as it distracts the mob from him onto his property. On the other hand, he may have simply wanted to incite violence as an outburst of his own (Reid, p. 43). This is an example of an attempt to reverse or correct the everyday racism that is evident in Sal's behavior and attitudes toward blacks.
If “the differences within a given human population are every bit as great as those between populations,” then the inhabitants of Do the Right Thing have a lot to learn from each other, both black and white (Cashin and Tanner, p. 266). The neighborhood exists in a vacuum; everyone has to help each other out, regardless of race or attitude, and the police is everyone’s enemy. It is a perfect microcosm for the attitudes of 1980s blacks, and the state of inter-race relations at the time. Some of Tyson's tenets of critical race theory come into play in the film, particularly those or everyday racism and interest convergence. Sal demonstrates everyday racism in his inherent distrust and distaste for blacks and black culture, while always denying that he is racist. Meanwhile, he still caters to black customers because he knows that they are his market, even though he may not necessarily like it on the inside. The events of the film are a seething indictment of that kind of institutionalized racism, as well as the casual writing off of blacks as trash.
Over the course of my final paper, I will explore these aspects of the film with the help of both established and original research from other scholars. It is the goal of this paper to elucidate more clearly Do the Right Thing's status as an important film for the black community, both financially and thematically. Its themes of multiculturalism and the difficulty of integration of a number of increasingly hostile and fractured communities are sharply presented in the film, as all of these factions struggle to 'do the right thing.'
Cashin, Kathryn, and Stacy Tanner. Multicultural film: an anthology fall 2005. Custom ed. Boston, MA: Pearson Custom Pub., 2005. Print.
Guerrero, Ed. Do the Right Thing. British Film Institute, 2001. Print.
Lee, Spike, and Lisa Jones. Do the right thing: a Spike Lee joint. New York, N.Y.: Fireside, 1989. Print.
Reid, Mark. Spike Lee's Do the right thing . Cambridge [England: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Print.
Rhines, Jesse. "Black Women in the System." in Black Film, White Money. Rutgers University Press, 1996. Print.
Tyson, Lois. Critical theory today: a user-friendly guide. CRC Press, 2006. Print.