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How ‘Do the Right Thing’ rings true 31 years later

| Friday, October 16, 2020

Jackie Junco | The Observer

On May 25, 2020, I, like so many other Americans, witnessed the disturbing video of George Floyd dying after a white police officer knelt on his neck for over eight minutes — an image that has unfortunately become all too familiar. Seeing the video immediately reminded me of Spike Lee’s magnum opus, “Do the Right Thing,” a film that, 31 years later, remains as pertinent as ever.

“Do the Right Thing” captures the nuance and complications of race relations in a way few other films before or after have been able to. Spike Lee does a meticulous job of capturing the sights and sounds of the Brooklyn neighborhood through his set design, making tensions feel palpable with each shot on screen. Not only that, but he effortlessly balances numerous characters that drive those tensions — not typical within a Hollywood film — transitioning from one character’s plot line to the next with ease.

Taking place over the course of a day in the diverse Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, the film’s conflict revolves around the various ethnic groups that live there and the racial tensions that exist between them. Mookie (played by Lee), is the central protagonist, a pizza delivery man for Sal’s Pizzeria, a local joint owned by an Italian-American (Sal) and his two sons. When Sal refuses to add, at the request of the excitable local, Buggin’ Out, pictures of African-American heroes to his Italian-American “Wall of Fame,” it triggers a chain of events that destroys the lives of everyone in Bed-Stuy.

At the heart of this conflict is Radio Raheem, a character who goes about his day blasting Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” through his prized boombox. In one of our first encounters with Raheem, he delivers a touching monologue to Mookie about the “love” and “hate” rings he wears on his hands, explaining the constant conflict that exists between the two forces and the idea that they ultimately go hand in hand (in regards to the fight against racial inequality). Throughout the film, the volume of Raheem’s boombox (and his refusal to turn it down) puts him at odds with numerous residents of the neighborhood, including —eventually — Sal.

After being forced to turn off his boombox in Sal’s Pizzeria, a frustrated Raheem later marches into Sal’s alongside Buggin’ Out, once again blasting “Fight the Power” (this time, in protest). Sal responds by spewing racial expletives at Raheem and destroying his precious boombox, resulting in the two characters getting into a fight that ultimately ends in the street. Sal’s overt racism in this scene reminds the viewer that prejudice often lies underneath the surface and may
not be readily apparent.

Once the police show up, they choke Radio Raheem to death in front of many of the neighborhood’s residents, an image reminiscent of not only George Floyd’s death, but Eric Garner’s, as well as the other Black lives lost at the hands of police. Like so many unjust Black deaths that happen as a result of police brutality, Raheem’s was caused by something insignificant — the volume of a boombox — just as George Floyd’s death is allegedly linked to a counterfeit bill.

After Raheem’s death, Mookie throws a trash can through the window of Sal’s, yelling “hate” (a callback to Raheem’s rings, with Mookie ultimately choosing “hate”). At this point, a riot ensues, paralleling the riots that have taken place over the last few months.

Mookie and Sal, standing in the ruins of the pizzeria the following morning, reflect the images of what many have been experiencing in their own neighborhoods, with no solution to the events from the previous night found and the divisions within their community (and society at large) remaining.

The film ends with a black screen containing quotes from both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, two civil rights leaders who differed vastly in their vision toward solving racial inequality. The ambiguity of this ending still applies today, showing the unresolved nature of racial inequality and police brutality in America.

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