Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing: A Retrospective Analysis, In The Age of George Floyd.
A look back at a film that has aged incredibly well and remains powerfully relevant today, in its tackling of prejudice, gentrification, police brutality, geriatric Black love and everything else in between.
If you had asked me prior to writing this article, what my favorite spike lee movie was, Malcolm X, Mo Better Blues, School Daze and Get on the bus would be the titles coming out of my mouth.
But I have to confess to great shame that re-watching ‘ Do The Right Thing’ twice in the last twenty four hours, have changed my views irrevocably; only now as a forty three year old man, do I fully appreciate the nuance, freshness and incisiveness of the script, the power of the direction, that Mr. Shelton Jackson, brought to the fore in this great work.
These are my insights and highlights from the various sub-plots and plots of Spike Lee’s magnum opus, on screen.
Radio Raheem had shades of George Floyd
Radio Raheem, played by the late Bill Nunn, who passed away in 2016, was indubitably one of the more iconic characters, whom we encounter at various times in the film. Accompanying Radio Raheem was his booming radio, playing one of the greatest rap tunes from one of the greatest hip hop bands of all time — Public enemy.
Radio Raheem is a man of few words, one, who demands that he is respected and isn’t prepared to back down under any circumstances. When our hero was walking along the Puerto Rican part of the neighborhood, his music is met with opposition, but one of the gentlemen quickly recognizes that in the battle of radios and speakers, there can only be one winner, at which point he backs down and Radio Raheem walks away satisfied.
By the time he takes up bugging out’s offer to boycott Sal’s pizza, our hero’s time had run out, firstly, with the smashing of his radio, by Sal and with the arrival of the police, his murder.
With George Floyd, In the age of the smart phone, the world is treated to nine minutes of the Derek Chauvin’s knee on his neck, In “Do The Right Thing” we are treated to the image of officer Gary Long’s baton wedded firmly to Radio Raheem’s neck for several minutes, despite the warnings of officer Mark Ponte to back down, has to be one of modern cinema’s most distressing scenes. when our hero eventually dies, the names of African American lives lost to the police are called out and in our time, recalling the likes of Philando Castile, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Travon Martin and most recently, Daunte Wright, we are painfully reminded of life, tragically imitating art.
Da Mayor and Mother Sister’s burgeoning love story
Da mayor and Mother sister, played by the late giants of African American cinema and real life couple — Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee — are the beating hearts and conscience of this epic film and at the start of the picture, Da mayor charges Mookie, with an aphorism — Do the right thing, what this means, at this stage, we have absolutely no idea.
A bit later, we meet Mother sister treating Da mayor with great contempt, yet over the course of this swelteringly warm day, we see Da mayor win the heart of the ice cold queen, firstly, by buying her the nicest flowers from the shop, then by saving the life of the young boy, who was seconds away from being hit and eventually by isolating Sal’s family and comforting mother sister, when things completely fell apart.
Depicting black love from the perspective of an often overlooked demographic was heartwarming and spike lee’s direction was absolutely impeccable, here.
Black Economic Determinism Vs Asian Economic Dominance in African American Neighborhoods
ML, played by the late Paul Benjamin, hanging out with his fellow pensioner friends sweet dick willie (the late Robin Harris) and Coconut Sid (Frankie Faison) bemoans the lack of black businesses and wonders why no black individual had seen it fit to exploit the various commercial opportunities in the community, in the way that the Korean family have. ML states that he would support a black business to which sweet dick willie, in his inimitably razor sharp wit, replied that all ML has done is talk and achieved nothing, pointing out that Coconut Sid and ML are immigrants themselves(Foundational Black vs Black Immigrants) and proceeds to buy a can of beer from the Korean shop.
Near Universal Opposition to the Proposed Boycott of Sal’s Pizza
We meet Bugging out, played by a scintillating Giancarlo Esposito, going into Sal’s for a slice, being rebuffed for asking for extra cheese and then kicked out for pointing out the lack of presence of African Americans on the wall, despite their disproportionately huge contribution to his business.
Humiliated by his treatment at the hands of Sal, Bugging out tries to enlist the support of disparate members of the community in boycotting Sal’s and he is met with near universal opposition from the Da Mayor, his young friends and when he presents his case to the three wise men (ML, Sweet Dick Willie and Coconut Sid), not only is he told no, but he is also mercilessly lacerated by sweet dick willie, who says:
What you should be doing, is boycotting the barber, who did this shit to your hair muthafucker!
Needless to say that our protagonist was roundly disappointed in his efforts to get a mass audience for his message. In today’s increasingly polarized world, the questions posed by Bugging out stubbornly refuse to go away, if a business, operating in a predominantly Black neighborhood is unprepared to give back or refuse to recognize iconic historic African American figures, it may find itself being boycotted by the more politically minded members of the community.
The ‘Racist’ Monologues
This is the part, where ‘individuals’ within the communities depicted in the film goes on a rant, a racist monologue, on what it is they dislike about other races, digging out the very worst stereotypes about the race.
Mookie, played by the writer, producer and director of this incredible work, does his, attacking Italian Americans, Pino, depicted by John Turturro, spouts the very worst epithets that anyone can come out with, about Black people, Officer Gary Long does his bit too, attacking Asians and Blacks.
Not to be left out, the Korean shop keeper is revealed as an anti-semite, to which, Samuel L. Jackson’s smooth disc jockey, calls everyone to order, emphasizing our common humanity and the need to look beyond the parochialism of our prejudices.
Homage To The Culture
At the heart of every Spike Lee film is one thing — music. Music capturing our anxieties, fears, sadness, joy and everything else in between. From his debut feature, “She’s gotta have it” to “School Daze” and from “Jungle fever” to “The 25th hour”, and everything else in between, we have been treated to the very best of the culture in Terrence Blanchard, Branford and Wynton Marsalis, Phyllis Hyman, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, to name a few.
Do the right thing is no different, this time, Mister ‘Senor’ Love Daddy portrayed by the legendary Mr. Jackson, takes us through the roll call of every African American artist, through every genre, acknowledging their part in the struggle and thanking them for blessing us with their gift.
Bugging out, the resident Al Sharpton, while doing his hardest to convince his friends to join his efforts to hit Sal’s, where it hurts, is further humiliated when a Celtic t-shirt wearing white guy, brushes past him and messes his Nike sneakers.
Bugging out, predictably, lashes out, at the white owner of a brownstone in Brooklyn, on what exactly he was doing in their neighborhood, to which the white dude said he was born and bred there.
This was in 1989, when the likes of ‘Mother Sister’ owned their property and Jade, Mookie’s younger sister could afford to rent in Brooklyn. Today, that same area, depicted in the 2017 reboot of “ She’s gotta have it” had exclusively white folks living in the Brownstones, save for Nola Darling’s landlord, played by Mrs. Pauletta Washington.
Spike Lee, was highly prescient, in identifying gentrification, as one of the issues that we would be grappling with in a very big way, in today’s world.
Sal’s Family Dynamic
We are introduced to the patriarch of the Italian American family, when Sal rolls by in his white Cadillac to the shop — evidence of his wealth, from 25 years of doing business in the African American community.
Sal, a man not without his prejudices, is pleasant and polite to Da Mayor, happily paying him to have his entrance carefully swept ahead of the opening of the business.
In his treatment of Bugging out and Radio Raheem, he is dismissive, patronizing and condescending all at once and his latent prejudices come to the fore.
Pino is unabashedly racist, ashamed of being part of the family business and if he had his way, would never work in Brooklyn. Despite his overtly racist views and liberal use of the N-word, Mookie, skillfully, dissects and exposes the inherent contradictions of Pino’s world view, making Sal’s older son look like every inch of the idiot, that he is.
Vito, on the other hand, is no compelling personality, but is the polar opposite of his brother, in the sense that, he is never seen espousing the racialist views of his brother. When he and Mookie go to make a delivery to Senor love daddy, we see him holding the door for a black lady, while simultaneously checking out her derriere. Mookie, unsuccessfully tries to get the younger sibling to stand up to the older sibling.
Throughout the movie, you always felt as though Sal’s racist attitudes were bubbling under the surface, waiting for something or someone to trigger them and they came tumbling out, when Bugging out and Radio Raheem stormed the shop at the close of business, demanding to be heard and taken seriously.
The consequences of Sal’s outburst, which led to Raheem’s murder and the subsequent burning down of his shop, all speak to lessons that white society should have learnt from, but haven’t, thirty one years on.
I came a bit late to the party of appreciating this phenomenal work of art, but it has to be stated that in the pantheon of great films directed by Spike Lee, ‘Do the right thing’ sits at the very top.
Thanks very much for reading.