Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) has come back to haunt us. Not as a prophetic vision of racial dysfunction come to pass more than 30 years after the film’s original release, but as an excuse for the misapprehensions on race and America that are now dominating the social square.
Recall that Do the Right Thing, a multi-character panorama of late-’80s black American folklore, climaxes when white cops who answer a disturbance at a pizza parlor put a chokehold on hip-hop kid Radio Raheem, which kills him and ignites a brief conflagration. A small corner of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, erupts into a race-based riot. (Some liberal media first condemned the film as incitement and now celebrate it as ugly realism.)
Lee offered two endings: a symbolic economic concord between white pizzeria owner Sal and black delivery boy Mookie, and then, compounding the narrative, tongue-tied activist Smiley’s photo of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X smiling together in a moment of détente. Lee inscribes their contradictory positions on protest in wordy graphics crawling across the screen from bottom to top.
Those two instances of contradiction (the first dramatic, the second ideological) twist the energetically stylized movie into a knot and ruin it. At the time, Lee appeared to be throwing a social and moral conundrum in our faces — imitating Godard’s use of playful, poetic verbal graphics in a way that made a Hollywood movie seem startlingly urgent and complex. Viewers argued over the juxtaposed meanings and over Lee’s intent. But time has revealed all that Lee’s compounded gestures actually meant: Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.
That catch phrase, lifted from the erroneously reported Michael Brown incidents that took place in Ferguson, Mo., during the last phase of the Obama era, became a rally crying for the Black Lives Matter movement. But its phony admission of helplessness also sums up the noncommittal rhetoric that Spike Lee’s speciously political films (from Do the Right Thing to BlacKkKlansman) have contributed to our culture. It is precisely because Do the Right Thing never resolves either its characters’ personal conflicts or the audience’s social conflicts that the film is now misunderstood by desperate social-media commenters who have invoked Do the Right Thing this week in the ongoing violent aftermath of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis.
The fact that Lee doesn’t take a stand in Do the Right Thing is being ignored by Millennials looking for some cultural touchstone: They mistake Lee’s confusion for their certainty. In the closing gambit of the movie, Lee’s false dichotomy between nonviolent and violent protest (the latter called “intelligence” by Malcolm X) works like a charm for restless youth who hastily prefer Malcolm X’s self-defense over King’s protest.
When that romanticism gives the edge to notions of resistance and then violence — especially as fostered by such interlopers as Antifa who hijack black causes and social protest — it makes Lee’s coup de grâce seem opportunistic.
The expression of political attitudes is a specific feature of hip-hop culture. That’s why Do the Right Thing, which is hip-hop’s cinematic keystone, appeals to current confusion. Radio Raheem (played by Bill Nunn), a looming, intimidating youth whose boombox blasting Public Enemy’s rhythmic alarms sets off the film’s tragic events, is Lee’s sacrificial figure. He has come to stand in for Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and now George Floyd even though he has little in common with them except death and martyrdom. Social-media evocations of Radio Raheem do not enhance Lee’s movie or add meaning to our ongoing nightmare.
The more relevant Do the Right Thing figure is Mother Sister, the neighborhood’s quiet matriarch who erupts into wild, seemingly uncharacteristic exhortations (“Burn it down!”) once the riot commences. As played by Ruby Dee, Mother Sister carries a history of quiet, ladylike disenfranchisement and then lets loose her rage. She never articulates her resentment, which might have connected the film’s many strands of bitterness and recrimination. (Mookie, who precipitates the riot by hurling a garbage can into the pizzeria window, is an obnoxious, irresponsible, unreliable character much like Lee’s own public persona.) Instead, Lee opportunistically shifts into political celebrity worship, the MLK–Malcolm X iconography that stymies the audience’s ability to comprehend. Do the Right Thing’s entertaining collection of social types becomes issue-oriented rather than insightful.
Spike Lee has not yet made a film that comes close to explaining the festering anger that may define individual character. (Black Americans’ different ways of coping and persevering is August Wilson’s contribution to American literature.) Lee’s stump-speech movies merely specialize in the surface of complicated experience, which, as we now see, political opportunists can easily exploit. In light of recalling Do the Right Thing, Thomas Sowell’s words come to mind: “Black votes matter to many politicians — more so than black lives. That is why such politicians must try to keep black voters fearful, angry and resentful. Racial harmony would be a political disaster for such politicians.”
Do the Right Thing’s legacy is based on exploiting racial disharmony and political disaster, which befits a misconceived cri de coeur. Today, Lee’s ideological knot puts a knot in one’s stomach. Looking for answers in that film does not help clarify this exasperating moment. For the liberal politicians who boast that they “stand shoulder-to-shoulder with protesters,” the advisory title Do the Right Thing proves to be an impossibility.