If you listened to me I wouldn’t have to repeat myself like a fucking radio, alright?
Ostensibly a contestation of the viewpoints of Luther King and Malcolm X, these are just frameworks from which we might approach a complex web of relations and consequence – i.e. society. Rather than representation, characters are more than black – not in the sense that Pino has it – but defined by their individual attributes and flaws, a human approach which is in itself defiant of the social forces in play.
Taking place over the course of a blistering hot day, Do the Right Thing chronicles anger and narrowly averted confrontations, as well as the odd act of love, before it inevitably boils over. The heat brings out tempers, and tempers often bring out the hidden. Unlike the ignorant white majority who (to date!) fail to recognise racism outside the likes of Pino spouting “niggers”, the film looks at the real situation, the passive discrimination that holds people down. The historical context of Harlem’s economic situation is important to take into the film. As Malcolm X said in 1964:
The economic exploitation in the Afro-American community is the most vicious form practiced on any people in America. In fact, it is the most vicious practiced on any people on this earth. No one is exploited economically as thoroughly as you and I, because in most countries where people are exploited they know it. You and I are in this country being exploited and sometimes we don’t know it. Twice as much rent is paid for rat-infested, roach crawling, rotting tenements.
This is true. It costs us more to live in Harlem than it costs them to live on Park Avenue. Do you know that the rent is higher on Park Avenue in Harlem than it is on Park Avenue downtown? And in Harlem you have everything else in that apartment with you – roaches, rats, cats, dogs, and some other outsiders disguised as landlords. The Afro-American pays more for food, pays more for clothing, pays more for insurance than anybody else. And we do. It costs you and me more for insurance than it does the white man in the Bronx or somewhere else. It costs you and me more for food than it does them. It costs you and me more to live in America than it does anybody else and yet we make the greatest contribution.
Malcolm, and presumably a good deal of Harlem’s residents, directed their anger at the faces they could see: the Italians, Jewish people, other ethnicities who lived elsewhere but owned the property and local businesses, into which the black residents had no choice but to pour what little money they had.
This is the situation we see in Do the Right Thing. As ML complains of the Korean-owned grocery store in front of him, “A motherfucking year off the motherfucking boat and they already got a business in OUR neighbourhood – a good business!”
More centrally there’s Sal’s Pizzeria. Sal takes great pride in his business, even of its place within the community, but this pride makes him ignorant of the imposition it places on it. Angry at the (insane) cost of extra cheese on his slice, ‘Buggin Out’ questions why there are no black people on the wall of framed photographs, inserts passively showing us De Niro, Pacino – all Italian-American icons. In front, the restaurant is full of black customers – always that way, we’re told. “Since we spend much money here,” argues ‘Buggin’, “we do have some say”, something Sal flatly rejects – “You want brothers on the wall, you get your own place.”
At the end of the day, Sal celebrates a good day’s income and talks warmly to black employee Mookie, who is unmoved. From the audience’s perspective we can question why the extra cheese, as a prominent example, need cost so much if business is going so well. And at the climax of the film, Sal – shown throughout to be much more tolerant than his son Pino – arguably reveals a degree of contempt. “Oh, we’re niggers now?”
Nevertheless, Lee’s film refuses to condemn. The Dr King side of things aspires to relationships that transcend race. “I no white! I black!” blasts the desperate Korean man as the mob approaches his shop, to their bemusement. Earlier, we see Mookie’s friendship with Sal’s younger son Vito contested by Pino. But with Da Mayor’s relationship with Mother Sister, though neither is white, we see cause for optimism for barriers to be broken down. It is the outside world with which Lee has less sympathy – the convertible driver demanding arrests, the police whose failure to see humanity in the community is only a sign of their own lack of it – even the firemen brought in to fight flames but turn their hoses on people, clearly recalling the horrible scenes of Birmingham, Alabama.
The film is stylistically charged, not by whim but as a result of the sheer desperation of Lee’s message. 45 minutes in it briefly breaks into non-diegetic monologues, and elsewhere the camera slides into a first person view such that characters can break the fourth wall, like the end of School Daze. What they say is intended to be very familiar, the director/star ingeniously compelling his audience to place themselves within the film. It is a superb technique to open people to a debate of vital importance, of so much more nuance than “Is racism bad?”
I’ve always held Malcolm X as Spike Lee’s masterjoint, but Do the Right Thing is itself a work of great significance, complexity – with far more to say than I can write about – and massive power. Warrants a place in my top ten.