“Heroes, as far as I could then see, were white, and not merely because of the movies but because of the land in which I lived, of which movies were simply a reflection: I despised and feared those heroes because they did take vengeance into their own hands. They thought that vengeance was theirs to take. This difficult coin did not cease to spin. It had neither heads not tails: for what white people took into their hands could scarcely be called vengeance, it was something less and something more.”
In his autobiographical essay on movies and American racism, “The Devil Finds Work,” James Baldwin discusses at length the absence of black subjectivity and the prominence of white heroism in the milieu of classical Hollywood in which he came of age. At one point in the essay, Baldwin states that he has seen no black persons that he knows in the movies. He does not mean that he has never seen black faces onscreen, but rather that he has never seen a black protagonist whose experiences honestly reflect his position, neither the “debasement” of Stephin Fetchit nor Sidney Poitier’s role in The Heat of the Night, the latter of which Baldwin refers to as conveying, yet refusing to confront, “the anguish of people trapped in a legend.” That legend forbade black characters from achieving anything resembling the vengeance that white characters so regularly found on American screens.
While published thirteen years before the movie’s release, Baldwin’s reflections on American cinema are essential to understanding Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, which turns a quarter century old today.
Not because Lee was the first filmmaker during his time (or Baldwin’s) to address black subjectivity, institutionalized prejudice and social injustice in the terms Baldwin sought – one cannot fully appreciate Lee’s work without understanding contributions by the likes of Oscar Micheaux and Charles Burnett before him – but rather because Lee’s politics, and the ensuing discussion around Do the Right Thing, emerge so directly from the intersecting and conflicting philosophies of black liberation during the third quarter of the twentieth century, the time in which Baldwin’s voice resonated loudly alongside that of Marin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and so many others, including the film’s co-stars Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee.
It is in this respect that, even 25 years after its release, Do the Right Thing stands as a potent emblem against the willfully blinded, history-erasing myths of a post-racial America that have gradually taken hold since the mid-1960s. The film not only makes a case for urgent memory of the recent past, but applies a 1960s black liberation ethos to a late-Reagan era. Not the watered-down history textbook version, but a time capsule that preserves the great diversity of philosophies held between prominent cultural figures, which is precisely why the film ends with conflicting quotes about the role of violence within social justice followed by the famous image of King, Jr. laughing with Malcolm X.
Just as Do the Right Thing makes a case for the urgency of an honest conversation about injustice in the wake of the Central Park Five, the media reaction to the Tawana Brawley case, and Willie Horton, its singularity in the history of contemporary commercial American filmmaking (Do the Right Thing is, after all, a studio film that opened wide upon release, not the insurgent indie it is more often assumed to be) also emboldens its legacy as a continued call toward a difficult conversation that we still haven’t really had in the era of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, voter ID laws, and in the wake of long-term practices of gentrification and discriminatory housing.
In the face of the farcical attempts at addressing contemporary racism that have been made since, from Grand Canyon to Crash, Do the Right Thing now stands as an essential reminder about how little has changed since its own time as well.
“My heroes don’t appear on no stamps.” – Chuck D, “Fight the Power”
Mookie is not legible as a film hero in any conventional Hollywood sense, and it’s important that Lee cast himself in that role. Mookie is neither hero (in Baldwin’s or Hollywood’s terms) nor antihero, but rather a flaneur of Bed-Stuy, a passive figure who eventually gets called into action when he climactically throws the trash can through the window of Sal’s. Da Mayor’s advice to Mookie earlier in the film provokes its central, endlessly debated question of defining the right thing that we’re always supposed to do.
There are clear wrongs portrayed in the film – Radio Raheem’s murder by the Brooklyn PD chief among them – but the film is purposefully stuck on the question of what to do, of how to contend with the legacy of a country founded, built upon, and structured through white supremacy, which is, once again, why the ghosts of Dr. King and Malcolm X emanate throughout.
Do the Right Thing’s soundtrack urges to fight the power, but as Lee himself has said, the notion of the fight itself takes many forms. Mookie makes a decision, and the film demands that we begin a conversation based upon what we’ve seen. And despite the fact that it’s been leveled at Lee many times, the question is not, of course, whether or not Mookie should have thrown that trash can – the destruction of private property is, to say the least, disproportionate to murder – but rather what this action speaks to in terms of social space; namely, who has access to it as well as privilege within it.
Social space has been the chief terrain in which power has been exercised along racist lines in the 20th century, from segregated schools to terrorized and subsequently overregulated polling places to the redlining of American cities. How that space can be shared is the central question that Do the Right Thing prompts, but decidedly refuses to provide an answer for. As with the film’s avoidance of a conventional movie hero, Do the Right Thing also denounces closure, preventing its audience from coming away with any sense of affirming finality that has plagued so many Hollywood fantasies that look back on the Civil Rights era with kid gloves (1989’s Best Picture winner Driving Miss Daisy included among them) while also refusing the demand for a simplistic instruction book on how to solve conflicts built upon centuries of exploitation and theft.
Do the Right Thing refuses to bear the unnecessary burden of solving the problems it depicts because those problems are already so rarely acknowledged within American culture that depicting them in film is a mammoth feat in and of itself. As a result, between the film’s Cannes premiere and its midsummer release, several critics feared the prospect of race riots in movie theaters that ultimately proved to exist nowhere but inside their paranoid minds. They could not imagine that depicting onscreen a conflict already in existence could be enlightening or productive, or that some conversations simply need to be had whether or not we can tie a bow on them by the end.
Yet Do the Right Thing is not a seminal movie simply because of its subject matter, but also because of the expert filmmaking that went into presenting it. As Michael Koresky rightly points out, “Media discussion of Lee as a controversial figure has long distracted from considerations of his aesthetics.”
Unlike many other filmmakers who have tackled relevant topics through cinema, Lee rejects the conventions of social realism. As with the Godardian energy of She’s Gotta Have It or the audacious genre alchemy of School Daze, Lee imbues Do the Right Thing as an intrepid adventurer of cinematic form, regularly breaking the fourth wall, staging lengthy tributes to film history, interrupting linear narrative flow, or encouraging Ernest Dickerson’s camera to literally move through walls. This is, after all, a film that begins with Rosie Perez dancing in front of an image of Bed-Stuy in a soundstage. Lee presents a heightened – which is not to say exaggerated – contemporary Brooklyn, capturing the energy of a community and making audiences swelter in their air conditioned seats by depicting a relentless summer heat that contributes to and symbolizes their conflict.
Lee’s challenges to form match his complexity of content. Do the Right Thing is not simply a film that opens up the possibilities of how difficult subjects can be addressed in film, but opposes received thinking on how such topics should be presented as well.
In truth, it’s arguable that we haven’t seen a modern portrayal of contemporary racism this trenchant before or since. Do the Right Thing is an essential piece of American cinema that stands, for better or worse, as an emblem of the conversation we still haven’t quite had and a potent, continually relevant challenge to fantasies of post-racism. To borrow one of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s concluding comments from his “A Case for Reparations,” “We cannot escape our history. All of our solutions to the great problems of health care, education, housing, and economic inequality are troubled by what must go unspoken.”
Do the Right Thing is that rare film that found the means to speak against the hype in a fashion that resonated with the deep thunder of a boombox.