“…seemed too preoccupied with saying everything at once instead of giving things the time they needed to marinate…”
When racial tensions mimic the weather and reach a boiling point, a Brooklyn block and its residents have to learn how to live with one another in Spike Lee’s 1989 hit film Do the Right Thing. There is a lot to unpack here, so I’m just going to jump right into it.
Do the Right Thing is a very complex film. It deals with a lot of issues, but does so in a way that I appreciate. That being said, I do believe that Spike Lee bit off a little more than he could chew with a few of the messages presented. What I enjoyed about Do the Right Thing was the scale at which Spike Lee identified and tried to resolve a lot of the issues he saw in America at the time. He didn’t start off the film with a smorgasbord of information and expect the audience to pick up the pieces and follow along, but instead he laid out the story in a very intelligent manner starting large and then focusing in to help guide the audience along.
First up we have what I would argue is the central theme of the film: Love vs. Hate. As outlined in the wonderful monologue delivered by Radio Raheem, the world seems to be at the mercy of Hate more often than not. But, as described by this pillar of the community, Love is not to be forgotten just yet. Because although Hate may seem like the more powerful of the opposing forces, when used correctly and by enough people Love will triumph. At least that is what was believed in this portion of the film, which may be seen as naive when the credits start to roll. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Do the Right Thing then takes this abstract idea of Love vs. Hate and grounds it in reality with the commentary on race relations. Spike Lee utilizes an area of Brooklyn as a representation of the world. Here we see people of different backgrounds and creeds interacting on an almost daily basis. It truly is the lab in which Lee conducts his social experiment. I say experiment, but Do the Right Thing is truly more of a proof of concept. Lee understands that racial tensions in America are at a dangerous point, and he uses the medium of film to prove this.
And this also explains the film’s major plot device: the heatwave. Throughout Do the Right Thing we are practically bombarded with the fact that this particular day is the one of the hottest of the year. This is an interesting device to use because although weather is something that can unite people as a shared experience, it also serves as the catalyst for a lot of the film’s points. Once again Lee understands that the race relations in America, and even the world, are just one bad day away from igniting; so to help this along Lee turns up the heat.
So we have the idea of Love vs. Hate, and we have the idea of racism, but Lee focuses even more. Although Do the Right Thing centralizes a lot on everybody being nice to everybody, as made apparent with Mr. Señor Love Daddy’s speech that follows a slur of epithets spouted by multiple characters, Lee understands that he can’t speak for everybody. He uses his own personal experiences and ethnicity to give us a more focused look at the black community. This is interesting because we not only get to see the reactions of the black community with other communities, but also the very apparent infighting that takes place within their own ranks.
Lee outlines the camaraderie in the black community and the united front they often hold, but also the dissension in the ranks as made apparent by the group of individuals arguing with Da Mayor. This scene shows us that there is hate even amongst similar groups, and it solidifies the point that was made earlier about Hate seemingly being all-powerful.
Do you see what I mean about Spike Lee biting off a little more than he can chew with all of these messages?
Well they don’t stop there because the final act of the film introduces yet another message, and this is where the movie kind of lost me. In what is one of the more explosive climaxes to a film that I’ve ever seen we see how all of these different groups are treated by one final group: the police. Of course the police in this scenario represent a much larger issue (the government), but they also represent the police themselves. It is no secret that police brutality still plagues the world with people in positions of power utilizing that power to assert dominance over groups of minorities; and Lee does a good job of outlining this. My problem with this particular message is the placement.
Lee spent the better part of two hours for the most part talking about how we should all be nice to each other because racism goes all ways, but the final act seems almost like a distraction from that fact. That point wasn’t resolved before the police showed up, so to me it kind of seems like Lee struggling to shift gears at the end of a race. Lee spent the entirety of Do the Right Thing repeating to us that “everyone has to be nice”, but that very abruptly changed to “fuck the police” right before the credits started to roll. I don’t disagree with either of these viewpoints, but the latter seems rather tacked on to an otherwise hopeful story.
This juxtaposition makes a little more sense when the film presents to us quotes from both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, men who held differing ideas on how to achieve the same goal. The repetition of this theme of these two prominent figures throughout the film helped sell the fact that this is what Lee was going for the whole time, but then why not give equal time to both ideas? Was he trying to outline how ridiculous the idea of “choose love” is when placed in the real world? Was he trying to unite people of all ethnicities against the police? I think to theorize anymore would be futile because I’m not Spike Lee. It would be almost impossible to know what was going on in his head at the time of writing this movie, so it just has to exist as a very powerful anomaly.
Although this feels out of place at the end of an otherwise theoretical review of Do the Right Thing, I did want to quickly mention the sound design in the film. As I mentioned before Spike Lee utilized the heat in Do the Right Thing to kind of speed up the process of a race war (for lack of a better term), but obviously the audience can’t feel a movie. So what did Lee do to account for this? Sound. The sound design in Do the Right Thing is brilliant because it is so disorienting. Never is there silence, and rarely can you understand what characters are saying. This, much like it did a few times with the character of Radio Raheem, causes people to get angry. When you lose one of your senses, especially when a movie only requires two, you become agitated. The use of overlapping sounds and ‘poorly’ (in a traditional sense) mixed audio immerses us in this world by agitating us. When characters are yelling over one another we feel that anger, not particularly because we are attached to what we are seeing but because we are vying to understand what we are seeing. This was a brilliant choice that really elevated Do the Right Thing from something that exists as a message to something that the audience can directly relate to, even if racism has never impacted their life personally.
Overall Do the Right Thing is a very important movie. Although I found the middle to drag at points, I can not deny the message that it delivered. What I wasn’t a fan of was that it didn’t stop at one message. The film seemed too preoccupied with saying everything at once instead of giving things the time they needed to marinate, especially towards the end.
I give Do the Right Thing a B