Film Review : Do The Right Thing - Spike Lee’s Opus


18th January, 2021

Written by SP


Inspired by several racially-charged events in the 80s, prime among them the 1986 Howard Beach incident, Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing follows various characters in a black-majority Brooklyn neighbourhood, over the course of a single day. The day is “the hottest day of the year”, and the rising temperature is the perfect metaphor for tension slowly boiling-over.

Throughout the film, various conflicting characters take pot-shots at each other, often coming close to blows, but never actually fighting.

Mookie (played by Spike Lee) works for the Italian family-owned Sal’s Pizzeria. Sal, the owner of the pizzeria, gets into a tiff with local activist Buggin Out over the lack of black faces on his shop’s Wall of Fame. Sal’s elder son is racist, but Sal is quite fond of his neighbourhood, and is proud of his pizzeria and its customers. Radio Raheem shows off his boom-box, and plays Public Enemy’s Fight The Power. Racial tensions are high. All the elements for an eruption are in place.

The racial tensions reach a crescendo when Radio Raheem comes barraging into Sal’s place playing his loud music. Sal breaks his boom-box in anger, the N-word is thrown around, tempers flare, and the police are called. And the police do what they do best.

They choke Radio Raheem and kill him.

Spike Lee found it very telling that the critics chose to ignore the death of a black person, and instead focus on a white man’s property. It seemed to be giving the signal that property was more important than the lives of minorities.

A riot breaks out and Mookie trashes Sal’s pizzeria. The next day, Mookie meets Sal again to ask for his salary. Mookie claims that Sal suffered no loss as his insurance will pay for the shop’s repair. For Sal, it is a matter of the sentimental value of the destroyed shop.

The question that the film leaves us with is this: Who did the right thing?

In a Masterclass, Spike Lee talked about trying to look at race relations without picking sides. He took the argument between Sal and Buggin Out as his example: Sal argues that the restaurant is his, and therefore he gets to choose whose face goes up on the Wall of Fame, and he wants Italian-Americans there. Buggin Out points out that since his pizzeria has predominantly black customers, there should be some black representation on his wall.

Both their points are valid. So who is right?

Lee does this constantly throughout the film, showcasing both the pros and cons to everyone’s point of view, and refusing to press multifaceted issues down into a two-dimensional rhetoric. It’s a testament to his vision that he takes even the most overtly racist character, Sal’s son, and gives him his point-of-view too. In fact, for keen-eyed viewers, it is apparent that Spike Lee humanizes even the cops, by having one of the cops ask the other one to stop choking Radio Raheem.

Spike Lee’s towering opus is the perfect introduction to a career defined by political filmmaking. With notable films like BlacKKKlansman, Malcolm X, and Chi-Raq, Spike Lee worked for representation and black power not just on-screen, but also off-screen.

During pre-production of Do The Right Thing, Lee wanted proper representation in the crew of his film. When he asked the unions for black crew-members, they refused. Lee, being Lee, hired Fruit of Islam (the security wing of the Nation of Islam) for security. The unions gave him the black crew-members he wanted.

This approach is what the film’s ending seems to preach too. At the end of the film, two quotes come on screen: one from Dr Martin Luther King Jr, and the other from Malcolm X. The former advocates non-violence, and the latter advocates armed self-defense in response to oppression.

Spike Lee made a biopic on Malcolm X, arguing that Malcolm X did not preach violence, but self-defence. Historian Zaheer Ali said it best when they said, “America has never been nonviolent with black people so instead of accusing Malcolm of being violent, we need to ask America about its violence.”

“I don't think my films are going to get rid of racism or prejudice. I think the best thing my films can do is provoke discussion.”

A meticulously crafted sociological study, Do The Right Thing is a powerhouse of empathy, built upon a solid understanding of race relations, and characters that are humanized but flawed. Lee’s searing critical gaze does not spare the black community either, as all the black characters in the film have their own prejudices and flaws.

While the film was polarizing upon release, it was rightly identified as a culturally important film by the Library of Congress in 1999. Roger Ebert praised the film as "closer to reflecting the current state of race relations in America than any other movie of our time.”

What’s interesting is that a lot of initial critics and audience turned Spike Lee’s even-handed non-blaming critique of racial violence into an exposé of their own prejudices. They instead asked the question: Did Mookie do the right thing?

An incredulous issue that white audiences had with the film was that it might incite black audiences to riot. It seemed to them that the black audience wasn’t mature enough to digest a fictional film.

Of course, the anticipated riots never materialized, because the film is not inflammatory. The critics misunderstood that the very heart of the film was empathy, not anger. In fact, it was their misunderstanding that made them question Mookie’s trashing of Sal’s pizzeria, and pronounce him “wrong” for doing so.

Spike Lee found it very telling that the critics chose to ignore the death of a black person, and instead focus on a white man’s property. It seemed to be giving the signal that property was more important than the lives of minorities.

It is absolutely shameful that even 31 years after the film was released, it is as relevant as ever. We have moved from Radio Raheem’s boom box to Walkmen to Airpods. We have come from film to digital to VR; from telephones to cell phones to smartphones. Property and technology have moved light years ahead. Yet, minorities are still being oppressed by the police worldwide.

Not all criticism against Spike Lee is this empty-headed.

Lee has been criticized for his stereotypical portrayal of Jewish people in the film Mo’ Better Blues. He has also been criticised for his objectifying representation of women.

The clearest example is in this very film, with Rosie Perez’s out-of-place nude scene. The objectification is dialled up to the max, with one of the shots not even featuring Rose Perez’s face, just her body.

Rosie Perez has said that she was uncomfortable while shooting the nude scene in the film. It was her first experience doing a nude scene: "My first experience [with doing nude scenes] was Do the Right Thing. And I had a big problem with it, mainly because I was afraid of what my family would think — that’s what was really bothering me. It wasn’t really about taking off my clothes. But I also didn’t feel good about it because the atmosphere wasn’t correct. And when Spike Lee puts ice cubes on my nipples, the reason you don’t see my head is because I’m crying. I was like, I don’t want to do this."

While it is important to acknowledge and protest his problematic tendencies, he remains not only an extremely important black filmmaker, but also a strong voice for black representation.

With lesser critics calling him an angry filmmaker, and a troublemaker, it is important to remember that Lee’s works are created to be provocative and challenge the prejudices of the audience, no matter what side of the political spectrum they fall on: “I don't think my films are going to get rid of racism or prejudice. I think the best thing my films can do is provoke discussion.”