Why Do The Right Thing is still relevant 30 years later
The Spike Lee film Do The Right Thing premiered in theaters on June 30th, 1989. The film—which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and has been added to the National Film Registry for historical preservation—is back in theaters for its 30th anniversary.
Timeless art often imitates life, and movies are no exception. Arriving at the 30-year anniversary of Do The Right Thing, I’m struck by how the storyline reflects today’s digital world of calling out businesses and corporations on social media. From calls to petition and boycott to death at the hands of police, Do The Right Thing eerily foreshadows contemporary life.
Set in a diverse New York City borough, Spike Lee manifested the impending downfall of a predominantly Black community torn apart by racial tensions after a local pizzeria owner decides not to hang images of Black celebrities in the restaurant. The nuances of the film’s characters, actions, and plot offer many takes on important issues still relevant in 2019, including gentrification, global warming, racism, Black business ownership, police brutality, addiction, and poverty.
The film is dedicated to the families of Eleanor Bumpers, Michael Griffith, Arthur Miller, Edmund Perry, Yvonne Smallwood, and Michael Stewart: six Black people who had been killed in the years leading up to Do The Right Thing. During an interview with Rolling Stone, Spike Lee expanded upon his inspiration behind the film: “I knew I wanted the film to take place in one day, which would be the hottest day in the summer. And I wanted to reflect the racial climate of New York City at that time. The day would get longer and hotter, and things would escalate until they exploded. I’m a New Yorker, so I know that after 95 degrees, the homicide rate and domestic abuse goes up—especially when you get that week-long or so heat wave.”
The outrage present in the film, however, is more complicated than a cruel summer or a simple desire for Black faces on the wall of a local establishment.
Do The Right Thing finds many characters, on all sides, calling their moral obligations into question and wondering what the “right” thing may be. After a local Italian-owned pizzeria is called out for not featuring photographs of Black celebrities on their “Wall Of Fame”—despite being in a predominantly Black and brown neighborhood—the result is a partially failed boycott, a death at the hands of police, and a violent riot that changes everyone in the neighborhood forever.
The storyline and characters of Do The Right Thing remain modern by design. Each character, draped in their own problematic cloaks, endures personal conflicts, both internal and external. Every member of the Bedstuy Brooklyn community shows some level of disdain for and stereotypical beliefs of people not from the same race or cultural background. Mookie (Spike Lee) struggles to take responsibility for his actions at work and at home. Vito, (Richard Edson), Pino (John Turturro), and Sal (Danny Aiello) demonstrate that racism does not only present itself in white hoods and disgraceful slurs. Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), whose past trauma crafted a kind heart, refused to acknowledge and reconcile with a drinking problem.
The character whose story resonates most, however, is Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), the flashy dresser never seen without his boombox. He wears knuckle rings on each hand, spelling out love and hate. The two ideologies metaphorically battle for supremacy, as Radio Raheem struggles to find a balance between the two. “One hand is always fighting the other hand, and the left hand is kicking much ass. I mean, it looks like the right hand, Love, is finished. But hold on, stop the presses, the right hand is coming back. Yeah, he got the left hand on the ropes, now, that’s right. Ooh, it’s a devastating right and Hate is hurt, he’s down. Left-Hand Hate KO-ed by Love.” Radio Raheem says in one scene, explaining to Mookie the meaning behind his jewelry.
Soon, Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) calls on the neighborhood to protest Sal’s Famous Pizzeria after Sal declares he would continue to only display Italians on the pizzeria’s Wall of Fame. Radio Raheem, Buggin’ Out, and Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith), head to the restaurant where Sal, his two sons, and Mookie are preparing the last four slices of the day, and chaos ensues. With his boombox blaring Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power,” Radio Raheem confronts Sal about his recent comments. Tensions rise, and Sal blurts out the n-word before grabbing a baseball bat and destroying his radio. Sal proudly exclaims that he “killed” Radio Raheem’s stereo, and violence begets violence as a brawl breaks out. Radio Raheem, Buggin’ Out, Sal, Vito, Pino, and the neighborhood crew witnessing the incident spill onto the street.
With Da Mayor pleading for the fight to break up, sirens blare and police arrive, arresting Buggin’ Out and putting Radio Raheem into a chokehold. The entire neighborhood yells to let him go, and even a fellow cop claims “that’s enough,” but the cop continues to squeeze Radio Raheem’s neck until his lifeless body crashes to the ground. After realizing that the young man has been murdered, the neighborhood rightfully fires back.
Mookie throws a garbage can through the window of Sal’s and the rest of the neighborhood begins destroying the property and emptying the register, and Smiley sets the pizzeria on fire. He soon returns to the pizza parlor he lit ablaze and places images of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X where, previously, Black portraits had been denied. Following violence, loss of life, and everlasting trauma, the neighborhood’s resilience proves stronger than anyone imagined.
When I watch the movie today and see Radio Raheem die in a police chokehold, it triggers emotions from the real-life murders of Sandra Bland, Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and the other Black lives lost at the hands of cops. Racial tension resulting in a situation where police choose to kill, rather than diffuse and disarm, followed by community rioting feels like a narrative ripped from a recent tweet or news headline—not the climax of a 1989 film.
30 years later, Do The Right Thing forces viewers to examine their own consciousness and ultimately face the sobering reality of America.
I first viewed the film in ninth grade, when a 14-year-old me thought I knew the “right” thing—that the choice was cut and dry. So when I watched the movie back then, I thought to myself, “How could a movie be titled Do The Right Thing when everyone does wrong?” Now I understand that the film bestows lessons in self-awareness and ignites the audience’s moral compass, forcing us to decide who did the “right” thing and who takes the blame. The audience and the characters all must come to terms with who they are and what they stand for.
Spike Lee closed the film with two conflicting quotes, one from Martin Luther King Jr., the other from Malcolm X. The ideals shared by the two leaders of the historic Civil Rights Movement are often tossed into battle against each other by activists and organizers with the same goal but different plans. Whether choosing acts of peaceful protest or a riot, Do The Right Thing teaches us that, in an unjust society, everyone must choose to do something.