Do the Right Thing (1989)
Written/Directed by: Spike Lee
Few opening scenes provide such an explosive, tone-setting vibe for the rest of the film like Do the Right Thing. Immediately diving into Public Enemy’s pumping hit “Fight the Power” with Rosie Perez dancing furiously on the streets with boxing gloves, we feel the importance of music that follows. Spike Lee’s film deals with race relations and tension amidst one hot summer day in Brooklyn, and the use of music acts as a voice and a weapon for the people on the block. Do the Right Thing is arguably Lee’s most seminal film that addresses his frequent themes of race and culture, and the film holds strong today.
In collaboration with Public Enemy, “Fight the Power” was conceptualized for the film. The single alone was one of the biggest hits of that year (despite no radio support), and brought an anthem for the oppressed into the mainstream. Controversial lyrics and a strong message of awareness into the subjugation of blacks, the 1989 single was (and still is) a powerhouse of socially conscious hip-hop.
Lee’s film constantly uses this track, especially when Radio Raheem lugs his giant radio through the streets playing the song on loop. In a scene when Raheem confronts a group of Hispanics playing their own music on a radio, tension rises between the two groups as they battle with their music. Raheem cranks the volume and drowns out their radio. Raheem is quiet, and his radio is loud. Public Enemy is his voice and weapon.
Although “Fight the Power” is a song with a clear message, Do the Right Thing is ambiguous. The relevancy of its message isn’t in the stance it takes, but how it questions the audience in their identification with the different characters on screen. In one famous sequence, the camera dollies in on several characters of different races including Mookie (Spike Lee) and Pino (John Turturro) as they spout racist remarks towards the camera. Each are detailed and just as hateful as the last. Radio host Love Daddy then interjects with a “Cut that shit out!” In this moment, we know every character struggles with hate regardless of race and there is no hero in the film. Instead everyone is problematic and struggling for the same sense of living within a community.
Do the Right Thing is brilliant because of its understated plot, but large characters. The film still leaves many questions unanswered that question the actions and circumstances of each individual in a much more complex way than what is right or wrong. There is no easy explanation for the explosions of hatred. Why did Mookie throw the garbage can? Did Sal ultimately deserve his pizzeria being burned? Did Raheem deserve the excessive force? Was it was only too hot that one long day? Spike Lee makes it clear that no one’s actions are completely justifiable, but only a product of their lack of communication.
“Fight the Power” blasts throughout, but the extent to which the message is lost amongst hatred and antisocial behavior is interesting. When Sal smashes Raheem’s radio, he smashes his favorite possession, which propels the neighborhood into chaos by literally taking away his voice and identity. These actions cannot be justifiable by any means, but when it builds into further destruction and eventual death, the battle of identity within the neighborhood becomes something absolutely regretful and foolish. This ends with Sal’s pizzeria being destroyed and burned. Sal is equally as distraught, for much like Raheem’s radio, his culture and identity was also taken away.
Radio Raheem, who is mostly rude, delivers a monologue with his LOVE HATE brass knuckles. He tells Mookie that love and hate are constantly battling each other, and although hate may always seem to be winning, love will conquer. Lee questions the outcome of this battle of love and hate, even by ending with differing quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. There is no concise answer and solution to intolerance and racism in America, but different points of view with these characters. There are actions with no justifiable cause, and doing the right thing is easier said than done.
Do the Right Thing works because no matter who the audience may identify with, the film empathizes with everyone. There is a dueling nature of good and bad in every character, and the message is clear that the battle isn’t fought between any of the residence in the neighborhood, but the collective struggle they all face. This isn’t a film for Blacks, but every group that is, or was a minority under oppression by something greater socially. Or what Public Enemy would exclaim: “We’ve got to fight the powers that be.”
Alex Gougeon is a Toronto-Based freelance Writer, Musician and Videographer who loves everything Film and Music.
Do The Right Thing is part of our EPIC ongoing film review series: Lust for Life: The Music of Film, where Step On magazine writers take a look at all the films about music and made of great music that are the soundtrack of our lives.