Sunday, June 28, 2020

Watching Do the Right Thing in 2020

From Radio Raheem to Eric Garner and beyond, will this country ...

"At the end of the film, I leave it up to the audience to decide who did the right thing." - Spike Lee

If you watch Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, you won't feel like you're watching a movie made three decades ago. Well, maybe you will, but I didn't. I know that I have a nostalgia for all things '80s and '90s and can run on the media from that era forever, constantly amazed at the creativity and beauty that came out of that time. And with music featured prominently by Public Enemy and others in the film, I get all that I want and more out of it. But this movie does more than merely resonate with my admittedly deep nostalgia.

Do the Right Thing tells a story of American racism that hasn't changed all that much over my lifetime. It hurts to see that. I first saw a clip of Do the Right Thing in 2012 as part of Amit Baishya's Theory course at Ball State University. Nearly a decade later, the movie continues to reflect a reality continuing to play itself out on the streets of our country with young black men choked to death and young black women shot and killed by the police.

How many Radio Raheems have disappeared? How many more will die before we collectively agree that enough lives have been lost? Malcolm X says, “The price of freedom is death,” but I hope that freedom for minorities and the disenfranchised in America arrives without filling our cemeteries with young black and brown bodies.

In the movie, the neighborhood drunk, himself an unlikely but lovable hero, tells Spike Lee's character Mookie to "Do the Right Thing." Mookie tries to follow that counsel. But in a neighborhood and country rent by racism, it's not always clear what the right thing is. As Robert Chrisman describes in "What is the Right Thing? Notes on the Deconstruction of Black Ideology" Do the Right Thing leaves one with a melange of contradictory and, at times, confused messages that suggest that the film has no clear vision of racial relations in a m├ętropole" (53). Chrisman points to a plurality of attitudes and perspectives in the movie. Doing the right thing isn't clear when messages abound. Should one fight the power, as a song by Public Enemy admonishes, should we give in to hate for the other, or should we make every attempt to love those around us, even if they are different?

Rhetorical question notwithstanding, differences abound in Do the Right Thing, ultimately leading to violence. During a flashpoint moment, Mookie picks up a garbage can and tosses it through Sal's Pizzeria, inciting the crowd to loot and burn the restaurant. But Mookie doesn't do anything further. He sits across the street in dazed disbelief at the destruction playing out before him, as if he's not sure if he did the right thing or not. He had already been standing up for himself to Sal and Pino, Sal's racist son. But upon witnessing Radio Raheem's death, he's goes beyond words directly to action. Mook is working out the tension between Martin Luther King Jr.'s call for nonviolent protest and Malcolm X's promotion of violence as a catalyst for change.

In the aftermath, Mookie sees that the other right thing is to work to support his girlfriend Tina and their young son, Hector. To this end, he doesn't accept a handout from Sal, but only what he rightfully earned. He doesn't have a ready solution to the difficulties he now faces without employment, in a neighborhood where hate has risen up to overcome love.

As a way forward, the movie offers a lot of suggestions. Maybe we all just need to chill. Or maybe salvation will arrive from an infusion of cash from an insurance claim, the ever present reminder of  capitalism's victory, if not over racism at least over seeing the haves become the have nots. But King's and X's picture is tacked onto the wall at Sal's Pizzeria. So, a recognition of black heroes is gained. All through Do the Right Thing, Lee gives us black heroes. The great accomplishments of black musicians are front and center and midway through the film, we even get a long list of many excellent artists, from Sade to Dr. Dre to Miles Davis.

Probably the most important statement of the movie is that a clearly victorious way forward isn't postulated. Rather, 1989 carried its own nostalgia for the power of the Civil Rights movement and the great cultural achievements of a century's worth of black artists. But, at the same time, that nostalgia is contrasted with a darker picture of black bodies sprayed violently by firehoses and policemen attacking black men in a clear continuum with a deeply racist past.

We've got to break out of that continuum. We've got to do the right thing.

Sources

Chrisman, Robert. “What Is the Right Thing? Notes on the Deconstruction of Black Ideology.” The Black Scholar, 21.2, 1990, pp. 53–57. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41067684. Accessed 28 June 2020.

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