For a black film and media student at the University of Cape Town, Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing” was a revelation. I watched it first on a DVD one afternoon with my friend Frank in one of the damp tutorial rooms in the Arts Block on Upper Campus, only a few steps away from where the statue of Cecil John Rhodes stood.
Our film history curriculum at that point comprised mostly European and American cinema. Although clearly American, this film offered something completely different. The film first came out in 1989 and took place on a different continent, and yet it was so relatable. Moreover, it was a visceral film experience, a wake-up call, and an affirmation. Watching it again now, it’s eerie (and tragic) how relevant its central theme of racial tension and structural violence still is, both in America and South Africa.
“Do The Right Thing” takes place over the course of the hottest day on a block in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Spike Lee plays Mookie, a 25-year-old who seems to be meandering through life, but is on a mission to get paid. He works at the local Italian pizzeria, Sal’s, where most of the neighborhood eats and hangs out.
The simmering heat of the day (visualized by deep reds and yellows on screen) reflects the tensions between the Italian pizzeria owner, Sal (Danny Aiello) and Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito), the self-appointed neighborhood spokesperson. Buggin’ Out questions the lack of representation of black people on the walls of the pizzeria, which services a mostly black clientele: “Sal, how come you ain’t got no brothers on the wall?” Sal’s hostile response to Buggin’ Out’s provocation leads to a protest that ends in police brutality and the loss of black life, and marks the demise of the pizzeria.
Despite its explosive dénouement, one of the main strengths of the film is the complexity of its characters and the representations of blackness on screen. Lee moved beyond stereotypes of African Americans in cinema and created characters reflected in the everyday. In “Do The Right Thing”, black people are not presented in the traditional binary of subservient and smiling, or violent and dangerous, but rather as more rounded expressions of themselves.
While Buggin’ Out is concerned with black nationalist politics and representation, he also bugs out when a white gentrifier on the block accidentally scuffs his brand new US$100 Jordan sneakers. Even though this infliction is frivolous, it leads to a cathartic (prophetic?) outburst: “Man motherfuck gentrification!”
No one in “Do The Right Thing” is necessarily “heroic”. Even Radio Raheem – the likeable, stylish giant who blasts the film’s opening theme and leitmotif (Public Enemy’s Fight The Power) from a large boombox – imposes his music on others. He is mostly an irritant in the neighborhood. Radio Raheem is unnecessarily confrontational with the Korean shopkeepers, who have recently moved onto the block. It’s reflected in the scene where he goes to them to buy batteries, “I said 20 ‘D’ batteries, motherfucker! Learn how to speak English first, alright?” But, in the same scene he smiles and tells shopkeeper Sonny (Steve Park), “You’re alright, man”, diffusing any threat of real conflict.
Mookie isn’t necessarily noble or likeable, however his actions towards the end of the film disrupt this reading of him and show significant character development. Ironically, there is not that much black and white in this film; the characters live in a world of greys.
Although the film has no typical heroes, it is clearer about its villains, particularly the police. Also there is pizzeria owner Sal’s son Pino (John Turturro), who is openly racist and tells Sal, “I’m sick of niggers.” Sal is more complicated. He sees himself as a good guy who takes pride in feeding the neighborhood. Sal later tells Mookie he sees him as “son”. Despite this, during the film’s climax and in the verbal screaming match between him and Buggin’ Out, he flips and uses racial epithets, telling Radio Raheem to turn off that “jungle music” and hurls profanities like “nigger motherfucker”.
In his book, “BFI Modern Classics: Do The Right Thing”, Ed Guerrero points out that it is Sal who destroys Raheem’s boombox with a bat: “A line is crossed here, from words to physical action.” When that violence escalates and turns fatal, the victim doesn’t need to be an angel for us to have tears in our eyes. He was real, we knew him.
“Do The Right Thing” was partly inspired by the 1986 Howard Beach incident in which a black man, Michael Griffiths, was killed while escaping an angry white mob with baseball bats after exiting the New Park pizzeria. The mob had earlier tried to chase him and his black friends out of the neighborhood. Unsurprisingly, this was only one of the stories that Lee drew from to write “Do The Right Thing”. This story is sadly familiar nearly 30 years later.
In 2016, amidst the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and a never-ending list of unarmed African Americans being killed by police, the film is even more relevant. In 2015, young black men were nine times more likely to be killed at the hands of police than other Americans, and 2016 looks to be on par. In a South Africa where the police killed 34 miners in Marikana for striking for a better life, and where the politics of representation and ownership are still unresolved, the tragic trajectory of “Do The Right Thing” sends chills down your spine.
When the film was released, journalists feared it would spark race riots and hate crimes. There were even warnings issued to white people to avoid seeing the film. Instead, it caused a nation to reflect, and affirmed the black experience around the world. Despite critical and fan acclaim, the film was mostly snubbed by the Academy Awards in 1990, receiving two nominations for Best Writing and Best Supporting Actor (Danny Aiello).
Tellingly, Best Picture went to “Driving Miss Daisy”, which Ed Guerrero calls
the paternalist problem picture with its long-suffering black servant … The contrasts between Morgan Freeman’s rendering of an elderly, humble and enduring Negro servant in “Driving Miss Daisy” and Spike Lee’s portrayal of the feckless, urban youth Mookie could not have been greater in the 1989 Oscar year.
Last year Lee finally won his Oscar at the Academy’s annual Governor’s Awards, an honorary nod for his contribution to cinema.
Filmically, there is so much more to be said of “Do The Right Thing”: its beautiful cinematography, it’s on-point casting (Rosie Perez’s debut as Tina, and Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee as an elderly couple) and its belligerent dialogue (“I’m just a struggling black man trying to keep his dick hard in a cruel and harsh world!”).
The film often breaks the “fourth wall” – the imaginary “wall” that exists between actors and the audience – making us aware of its construction, like in Raheem’s dreamlike love/hate soliloquy and the racial hatred montage. Watching it all these years later, perhaps what’s most impressive is how fresh the film still feels, even down to the classic hip-hop and “Afro-centric” clothes and haircuts (there are many Buggin’ Outs walking the streets of my home city of Johannesburg as we speak).
“Do The Right Thing” was a challenge to Hollywood’s cultural hegemony. Lee fought to get the story told on his terms, exchanging larger financial support for his artistic vision. Most importantly, the film doesn’t offer neat answers, but rather important questions, which haven’t lost any of their urgency today. As a filmmaker, one can only hope to create work with such long-lasting effect.
*This post first appeared on The Conversation Africa. It is republished here with their kind permission.