Set on a city block during the hottest day of the summer in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant (‘Bed-Stuy’), Do The Right Thing follows the character of ‘Mookie’ (Spike Lee), a pizza delivery boy, and a day in the life of the neighborhood residents as the climate gives way to escalating encounters and disputes around culture, ethnicity and community.
Do The Right Thing was Spike Lee’s third feature film following School Daze (1988) and She’s Gotta Have It (1986). The film came a decade removed from the Blaxploitation film cycle and two years before the ‘black film explosion’ of 1991.1 A prolific film auteur, Lee continues to challenge the idea of black film and American cinema.
The opening credits of Do The Right Thing open to the strains of a soprano saxophone rendition of James Weldon Johnson’s ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’. The song ends screen black and the title sequence begins with Public Enemy’s ‘Fight The Power’ and a cut to a stage. Evoking the conceit of the film musical’s opening number, the montage of the sequence features the hip-hop dance of Rosie Perez in multiple costumes against a changing backdrop of Brooklyn photographs backlit by an array of colour schemes. This opening montage is cut to match the movements of Perez’s dance, a dance of militancy and popping contractions with a face that never smiles. She is more than merely a woman to be leered at or reductively posed as an object of pleasure. Her dance signals a cultural politics of hip-hop and what Guthrie Ramsey notes as the mark of ‘a present that has urgency, particularity, politics, and pleasure’. 2 With these two compositions and their distinct spatiotemporal origins, the present of Do The Right Thing demonstrates a century of urgency.
‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ began as a poem by James Weldon Johnson that debuted in 1900. Johnson and Johnson’s brother, J. Rosamond, would set the poem to music and this composition would eventually be dubbed the ‘The Negro National Anthem’ and adopted as the official song of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The NAACP promoted the use of the song as an anthem for the black struggle for access to freedoms and inalienable rights denied by the discriminatory and terrorist practices of white supremacy and the Racial Contract. Moreover, the use of the song during the Civil Rights Movement and its eventual retitling (‘The Black National Anthem’) continued the purposing of the song as black anthem of protest. As Shana Redmond points out,
“Black anthems become incubators not only for a race/sound fusion but also the merger of art and practice. The conditions that give rise to these anthems within diaspora include colonialism, Jim Crow segregation, and myriad legal and extralegal enactments of persistent inequality; therefore liberation and its pursuit are necessarily narrated and exercised in tandem with philosophies and acts of resistance.” 3
Public Enemy offers an anthem less reconciled to the Christian doctrine of social protest and nonviolence but nonetheless remains a song compelled by conditions that animate defiant verse.
While the first song offers the perseverance of faith and belief in inalienable rights, the latter demonstrates a cultural nationalist tact, a more politicised sense of culture and the black lifeworld. Cultural nationalism shifted the meaning of race from the biological to a deliberate posing of race as cultural praxis and a matter of engagement with the anti-hegemonic struggle against white supremacy as embodying features of black personhood. Moreover, the distance between the poles is made plainer with the modal of hip-hop modernism and not that of the sacred verse of gospel. As a sorrow song of what Mark Anthony Neal calls ‘postindustrial soul’, ‘Fight The Power’ offers a sobering and artful discontent from streets far removed from Birmingham, but a relation nonetheless.4
The depth of Do The Right Thing demonstrates the staging of a political art richly informed by multiple historiographies of black visual and expressive culture. The film is propelled by an intersection of history, music, cinema and blackness. This generative nexus of historical scripts encompasses such issues as gentrification, the black public sphere, police brutality, the popular, cultural and ethnic conflict, and the everyday urban. In other words, anti-realist in its stance, the film positions itself in the matrix of black representation as an interpretative echo and refabulation of race and art. The film employs a 24-hour conceit of the hottest day of the summer in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant (‘Bed-Stuy’). This plotting of a ‘day in the life’ amplifies the masterful way the film functions as a discrete representational system. The seamless accounting of the day on the block through continuity editing is facilitated by such things as Mister Señor Love Daddy’s radio broadcast, colour, physical movements, emblematic framing, an intricate orchestration of ensemble casting in the depth of field, and sound bridges. With the deliberateness of the film structure, one learns to watch the film and recognise the spatiality of the setting. Eventually, one recognises that at one end of the block is Mookie and Jade’s building, Mother Sister’s brownstone, the Korean-run grocery, and across the street against the red wall are the corner crew (Sweet Dick Willie, ML, and Coconut Sid). At the other end of the block, starting across from the grocery is Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, the stoop where the Puerto Ricans sit, the station home for 108FM ‘We Love Radio’, and the brownstone owned by the Celtics’ fan. The film details a dynamic community of personalities and histories, a space textured by infinite encounters.
The cohesiveness of this spatial conceit does not comply with the platitudes of Our Town, USA. The film proves that the most rewarding consequence of America as ‘The Melting Pot’ is that the analogy has never worked. We the people are not the same: we have different cultures, belief systems, and freedom dreams. These differences Do The Right Thing (1989) 209 represent at times collateral interests but never truly identical ones. In this way, the interethnic conflicts that circulate up and down the block are but a red herring. Do The Right Thing vitally avoids the classical tact of the social problem film to present the problem of differences as systemic or a result of the idea of America itself. In the social problem film, these staged eruptions of racial conflict are resolved and contained with a tacit framing of our spectatorship in terms of cinematically enacted cures.
As Michael Rogin writes, ‘Hollywood, inheriting and universalizing blackface in the blackface musical, celebrated itself as the institutional locus of American identity. In the social problem film it allied itself with the therapeutic society. Generic overlap suggests institutional overlap; Hollywood was not just Hortense Powdermaker’s dream factory, but also the American interpreter of dreams, employing roleplaying as national mass therapy.’ 5 Social problem films with race as their object choice usually enact a limited and circumspect sense of social problem-solving. In particular, the way these films are saddled with the extra-diegetic responsibilities of reconciliation between the races promotes a dangerously ridiculous sense of film as social policy. After all, what James Baldwin called the ‘price of the ticket’ should mean more than matinee admission. Do The Right Thing poignantly demands that one’s spectatorship entail a recognition of our respective subject positions and/or complicities in a productively non-patronising way.
The central conflict of Do The Right Thing cycles around the issue of How come there ain’t no brothas on the wall? Outraged by the absence of black representation on the pizzeria wall, Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) organises a boycott against Sal’s Pizzeria in response to the ‘Wall of Fame’, a collage of photographs devoted to Italian Americans. The call for economic sanctions echoes the use of these strategies throughout the twentieth century by churches, unions and civic leaders as a way of combatting the economic disenfranchisement of anti-black racism. This call for representation is emblematic of a diacritical sense of value. First, there is the value suggested by economic empowerment of a raced consumer-citizen. Second, there is the measure of culture as value. In this way, the central conflict that accrues over the course of the film becomes that of the political and cultural value of blackness.
However, the film’s vessel of civil disobedience and cultural nationalism is far from sound. Buggin’ Out does not articulate a clear plan of black economic development. His persona is that of empty rhetoric; more hothead than firebrand. Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) lumbers and speaks like a heroic throwback from the mind of Jack Kirby. A laconic giant, his voice and being are embodied by ‘Fight the Power’, the only thing constantly blaring from his boombox. His ‘Love vs. Hate’ direct address constitutes the most that he ever speaks, a gesture to the absurd holyroller ways of Robert Mitchum’s itinerant honeymoon killer in Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955). Yet, this ad infinitum struggle between good and evil, coupled with Raheem’s devotion to the gospel of Public Enemy, frame him as a very textured figure. He wanders throughout Bed-Stuy spreading the word, battling any and all windmills along the way. Every interaction is a contest and exclamation of his being. Finally, closing out the rebel band is Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith). Mentally disabled and physically spastic, Smiley’s speech is as indecipherable as the irreconcilable coupling of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. in the photograph postcards he marks and peddles. Stumbling through the film, Smiley tags his cherished wares in a style imitative of Jean-Michel Basquiat.6
This crisis of representation emblematic of this rebel ensemble embodies the necessary tensions surrounding the political question of black representation and film as an art practice. Specifically, what is the purpose of the term ‘black film’? Does it represent an entirely foreign film practice? Is it merely a reflection of black people, not art but simply black existential dictation? Like all other expressions of the idea of black film, Do The Right Thing should not be thought as mimetically tied to the social category of race. The ‘black’ of black film represents something other than merely people. Instead it must be appreciated in terms of the art of film and enactments of black visual and expressive culture. In this way, film blackness functions as a critical term for the way race is rendered and mediated by the art of film.7
This alienation effect of the film escalates with the final sequence of Radio Raheem’s murder by 210 Do The Right Thing (1989) the police. The broken band of rebels storm the pizzeria and what begins as canted and absurd quickly accelerates. Sal begins a litany of ‘nigger’ and pulls out a baseball bat. He then proceeds to destroy Raheem’s boombox, silencing the roar of the Public Enemy anthem.8 Yes, the film resonates with prejudices and interethnic conflict but it also gestures towards the idea of communities constituted by ambivalences. Regardless, the confusion of this confrontation signals a shattering break. Things have gone too far and as Radio Raheem strangles Sal, pulling him over the counter, the fight spills into the street. The fight draws a crowd and the NYPD arrive. A police hold is administered with a nightstick against Raheem’s neck as he is raised and lynched until his kicks wind down. He is murdered. Radio Raheem is dead.
A void appears in the quick exit of the police with a corpse and Buggin’ Out in tow. There is the mournful calm of what has happened and how it has come to this. Mookie they killed him. They killed Radio Raheem. A divide appears, with Mookie, Sal, Pino and Vito on one side and the witnesses from the neighbourhood frozen still, growing angrier in the street. Everyone is a stranger; everyone is revealed. Murder. They did it again. Just like Michael Stewart. Murder. Eleanor Bumpers. Murder.9 The extradiegetic victims of murder at the hands of the police (not persons unknown) now have Raheem among their ranks. Mookie walks away before returning into this breach, throwing a garbage can through the pizzerio’s window. Fireman and police readied in riot gear arrive and the historical rupture is complete. Even in the absence of Birmingham’s finest with German Shepherds at hand, Sweet Dick Willie makes it plain: Yo where’s Bull Connor?10 Smiley begins a new Wall of Fame amid the wreckage by tacking one of his postcards on the smouldering wall: finally some brothers are on the wall. But, was this really what it was all about? Smiley with his ever-delirious visage appears to be the only one to claim some semblance of a victory.
The day after brings the new normal of an awkward, yet tender, meeting between Mookie and Sal. In the end, Mister Señor Love Daddy broadcasts the only available closure – a reminder to register to vote and a mournful shout-out to Radio Raheem.11 The film ends with scrolling citations from Martin Luther King Jr. and X before the film’s final image: the King and X photograph. The offering of these two contrasting political positions – the immorality of violence and the pragmatism of self-defence – is one of the major reasons that the film continues to haunt, inspire, and provoke. For only there on the screen does their proximity hint at some kind of dialectical resolve or compatibility. Do The Right Thing orchestrates the tensions and distinctions between social categories of racial being and the art of film. The film is a question masquerading in the form of a call to action. In other words, the film functions in a way too irresolute to be thought of as merely provocative protest. If the film is troubling, so be it. Killing the messenger has always been convenient, but it never truly disavows that a message has been sent. Always do the right thing. That’s it? That’s it. I got it. I’m gone.
Michael B. Gillespie
1. For more on the history of the Blaxploitation cycle and the significance of 1991, see Ed Guerrero, Framing Blackness, Philadelphia, PA, Temple University Press, 1993.
2. Guthrie Ramsey, Race Music: Black Cultures from Be Bop to Hip-Hop, Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 2003, p. 178.
3. Shana L. Redmond, ‘Citizens of Sound: Negotiations of Race and Diaspora in the Anthems of the UNIA and NAACP’, African and Black Diaspora: An International Journal, Vol. 4, No. 1, 2011, p. 22.
4. See Mark Anthony Neal, What The Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture, London and New York, Routledge, 1999, pp. 125–57.
5. Michael Rogin, Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot, Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 1998, p. 221.
6. The photograph was taken on March 26, 1964, in the halls of the United States Capitol Building during Senate debates on the Civil Rights Bill. It documents the only meeting between the two men and lasted only a few minutes.
7. For more on ‘film blackness’, see Michael B. Gillespie, ‘Reckless Eyeballing: Coonskin, Film Blackness, and the Racial Grotesque’, in Mia Mask (ed.), Contemporary Black American Cinema: Race, Gender and Sexuality at the Movies, New York, Routledge, 2012. Also, see the press conference (May 1989) that followed the premiere screening of Do The Right Thing at the Cannes Film Festival. (Available on the Criterion Collection and 20th Anniversary Edition DVD releases of the film.) The insistence by much of the audience on reading Do The Right Thing in social reflectionist terms glaringly illustrates the need to distinguish between black people and black film.
8. The baseball bat references Howard Beach and the death of Michael Griffith. On the evening of 19 December 1986, a group of black men entered a pizzeria in the Queens neighbourhood of Howard Beach seeking help after their car broke down a few miles away. Upon leaving, the men were confronted by a group of Italian Americans from the neighbourhood armed with baseball bats. Attempting to escape from a continued beating by the mob, Griffith was struck and killed by a car on the highway.
9. Michael Stewart was a New York City graffiti artist killed while in the custody of New York Transit Police (1983). Eleanor Bumpers was a mentally ill, African American senior citizen killed by NYPD officers during the eviction from her home (1984).
10.Eugene ‘Bull’ Connor served as Public Safety Commissioner of Birmingham, Alabama (1957–1963). A rabid white supremacist, Connor was responsible for the brutal and violent responses (the use of police dogs and fire hoses against protestors) to the desegregation campaigns spearheaded by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
11.This call to vote was part of Lee’s endorsement of David Dinkins’ mayoral run. Dinkins would be elected New York City’s first African American mayor the following year.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: USA. Production Company: A Forty Acres and a Mule Filmworks Production. Director: Spike Lee. Producer: Spike Lee. Co-producer: Monty Ross. Line Producer: Jon Kilik. Screenwriter: Spike Lee. Cinematographer: Ernest Dickerson. Editor: Barry Alexander Brown. Music: Bill Lee, featuring Branford Marsalis. Cast: Danny Aiello (Sal), Ossie Davis (Da Mayor), Ruby Dee (Mother Sister), Richard Edson (Vito), Giancarlo Esposito (Buggin’ Out), Spike Lee (Mookie), Bill Nunn (Radio Raheem), John Turturro (Pino), Paul Benjamin (ML), Frankie Faison (Coconut Sid), Robin Harris (Sweet Dick Willie), Joie Lee (Jade), Miguel Sandoval (Officer Ponte), Rick Aiello (Officer Long), John Savage (Clifton), Samuel L. Jackson (Mister Señor Love Daddy), Rosie Perez (Tina), Roger Guenveur Smith (Smiley), Steve White (Ahmad), Martin Lawrence (Cee), Leonard Thomas (Punchy), Christa Rivers (Ella), Frank Vincent (Charlie).]
Darby English, How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness, Boston, MIT Press, 2007.
Ed Guerrero, Do The Right Thing, London, BFI Publishing, 2001.
Stuart Hall, ‘What is this “black” in black popular culture?’ and ‘New Ethnicities’ in David Morely and Kuan-Hsing Chen (eds), Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, New York, Routledge, 1996, pp. 468–78.
Spike Lee with Lisa Jones, Do the Right Thing, New York, Fireside, 1989.
Mia Mask (ed.), Contemporary Black American Cinema: Race, Gender and Sexuality at the Movies, New York, Routledge, 2012.
Paula J. Massood (ed.), The Spike Lee Reader, Philadelphia, PA, Temple University Press, 2007.
W. J. T. Mitchell, ‘The Violence of Public Art: Do the Right Thing’, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 16, No. 4, Summer, 1990, pp. 880–99.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.