Do The Right Thing: Analysing Spike Lee’s Accurate and Brutal Portrayal of Racial Tension

Photo by Nathan Dumlao via Unsplash

There were a few incidents that inspired Spike Lee to write Do the Right Thing on the set of his previous film. In one, a black man named Michael Griffiths died while being chased from a pizzeria by a group of white people. In another, a black woman named Eleanor Bumpurs was killed by police. Unfortunately, these were only two of the many shocking deaths that took place as a result of racism. In making Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee also wanted to explore the idea that hot weather makes people violent. The result is one of the most hard-hitting, balanced, and eye-opening films of all time.


Before you can even settle into it, Do the Right Thing begins with a call-to-action: Fight the Power. As Public Enemy booms in the background (and not for the final time in this film), Rosie Perez performs a high-octane dance wearing boxing gloves. These opening credits set the tone for the film. In the next scene, an alarm clock blares, and Samuel Jackson, playing an RJ titled Mister Senor Love Daddy, screams at us repeatedly to “wake up”. The message is clear: Do the Right Thing is not a laid-back film. It is a film designed to wake its audience up and keep them listening to what Spike Lee has to say. 


Spike Lee voices his opinion on race relations and police brutality through the residents of a predominantly black-populated neighbourhood over the course of the hottest day of the year. Sal, an Italian-American, has owned a pizzeria for twenty-five years here and Mookie (played by Spike Lee himself) is a delivery boy for Sal. Sal has two sons, Pino and Vito, the former of whom is an outspoken racist. Other characters include Da Mayor, an old well-meaning drunkard; Radio Raheem, who carries around a boombox playing Fight the Power on loop; and Buggin’ Out, a man who is passionate about having black celebrities included on Sal’s Pizzeria’s ‘Wall of Fame’. Among the residents are also some Puerto Ricans and a Korean shop owner. But regardless of their differences, everybody comes to Sal’s for a slice. 


But over the course of the hottest day of the year, racial tensions slowly come to a boil between all the residents and the police, and it culminates in an explosion of violence with Sal’s Pizzeria as the epicenter. What makes Do the Right Thing so effective in building up to this memorable climax is the way it balances levity and seriousness, and how smoothly it switches between them. The film consists of many small altercations and provocations between characters and we are kept on our toes constantly because we do not know which of these will escalate into something more dangerous. 


Spike Lee uses a range of techniques to capture the sweltering heat and the volatility of the neighbourhood. For one, nearly every frame in the film uses warm colours – red, orange, and yellow – to represent the heatwave. The cinematography emphasises beams of sunlight reflecting off people’s skin. Dutch angles – tilted camera shots – are used to suggest disorientation and insanity in scenes where characters are angry. All of these come together to portray a community that is on the verge of violence. 


But Lee’s direction is not always subtle and some of the best scenes in Do the Right Thing are its most explicit ones. One of my favourite scenes is the montage in which characters of different races take turns in hurling lengthy sequences of racial stereotypes in quick succession directly at the camera, overwhelming the audience with the sheer intensity of the hatred that people feel for those that are different to them. The scene comes out of nowhere and it is brutal to watch because by breaking the fourth wall, the characters are essentially saying it to us. It is as though Spike Lee wanted to make a point that words can hurt and we need to be more considerate of what we say to each other. 


Spike Lee packs his film with many motifs and messages, some more obvious than others, but none are more crucial than the one revealed in the title itself. The instruction is uttered once during the film by Da Mayor, a character that has made his share of mistakes in his life and understands how hate can destroy. He tells Mookie to “always do the right thing” but it falls on deaf ears. Later by the end of the film, we are forced to ask ourselves: does anyone actually do the right thing? And if not, what is the right thing to do? Spike Lee does not tell us, nor does he hold our hands towards any conclusion. In fact, he leaves us with conflicting quotes by Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, one that says that violence is immoral in any circumstance and another that advocates for violence as a form of self-defence. 


There are many films made on the subject of racism but few of them are effective enough because they treat racism as a simple hurdle for the characters to overcome by the end (a huge culprit of this is Driving Miss Daisy which, adding insult to injury, won Best Picture at the Academy Awards in a year where Do the Right Thing was not even nominated). Compare this with Do the Right Thing, which recognises the complexity of the situation and rejects closure because racism and police brutality is still a problem in the real world.


Praiseworthy as it is that Do the Right Thing has lost none of its potency three decades later, the fact that its themes are still relevant to society today and its storyline mirrors recent real-life events is sad and shameful. We can hope that Spike Lee’s masterpiece is one that becomes outdated very soon. Alternatively, we can heed the lessons that it teaches us and find out to the best of our abilities what it means to do the right thing.


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