'Do the Right Thing': Still a Racial Rorschach at 20
Spike Lee's seminal film Do the Right Thing takes place over the course of twenty-four hours during the hottest day of the summer in Brooklyn's historic Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. The story depicts simmering ethnic tensions between a group of African-Americans and the middle-aged, Italian-American patriarch of the local pizza place, "Sal's Famous Pizzeria." As the sweltering summer day draws to a close, an argument erupts between local youths of color led by "Radio" Raheem (his nickname comes from the massive boombox he is never seen without) and Sal. Pushed to the brink by Raheem's radio blasts, Sal erupts into a vitriolic rant replete with racial invective, which culminates with his smashing of Raheem's stereo. A fight breaks out and several other members of the community are drawn into the melee. Amidst ensuing mayhem, Raheem is killed by the NYPD, who strangle him with a nightstick in a scene that is eerily reminiscent of a lynching. The police officers eventually flee the scene with Raheem's remains in tow, leaving members of the community behind to grieve and denounce the injustice of this killing and the many others that preceded it. In an act of defiance, Mookie (played by Lee himself), the pizzeria's lone black employee, hurls a trash can through the pizzeria window, leading to the fiery destruction of Sal's prized establishment.
On the heels of the June 30, 1989, release of the film, twenty years ago this summer, director Spike Lee detected a pattern in how white critics were discussing the film: "They never talk about the death of Radio Raheem at the hands of the police. They talk about Mookie smashing the window and the pizzeria burning down."
Recalling reactions to the film's violent climax, Lee would later remark, "If in a review, a critic discussed how Sal's Famous was burned down but didn't mention anything about Radio Raheem getting killed, it was pretty obvious that he or she valued white-owned property more than the life of this young black hoodlum." The frankness of Lee's rhetoric and the film's content led the mainstream media to label him an angry, confrontational filmmaker. In her 1989 Time review of Do the Right Thing, titled "He's Got to Have It His Way," Jeanne McDowell observed, "Looking for racism at every turn, [Lee] finds it." An August 1990 cover of US asked, "Spike Lee: Why Is He So Angry?" And in a classic example of ironic racism, an October 1992 Esquire headline declared: "Spike Lee Hates Your Cracker Ass."
Two decades and considerable mainstream success have done little to change the portrayal of the director and his films. In a New Yorker profile of Lee published last year, writer John Colapinto describes--and thereby confirms--Lee's reputation as that of "a filmmaker obsessed with race." For Lee the consistency with which his films' messages regarding race are overshadowed by fear and paranoia is frustrating to say the least. He recently observed, "White people still ask me why Mookie threw the can through the window. No black person ever, in twenty years, no person of color has ever asked me why."
Black and white audiences tend to read race in radically different ways, as evidenced by the bifurcated responses to real-life incidents ranging from the Rodney King verdict down to the recent dustup over the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. But even this observation conceals a fundamental asymmetry. The dominant culture's typical response is to deny the centrality of race, a position that continues to dismiss African-American reactions as hypersensitive, race-obsessed, pathological, arrogant or rancorous. The privilege of ignoring racism goes even further than a vigorous denial of its salience; through a strange inversion, and as the example of Rush Limbaugh's recent attacks on Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor make clear, people of color who raise the issue--or, in Sotomayor's case, even downplay it--are labeled racist.
As the film reminds us, refusal to accept the legitimacy of nonwhite perspectives has consequences that are all too real. We would do well to recall the fatal shooting of Oscar Grant on New Year's Day by Oakland Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer Johannes Mehserle. As groups such as Human Rights Watch, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement have extensively documented, fatal police shooting victims are disproportionately black regardless of the color of the officer.
Police brutality is but one of many complex issues raised in Do the Right Thing. Community empowerment, gentrification, social mobility, economic opportunity, ethnic competition for space, state authority and racism all figure into the Bed-Stuy matrix. While scholars and activists have long debated the question of racial inequality, with few exceptions, the dominant culture appears steadfast in its blindness to the conditions that necessitate such debates. Just as Lee was frustrated that film critics focused on the loss of white-owned property and not the black man's life, today many are disturbed by the way the media assailed President Obama for claiming that the Cambridge police "acted stupidly" in its handling of Gates's arrest, refusing to contemplate the significance of the president's only half-joking remark that in similar circumstances at the White House he would have been shot.
Lee's film, like most, ultimately offers more complex questions than answers, but its unflinching achievement is its consistent challenge to Americans to grapple with the dynamics of race, class, power, mobility and privilege in ways too few films have done since. Although Do the Right Thing has been frequently criticized for its black nationalist leanings, the film maintains its relevance as a racial Rorschach in which our separate-but-not-equal fears become evident, and points out the contradiction between the rhetoric and tactics of civil rights, the American Dream and the complex reality of black life.
To expand our discussion we invited several scholars, writers and activists to provide their sense of the film's enduring relevance. Here's what they had to say:
In 1989, the year Do the Right Thing was released, I was in my final year of high school in the suburban South. I did not know much about cities, but I knew something of race and its divisive, sometimes overt, but often hidden effects on communities. Do the Right Thing gave voice and shape to my sense of racial discomfort and anxiety. Through the visual it made the consequences of racial inequality and misunderstanding concrete. I've spent the last two decades devoted to academic inquiry and organizing efforts around the issue of race in America. I've never before traced my political, racial commitments to that film, but maybe, just maybe the seeds were planted in that theater.