“Do the Right Thing ends the morning after Radio Raheem’s death, but we have enough details to know how the rest of the narrative will play out. Radio Raheem was always scowling. He liked aggressive hip-hop. He wore brass knuckles. He tried to choke Sal and resisted arrest. He will be forced into the same narrative role as Michael Brown, and his killer, an anonymous white cop, will go free. The comic strip world resets for the next day’s paper.”
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Do the Right Thing wasn’t ahead of its time. It was behind its time, and it’s ahead of ours. It came out in the summer of 1989, six months before Driving Miss Daisy, but if you can imagine it without hip-hop, it could have come out in 1939 alongside Gone with the Wind; without color, in 1929 with The Jazz Singer; without sound, 1915 and The Birth of a Nation. If you updated the soundtrack and the fashion a bit and released it next week, critics would praise its timeliness and how its depiction of police brutality and racial tension captures the angry zeitgeist surrounding the recent killings of unarmed black civilians by police officers. Some might even predict that it would ultimately end up feeling dated, as some did 25 years ago. If only.
It’s tempting to look for a greater film somewhere else in Spike Lee’s body of work, something more recent or less popular, the product of a more seasoned and mature director. Declaring his third feature film his best casts a shadow over everything he’s done since, but there’s no getting around it. Herman Melville wrote a lot of good books, but only one of them was Moby-Dick, and he wrote it when he was 32, the same age Lee was when he made Do the Right Thing.
Like Melville’s, Lee’s masterpiece has the primacy of a fable and the density of a novel. Focused on the events of a single hot summer day on a single block in Brooklyn, it begins as a sort of comic urban pastorale about a pizzeria and the colorful neighborhood around it, but, as tempers and temperatures rise, it gradually transforms into a frenzied tragedy of racial violence. By the end, an unarmed black man has been killed by the police, the pizzeria has been burnt down in the ensuing riot, and the weather forecast says that it’s only going to get hotter and hotter.
The tonal shift is jarring, but feels natural thanks to how effortlessly the eclectic cast of neighborhood denizens carries the drama. The ensemble performance is one of the most intricate and perfectly balanced in American cinema. You instantly sense that these people have been around each other for years and have been through it all before. Most of the characters have eccentric cartoonish names that play off definitive elements of their personalities: Mookie, Radio Raheem, Buggin’ Out, Mother Sister, Da Mayor, Slick Dick Willie, Coconut Sid, Mister Señor Love Daddy, Smiley. Even the white characters’ “normal” names seem outlandish when you consider that Sal, the Italian-American owner of the pizzeria, is most likely first- or second-generation American-born, yet he still names his sons Pino and Vito. Combined with the expressionist crayon box color palette of pastels and primary colors, this makes them all feel like comic strip characters, concisely detailed and cleanly outlined, and, like the cast of Peanuts and Popeye, they seem to exist outside the normal passage of time. They live through the story, but the denouement returns their colorful world to stasis, and the compressed setting and time frame reinforces the comic strip milieu. No one ever leaves the neighborhood, and it doesn’t seem like anyone can.
Right off the bat, the film plays games with our narrative expectations. As a slice of life work of folk art, it truly is an ensemble story, but we’re introduced to it through Mookie (played by Lee himself), the deliveryman for Sal’s Famous Pizzeria. The first scene (after the brilliant opening credits sequence) is Mookie waking up to his alarm clock, a drab cliché that Lee uses to ironically overemphasize Mookie’s role as protagonist. We instantly assume that, as the nominal hero, whatever his flaws, Mookie will play a pivotal role in the film’s climax. He’s played by the film’s director, and we first explore the neighborhood as he goes to work and delivers pizzas. Everything points to Mookie as the character we are supposed to identify with, perhaps even an author surrogate whose actions in some way represent Lee’s own agenda. When Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) tells Mookie to “always do the right thing,” we anticipate him having to resolve an ethical crisis, one that resonates with the film’s title and contextualizes everything with some kind of meaning.
As the pizzeria is closing, when it’s dark outside and we know the narrative is winding up to its highpoint, three men come to confront Sal (Danny Aiello) about the fact that his pizzeria’s Wall of Fame only has photographs of Italian-Americans and no black people. One of the three men is Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), a quiet man who always carries a boombox that plays Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” on a loop. Radio Raheem tells Sal to put some black faces on the Wall of Fame. Sal tells Radio Raheem to turn the music down. Both refuse. Everyone starts yelling. Sal smashes the boombox with a baseball bat, Radio Raheem attacks him, and, eventually, the cops show up. One of them strangles Radio Raheem to death and a mob forms. It’s a testament to the film’s complex and elegant writing that it’s almost impossible to explain exactly how and why this conflict comes to a head without detailing most of the film’s plot, and I’ve left out many important details, but it all comes down to Mookie making the critical decision to throw a trash can through the pizzeria window, which sparks a riot that leaves the pizzeria ablaze.
Did Mookie do the right thing? The question assumes that Mookie’s story is the one that matters, and to ask it is to fall into Lee’s seductive narrative trap. The rapid pace with which the fight snowballs into a riot makes the death of Radio Raheem feel like one of a series of incidents leading to Mookie’s decision and the burning of the pizzeria. A fire may be more visually impressive than a bloodless strangling, and it’s a satisfying culmination of the film’s use of heat as a visual motif, but it’s only the two-faced narrative structure that pushes Mookie as the hero that obscures the fact that Radio Raheem’s murder is the point of greatest emotional gravity. This, of course, is the narrative we always get in the United States. The story of the black person who reacts to racist violence is privileged over the story of the black person destroyed by it, with riots and the destruction of white property treated as conclusions rather than epilogues. The narrative doesn’t make room for the question of whether or not the cop did the right thing.
The greatest source of stress and anxiety in Mookie’s life is constant pressure to live up to other people’s expectations, to conform to their narratives of what his life should be. His girlfriend, Tina (Rosie Perez), wants him to be a proper father and a better provider for their son. His sister, Jade (Joie Lee), wants him to get an education and a better line of work. His friend Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) wants him to be politically active, Sal wants him to be industrious at work, Da Mayor wants him to be morally upright. All Mookie seems to want to do is get paid, get laid, watch baseball, and spend some time – but not too much time – with his family. He even seems to enjoy his job delivering pizzas, which, while low paying and aggravating, is easy and allows a lot of downtime. In other words, he’s a two-bit slacker, likeable but not admirable, yet the death of Radio Raheem and the community’s polarization against Sal and the pizzeria burdens him with having to make a decision for his entire neighborhood, borough, city, people, and nation. The exhausted look on his face after he throws the trashcan betrays just how little pleasure he takes in having to participate in this narrative. It’s the dehumanizing pain of being a synecdoche.
It’s not just Mookie who struggles against the riptide of the film’s narrative. Nearly all the characters can be read as a caricature of a certain ghetto story archetype, a stand-in for a subset of ethnic communities, but this is another one of Lee’s clever misdirections. The performances are too nuanced, the writing too suggestive of alternate narrative possibilities to allow us to seriously interpret any one character as a mere symbol. Da Mayor, for instance, frequently feels like Lee’s take on the inebriated black sage, the old man who’s been in the neighborhood forever and seen everything and dispenses advice and stories that don’t always make sense (not unlike Richard Pryor’s Mudbone), but when he turns out to be the only black person to try and defend Sal and his sons from the angry mob, he simultaneously feels like an Uncle Tom and the sole voice of reason. Such paradigm shifts highlight how easily and instinctively we categorize human beings, fictional or not, into narrative roles, regardless of how appropriate or ethical doing so may be.
Likewise, Da Mayor’s ambivalent romantic relationship with a local landlord, Mother Sister (Ruby Dee), is the stuff of an epic August Wilson play, with hints of a checkered past going back decades, but we never see get to see it played out. The fact that the two actors were one of the most famous married black couples in show business adds to the film’s uncanny sense of people being forced to act out narrative roles. Like Tracy and Hepburn, both performers are brilliant and brilliant together, but we can never not see Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. There’s a poignant moment the morning after the riot when Da Mayor and Mother Sister look out the window, more or less directly into the camera, with expressions of cautious hope and weariness. They’re somewhere between Pirandello and Pinocchio, characters looking to break free from their author and the frames he’s built around them, trying to just live their lives independent of the prison of a narrative.
This is not to say that Lee is simply a postmodernist toying with metatextuality. His relationship to such self-reflexivity is ambivalent and restrained. He exerts authorial control out of necessity, but he wants his characters to escape it, to overcome the narrative into which they’ve been plunged. The fact that they never do so is one of the film’s lingering anxieties, one reflected in the limitations of film’s tight structure and measured pacing. At all turns, Do the Right Thing seems ready to burst into the rhizomatic sprawl of a Robert Altman film, but Lee constantly pares it back down. The result is entertaining, dramatically sound, and deceptive, as is any narrative imposed upon a senseless tragedy, but Lee’s constant insistence on dialectics (expressed most bluntly by the film’s closing quotes by Martin Luther King and Malcolm X) discourages taking it at face value.
One of Do the Right Thing’s most striking scenes, one that breaks the fourth wall more than anything else in the film, is a series of stream-of-conscious inner monologues of absurdly complicated racist insults, performed as soliloquies directly into the camera. It starts with Mookie and Pino (John Turturro) spewing stereotypes about each other’s respective ethnicities, which, while stylistically unexpected, seems to flow logically from the previous scene, where they had just been arguing about Pino’s aversion to blacks. Then, three peripheral characters show up to do the same thing: Stevie (Luis Antonio Ramos), a Puerto Rican, attacks Koreans; the local white beat cop (Rick Aiello), who later kills Radio Raheem, attacks Puerto Ricans; and the Korean grocery store owner, Sonny (Steve Park), attacks Jews.
What starts with a “balanced” racist binary – Italian versus black – explodes into an endless chain: blacks versus Italians versus Puerto Ricans versus Koreans versus Jews, etc. There are no Jews in the film to take it to the next step, but the implication is that, without local radio DJ Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson) interrupting them and telling them to “cool that shit out,” it could continue ad nauseam. There’s comfort in being angry at something as dramatically satisfying as a binary opposition and the narrative of Us versus Them that comes with it, but reality isn’t that simple. The tighter Lee’s characters clutch to these dichotomies, the faster they spiral into the dangerous hyperreality of their cartoon world. Whenever characters become angry, the mise-en-scène shifts to hostile close-ups, Dutch angles, and rapid editing. When they calm down, the film returns to level medium shots with multiple characters in the frame, a more realistic mode that suggests the possibility – if not the likelihood – that the atmosphere of aggression reflected in the film’s hyperbolic style can be dissolved.
The link between anger and racism throbs under the entire film, a psychosocial premise that would seem a bit simplistic if it weren’t for Lee’s empathy for his characters. In the confrontation at the pizzeria, Sal is being totally sincere when he calls Public Enemy “jungle music” and calls Buggin’ Out a “nigger,” but he’s no less sincere in earlier, calmer scenes when he says how proud he is that the local kids grew up eating his food and that he thinks of Mookie as his son. There’s a touch of racist delusion in Sal’s image of himself as a neighborhood father figure, and he doesn’t seem to have much of a reaction to Radio Raheem’s death, but Lee and Aiello give us too many mitigating details to dismiss him as just a closet bigot. Consider how the camera hangs on Sal in close-up as his pizzeria burns so we empathize with him, a stylistic maneuver that may be another one of Lee’s tricks, or sincere, or both. It’s also worth remembering that, while the words don’t carry the same weight, Sal doesn’t say the word “nigger” until Buggin’ Out calls him a “guinea” first, after which a sort of racist panic seizes him like an airborne fever.
Sal ultimately emerges as the film’s most complex and conflicted character, one whose id and superego have equal pull and whose internal struggle most clearly reflects Lee’s agenda of fiery dialectics. While we may not fully understand Sal’s racist outburst, we can at least empathize with it. He’s been angry at Buggin’ Out all day. It’s hot. Everyone is yelling, he’s trying to close the pizzeria, and Radio Raheem won’t turn down his music. Sal doesn’t realize that asking Radio Raheem to turn down his music is the same as Buggin’ Out asking him to take down the photos of Italian-Americans on the wall, and the mocking tone he uses when he says “I just killed your fucking radio” is painfully oblivious, but even this kind of everyday lack of social awareness is easy to relate to, if not necessarily its intensity. It might be a scene from a farce if it didn’t catalyze so tragically along racial lines. In the end, Sal and Radio Raheem both lose their tempers, they both lose their most valuable possessions, and they both lose a sense of identity, but only Radio Raheem gets killed by the police. Sal’s personal prejudice, all too human in its emotional immediacy, is overtaken by the impersonal institution of racism, a toxic element in the atmosphere as oppressive as the heat wave and as difficult to pinpoint.
Lesser films that have copied Do the Right Thing, like Paul Haggis’ cheesy and pretentious Crash, have reduced much of this material to the simple idea that everybody is racist, a cynical nugget that disingenuously levels the playing field and helps no one. Lee refuses to take the easy way out and make his white character metonyms of the white power structure from which they passively benefit. Pino, Sal’s oldest son, is the only character ever shown espousing racist ideas when not angry, but even his motives and desires are ambiguous. While a white racist may push through the cognitive dissonance to enjoy an Eddie Murphy movie or a Prince album, Pino at least feels awkward when forced to explain why he considers them “more than black.” He even admits to reading Louis Farrakhan in an attempt to better understand black people, hardly the behavior of a stone-cold white supremacist. Mookie’s assertion that Pino secretly wishes he was black seems to come out of left field, but Pino’s sheepish grin when he denies it betrays an element of truth that he can’t openly acknowledge. If Sal’s Famous Pizzeria were in Montpelier, Vermont, Pino, with his name and accent and pizza apron, would be more of an ethnic ghetto stereotype than Mookie, and they both know it. When he tells his father that he wants to leave Bedford-Stuyvesant because he’s “sick of niggers,” part of it is that he envies what he perceives as a unified sense of community among the blacks around him.
Of course, this unity is itself a racist fantasy. Mookie is patient and courteous enough to get along with everybody, and Jade and Mother Sister share a refreshing female-driven scene free of interpersonal strife, but otherwise black people in Do the Right Thing are seldom seen being warm or friendly to one another. The three men who sit on the corner all day – ML (Paul Benjamin), Slick Dick Willie (Robin Harris), and Coconut Sid (Frankie Faison) – mostly argue and insult each other. Radio Raheem, Buggin’ Out, and Smiley are all outcasts who team up to confront Sal mainly because nobody pays attention to them as individuals, and Sal is nicer to Da Mayor than most of the black people in the neighborhood. Even Mister Señor Love Daddy, the compassionate one-man Greek chorus, gets angry and didactic, and, in any case, he never leaves his broadcast booth to interact with anyone directly.
The only time the black characters “unify” is over racist slights, real or imagined: Sal’s Wall of Fame, a white cyclist in a Boston Celtics shirt (John Savage) stepping on Buggin’ Out’s sneakers, an Italian man (Frank Vincent) trying to get the cops to arrest some black kids who sprayed his antique car with water, and the murder of Radio Raheem. Lee treats these incidents with varying levels of humor and severity, and he neither demonizes nor glamorizes either side (if such conflicts can be split into just two sides in the first place). Not all the black people involved take up the banner each time, either, and the ones that do are usually desperate with frustration or have ulterior motives. The complexity of the characters as human beings rubs against their performance in the narrative of “the struggle,” and each instance of enthusiastic participation is counterbalanced by a sense of resentment at having once again been pushed into such a role.
Other than the unforgettable climax and the montage of racist monologues, the film’s most iconic scene is Radio Raheem’s re-enactment of Harry Powell’s “love and hate” speech from Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter, possibly the greatest film ever made about the anxiety and violence inherent to thinking of the world in terms of binary oppositions. It’s a complex and telling way for Lee to challenge us to not just take the film’s “messages” at face value – after all, the speech is originally used as a line of bullshit by homicidal con man – but its most subversive aspect hides in plain sight. Unless you insist on reading the film as a postmodern allegory, the reasonable conclusion is that Radio Raheem, with his own altered version of Powell’s speech and brass knuckles that say “Love” and “Hate,” is a big fan of The Night of the Hunter, but this is hardly (if ever) mentioned by critics eager to unpack the film’s cinephilic references. It’s another way Lee uses his actors and the mise-en-scène to bait us into falling for convenient, familiar, and dishonest narratives. To accept that Spike Lee can make a hip reference to classic Hollywood but Radio Raheem can’t is no different than Pino’s argument that Eddie Murphy and Magic Johnson are “more than black.”
Though singling out one actor from such a perfectly woven ensemble is unfair, Bill Nunn’s performance as Radio Raheem is probably the film’s subtlest and most effective, partly due to how little relative screen time he has. Radio Raheem comes across as an insecure kid, maybe 19 or 20, but Nunn was 35 at the time of filming. Everything from his deliberate gait to his affected macho scowl suggests someone insecure with his identity, uncomfortable with his body, trying to find something to say and someone to say it to. He even constructs his entire public persona around fashion and a narrow taste in music, hallmarks of an American teenager, but he’s a grown man. He clings to his eponymous boombox wherever he goes, rarely speaking or emoting inside his protective bubble of music, but he comes alive when he performs the “love and hate” speech and sets his boombox down without a fuss to do it. Nunn’s movements in this moment suggest a gentle relief after the active, tense restraint he shows elsewhere. Radio Raheem doesn’t want to carry the boombox around, but he has nothing else. Nobody is particularly interested in him without it. Even Mookie has a lukewarm reaction to the “love and hate” speech and doesn’t seem curious about where it comes from.
The tragedy of Radio Raheem, other than his senseless death, is that we’ll never know his story. Why won’t he smile? What has happened to him to make him so quiet, so strong yet so vulnerable? With his muscular build and unflinching face, he looks like Atlas carrying the world as he lugs the enormous boombox on his shoulders, and there is a weight pressing down on him. The world infantilizes him, dismisses him. Lee slyly puts his leitmotif in the opening credits to signal the character’s ultimate eminence, but it’s buried under more traditional narrative devices. Do the Right Thing is the story of the last day of Radio Raheem’s life, but Mookie is the protagonist. Radio Raheem is a peripheral character in his own life. That’s what makes his death all the more striking: we do not expect a character as insignificant to the plot as Radio Raheem to be killed so dramatically. He’s as invisible to us as he is to his neighbors. His silent pains go unremarked upon as he drags his boombox from scene to scene, waiting for a chance to break out of his shell, only to be murdered by the state and transformed into a temporary martyr. Once you know his fate and watch the movie a second or third or tenth time, it’s hard not to see the boombox as a cross.
On August 9, 2014, an unarmed black 18-year-old boy named Michael Brown was shot to death by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. The weeks and months that followed produced riots and peaceful protests alike, but the media coverage quickly turned to irrelevant details of Brown’s personal life (drug use, domestic problems, taste in music, etc.), implicitly or explicitly trying to paint him as responsible for his own death. As internet humorist and pop essayist Ezekiel Kweku put it at the time, the real debate in American discourse was not trying to decide whether or not the cop was a criminal, but “whether or not Michael Brown was a nigger” because “[a] dead human being is a tragedy that needs to be investigated and accounted for, [but a] dead nigger doesn’t even need to be mourned, much less its death justified.”1 This debate, of course, began weeks before the government of Missouri even saw fit to release the police officer’s name, and months before a farcical grand jury failed to even indict him.
Do the Right Thing ends the morning after Radio Raheem’s death, but we have enough details to know how the rest of the narrative will play out. Radio Raheem was always scowling. He liked aggressive hip-hop. He wore brass knuckles. He tried to choke Sal and resisted arrest. He will be forced into the same narrative role as Michael Brown, and his killer, an anonymous white cop,2 will go free. The comic strip world resets for the next day’s paper.
A more naive or less politically conscious filmmaker may have given us the rest of Radio Raheem’s story, or even the cop’s, but that’s not the narrative we ever get in America. The film is hyperbolic and expressionistic, but its sense of political reality is completely realistic. The white cop is one of the most one-dimensional characters in the film, a dramatic gap that reflects the American public discourse. The racist narrative that Lee employs with bitter irony not only dehumanizes Radio Raheem to the point where the destruction of his body feels less devastating than the destruction of a restaurant, but also dehumanizes the white cop by absolving him of culpability. Caught up in the exhilarating momentum, he simply acts as an agent of the narrative, a functionary of racist violence with no free will to speak of, and there is no spare time to contemplate his motives. This is an unsatisfying – unacceptable – depiction of someone who killed a fellow human, but it’s the narrative that’s exercised every time this happens. Lee is a humanist, but he does not sugarcoat.
The film implicitly asks us to see Radio Raheem as a metonym for all black victims of white racist violence, but it’s another ambivalent trap. Radio Raheem can be a Christ figure in some senses – even the literal second coming of Jesus could face the same fate if he looked like Radio Raheem – but he’s no paragon, and reducing him to a type is just another way of dehumanizing him. Likewise, Eric Garner, an unarmed black man strangled to death by the NYPD in July of this year, feels like a Radio Raheem figure in the same way Radio Raheem feels like a Christ figure, but to think of either of them in this way – or any other black victims of racist violence – treats them as interchangeable. Lee hints at his own struggle with this ethical dilemma when he dedicates the film to the families of six black people killed by racist violence in New York City,3 figures whom Radio Raheem represents and gives dramatic voice to as a group while simultaneously diminishing them as individuals. Remembering their names isn’t much, but it’s something.
At the end of the film, Mookie, our supposed protagonist, is essentially the same as he was at the beginning. His relationship with Sal is strained, but the film hints at an eventual reconciliation. He hasn’t changed his priorities or his interests. He hasn’t grown or overcome a personal weakness. Neither has Sal, or Buggin’ Out, or Jade, or anyone else. The pizzeria burned down, but the insurance will cover it. The weather’s still hot and the neighborhood’s still poor. All that’s really changed is that Radio Raheem is dead. He dies year after year, screening after screening, never escaping the narrative loop. Every time I watch the film, I want his death to “mean” something, but it never does, and it never will.
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All images are screenshots from the DVD.
- Ezekiel Kweku, “The Parable of the Unjust Judge, or: Fear of a Nigger Nation,” The Toast. http://the-toast.net/2014/11/25/fear-of-a-nigger-nation-on-michael-brown/ [↩]
- The white police officer is actually named Officer Gary Long, but I can’t recall a single instance where his name is shown or heard on screen [↩]
- Eleanor Bumpurs, Michael Griffith, Arthur Miller, Edmund Perry, Yvonne Smallwood, and Michael Stewart [↩]