A few weeks ago, I watched Crash – which incidentally won an Oscar for Best Picture 2005 – which deals with racism in a very direct and head-on way. It led me to wonder why explicit racism is so often left out of movies. Is it because the directors don’t want to face up to the complaints and criticisms that they will inevitably face when people misinterpret their work? If so, it seems like a cop-out to pretend that nobody is xenophobic. I later discovered another film that dealt with racism in a very upfront manner, Do the Right Thing by African-American director Spike Lee.
The film, made in 1989, is set on a street in Brooklyn on a sweltering hot day. We are woken by DJ Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson), and introduced to roughly a dozen main characters, most of whom are black, given that this is a predominantly African-American section of Brooklyn. The non-black characters are Sal (Danny Aiello) and his sons Vito (Richard Edson) and Pino (John Turturro), who are Italian-American and run a pizza bistro on the corner of the street. They employ Mookie, played by director Spike Lee, to deliver pizza for them.
Many of the characters in this film, both black and white, are very standoffish and set in their often prejudiced beliefs. Only Mookie and his sister seem to have any sense of perspective. The dialogue is often peppered with racist or otherwise offensive language, supposedly common to this area of Brooklyn. The language used only goes to fuel the tension between the various characters.
The film is two hours long, and contains many uninteresting subplots, for example the homeless man known as Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), who tries to ignite a romance with a woman who hates him whilst incessantly drinking booze. Another character, Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), constantly carries a ghetto blaster with him, pumping out a tune by popular artist Public Enemy. The song’s lyrics are “Fight the Power!“, suggesting he is angry at the system, although he doesn’t seem to know why he is angry.
The main story arc begins when a character known as Buggin’ Out – played by Giancarlo Esposito, later to become Gus on the inimitable Breaking Bad – realises that there are no black people on Sal’s “Wall of Fame” in his pizza parlour. When quizzed about this, Sal explains that he only lets Italian-Americans onto his Wall of Fame. Now while this is clearly a rather exclusive list of people, it does seem to make sense to have Italian-Americans, as it is an Italian joint, and at the very least, it is Sal’s right to put up whatever photos he wants. Sal is not in the wrong. Nevertheless, Buggin’ Out causes a ruckus and decides to boycott Sal’s.
Later, Radio Raheem enters Sal’s with boombox blaring and asks for a slice. Sal turns him down saying that there is no music allowed in the restaurant. Once again, this is Sal’s right, and he is not in the wrong by requesting this. Public Enemy certainly don’t help, as their music incites and indeed advocates aggression, so the two characters begin to shout at each other until Sal eventually turns off Raheem’s music and serves him.
Unhappy because of their experience at Sal’s, Buggin’ Out and Radio Raheem team up to boycott Sal’s, and in the evening they enter and request the right to have black people on the Wall of Fame and have music in the parlour. Public Enemy once again serves only as a catalyst to make people angry, and at the peak of the argument, Sal uses that most incendiary word ‘nigger’, which only causes his other customers, all of whom are black, to join in the argument as well. Sal destroys the boombox, and there is a brief moment of silence while everybody contemplates what has happened. I think it would have been clever if Raheem had not started the fight, but if he had just tried to walk away, realising that this argument was futile. As it is, Raheem throws Sal across the counter and begins to beat him up. A few other people join in as well, in quite an intense and harrowing fight scene. The police show up and try to restrain Raheem but end up killing him. The officers yell at Raheem to “Quit faking it. You ain’t dead!“, but the black population believe that the officers did kill him with intention. Whether the death was accidental or not is not clear, but in either case, it’s not Sal’s fault. This is why it is unfair when Mookie proceeds to throw a trash can through Sal’s window, causing a riot and the complete destruction of his café.
Now the question on everybody’s lips is, did Mookie do the right thing? Many people believe that by throwing the trash can at the window, Mookie redirected the anger of the black people from Sal to his shop, thus possibly saving his life. In this sense, it probably was the right thing, and I can understand that. But I can’t for the life of me understand what kind of lesson Spike Lee is trying to teach us. “If your boss looks like he is in trouble, destroy his café” doesn’t exactly seem like a good life lesson. Indeed, the problem I have is almost every other character seems to do the wrong thing, and for very stupid reasons, especially Buggin’ Out and Radio Raheem. Their built-up anger just leads them to make daft decisions regarding the café, as they lose all sense of perspective. “Don’t take your anger out on others” seems like a better moral, but it seems too straightforward to make a two-hour movie about. “Public Enemy don’t help the situation, but just make people upset” seems like another lesson learned, and probably the wrong one, given that Lee actually commissioned the artist to write this song especially for the film.
Almost to account for my lack of understanding what this film is trying to tell me, Lee proffers two quotes by Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X regarding violence. King’s quote is anti violence, and seems to advise against the events of the film, whereas X’s is less clear-cut, saying that violence is good as self-defense. Maybe Mookie threw the trash can to defend Sal. At any rate, I found it to be a complete cop-out to just simply write the morals of the film at the end, as if Lee couldn’t find a way to accurately portray them in the film by himself, or that viewers might be too dumb to put together an explanation for themselves.
However, the most perplexing thing about this movie is what Spike Lee had to say about it in the DVD commentary. Paraphrased by Wikipedia:
“Spike Lee has remarked that he himself has only ever been asked by white viewers whether Mookie did the right thing; black viewers do not ask the question. Lee believes the key point is that Mookie was angry at the death of Radio Raheem, and that viewers who question the riot’s justification are implicitly valuing white property over the life of a black man.”
What? No! I question the riot’s justification because I will always question violence wherever I see it. If everybody had just gone home after the fight, then we would have had a less grim outcome. Sal did not deserve to have his café burned down, just as Raheem did not deserve to die for starting the fight. But saying that I implicitly value white property over the life of a black man is completely fallacious. It’s not as if the characters had to choose between one and the other. I honestly cannot understand why black people do not question the riot like white people do, because it was an irrational act of built-up racial tension that Martin Luther King himself advises against in the quote at the end of the film. The suggestion is that white people simply don’t understand the film like black people, and makes me question whether Spike Lee himself subtly believes that black people are fundamentally different to white people. After all, if black people aren’t questioning the film, and white people are, does that make us different?
In the end, I wasn’t a fan of this movie, because most of it seemed rather directionless, and the poignant parts remained morally ambiguous, with the clear morals slapped on the end to spoon-feed the audience. This is one of the only movies where I’ve wondered exactly who the target audience is, as I am unlikely to start using violence any time soon. The worst thing I felt about the film was that it showed lots of angry black people unable to control their temper, and I felt the film as a whole didn’t shine a good light on African-Americans as a whole. I have many fundamental issues with this movie, and I feel it has done more bad than good, for my conscience at least.