The sun has set and finally, the sky is not red or orange, but dark blue. The moon is a gracious sight, a sign that the hottest day of the year in Bedford-Stuyvesant has finally come to pass. The characters in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing can now sit outside without drenching in sweat because the heat, thank god, is now an outdated topic on the newspapers. There is a calm atmosphere throughout the neighborhood, a tranquil feeling that has never surfaced until this moment in the film. The absence of heat is so welcoming that Senor Love Daddy cannot help but name in appreciation all the black entertainers that he adores, from Ray Charles to Chuck D, over fifty names in all. It is in this sunless atmosphere that Da Mayor gets approval from Mother Sister.
The positive effect of the night is felt the strongest in Sal’s Famous where its employees – Pino, Vito, and Mookie – are glad not only to be done with work, but also to hear compliments – not orders – come out of Sal’s mouth. Sal is so happy in fact that he says that he considers Mookie as his son. He even lets in some customers at the last minute, against Mookie’s wishes. The pizzeria, if not the entire neighborhood, glows against the blue background, and seems to symbolize nothing but friendliness.
Of course, that is, until Smiley, Buggin Out, and Radio Raheem walk into Sal’s pizzeria with ill intentions, to avenge their egos for what happened earlier during the day. The trio’s entrance would not be that upsetting if Radio Raheem didn’t bring his radio along, blasting Public Enemy loud enough to blow everyone’s ears off. What once was a relaxed letdown scene turns into a chaotic one; the camera jumps from this face to that face from all kinds of angles, everyone is screaming, their faces becoming red as the sun, and all the while, “Fight the Power” rages on full blast. Sal screams at Radio Raheem to turn the music off and so is everybody else while Buggin Out screams at Sal to put some pictures of brothers up on the restaurant wall. Still, the music is so loud, no one is really listening, only shouting. Unfortunately for everyone, Radio Raheem is unwilling to shut off his favorite song. The scorching sun, in a different form, has come back to set on Sal’s restaurant.
The tension only builds and builds when Sal takes out a baseball bat and calls Radio Raheem a “nigger.” When this happens, the situation intensifies as sides are drawn and the only one who seems to be willing to compromise is Mookie. But that’s because Mookie just wants to take his cash and call it a night. But one can hardly call it a night when Sal can’t take it anymore and furiously smashes Radio Raheem’s radio into pieces. The line “Fight the Power” dwindles off and the restaurant is suddenly quiet, too quiet. The tension is still there but no one knows what to do. Even Buggin Out is quiet. Still, the silence is a façade. Beyond the silence, everyone’s hearts are beating loudly. There is anger evident in everyone’s faces. Something must happen. Something must go down. And so Radio Raheem lunges. The camera centers on his muscular arms, showing his physical might and power. Sal, who had been the authoritative white father figure all this time, is brought down to the ground and the place is excruciatingly loud again. This time, however, no radio is needed. And this time, unlike a radio, the music is impossible to turn off. The film has suddenly transformed from being a juxtapositions of everyday conversations into an unpredictable plot sequence.
Soon, what once was a bout between Radio Raheem and Sal becomes a two-sided battle between Sal’s employees and the black customers. People all around the neighborhood come to watch, some in horror, most in excitement and all while the camera is everywhere. While the sky is still blue and full of peaceful stars at night, the camera rarely shows such tranquility, focusing instead on the hot-headed faces and the ensuing wrestling match. Soon enough, the police come and seeing the towering figure of Radio Raheem, they grab him and start choking him. Raheem struggles and his face becomes redder than ever before. Everyone is still screaming. One cop continues to choke Raheem while the other cop yells, “That’s enough! That’s Enough!” In the end, Raheem dies and both cops, panic stricken, put his corpse in their car and speedily drive off. After the police leave, Mookie reacts against the police brutality by throwing a trash can against Sal’s store and a riot ensues, ultimately burning down the restaurant.
This is the only time in Do the Right Thing where things actually happen, where a plot suddenly occurs and blows up into a helter-skelter riot. Before these fiery scenes, Do the Right Thing was a simple black/urban drama, presenting the Bedford-Stuyvesant hood at its most usual state, focusing on the everyday conversations of different characters. The camera’s focus up to this point was not in what people did but on what they normally do on any given day. Too many blaxploitation films in the previous eras from Boss Nigger to Foxy Brown have regurgitated African-American stereotypes on the screen by focusing on how uniquely they acted on an especially horrific day, so much that Lee had to counteract this tendency by presenting the movie’s hood as real as it can be on screen. He creates such realism by juxtaposing conversations together and by having his characters engage in actions that are recurring. Today Radio Raheem walks around the hood with his loud radio; today Sal orders Pino to sweep the floor; today Da Mayor struggles to find his favorite beer in the Korean store, and yet, just like the audience’s world, things will not be any different tomorrow or on any of the days after that.
The riot changes everything. Now every character comes under the judgment of the audience. Is Sal a racist? Did Radio Raheem have the right to barge into Sal’s like that? Did Mookie do the right thing? In the end, the audience is left squirming in their seats, unable to come up with any answers. The previous scenes of the movie have been so effective that, as Roger Ebert has stated in his review, the viewers come to realize that “there are really no heroes or villains in the film” (Ebert). All the characters have been introduced in their relation to the hood and thus, they become known not as victims or assailants but as complex human beings, full of merits, full of faults. These characters are not separate from the real world as Blacula but are part of this America. When Sweet Dick Willie and his friends argue about how the Koreans are able to maintain a good business albeit speaking poor English, the audience is forced to ask the same question themselves. Because of this realistic portrayal of what it is like to live in Brooklyn for a day, the issues of these characters are not alien but the problems of the current society. Lee has made this black neighborhood a relatable American neighborhood by “explor[ing] the polarities of the inner city” and by “setting up a system opposites – black and white, love and hate, conciliation and violence, man and woman – then set[ting] them against each other” (Hinson). Every conversation in the movie is a deeper exploration into the movie’s inner hood and every recurring action makes it nearly impossible for the onlooker to see the movie as one-dimensional.
Lee’s methods are so successful that many movies fitting its genre have imitated it and for the most part, achieved the similar effect. In Boys N the Hood, the camera stalks Tre as he walks from his friend Ricky’s house to his own, and as it does so, his neighborhood becomes the hood of the film watchers. The more Tre walks, the more his neighborhood becomes familiar, from the neglected baby playing on the road to the gang members driving around in their car, ready to do another drive-by. Once the hood has become established in the film, the film’s director and writer John Singleton captures the daily lives of Tre, his father, Ricky, and Darin by having them interact with each other casually, with simple “Wusups” here and regular “Your pops is a mothafuckin’ Farakan” there. Likewise, Calvin’s barbershop in Barbershop is not a place of action but a place of interactions with Eddie always grumbling about the current generation of barbers and Dinka continually trying to get Terri’s attention. The jokes and the arguments inside the barbershop, analogous to the conversations in Do the Right Thing do not contribute anything to the plot of the movie; instead, they make the movie’s setting and its characters come to life, not just in the movie, but also in this world.
Thus, when the riot occurs in the movie, it is as real as the L.A. Riots of 1992. This realism is a constant reminder to the movie’s fans and critics that hoods like Bedford-Stuyvesant are not separate microcosms; they are universal. These hoods are as American as Declaration of Independence, and therefore cannot be ignored. Otherwise, left alone and by itself, the hood will resort to fighting the power.
In the very beginning scene of Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee introduces the movie to his audience through his use of jazz music tones. The melody is a bit tragic and once the saxophone strikes its falsetto, the television screen suddenly changes from being black to red. As the screen changes, there is also a big change in the music, going from jazzy melodies to turntable sound effects and dead string beats. The change ultimately produces a reddened scene of a dark-skinned Latina woman dancing to Public Enemy’s single “Fight the Power” in front of a brownstone in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn.
Though the camera constantly shifts from close shots to long shots, most of the time, the audience is allowed to see the entire picture, the woman – Rosie Perez – and her surroundings. The camera angles change and the colors change but there is hardly any instances where the audience is forbidden from seeing both Perez and the buildings behind her. Regarding the color changes, there are four: a red world where everything is in shades of red; a blue world which acts counter to the red one; a world where the background is black-and-white but where Perez is wearing a white boxer robe with boxer globes; and a world which has the mix of all three different kinds of shapes and one where Perez wears a black sports bra and white boxer trunks, outfitted with black boxer gloves. Perez begins the act with rigid movements, complemented by facial expressions that connote anger and toughness. When “Fight the Power” reaches its third verse, Perez’s movements are a lot smoother, and close-ups indicate more sexual and intimate poses. Ironically, the third verse of the song contains the militant lines in the song since it states, “Elvis was a hero to most/ But he never meant shit to me you see/ Straight up racist that sucker was / Simple and plain/ Mother fuck him and John Wayne.” What makes sense, however, is that around this time is when Perez is shown in a boxer outfit with boxer gloves. In that outfit, making punching motions, she does seem to be fighting this “power,” though it is invisible and appears unaffected by her fierceness. The most climatic moment in the whole dance scene however, is when the jazz tunes kick back in, this time in accordance with Public Enemy’s song. Starting from this instrumental part, Perez is wearing a black bra and white boxer trunks while the environment behind her is in shades of red, blue, and black-and-white, and all disproportionately. With the saxophone reaching the zenith of its creativity on the basic beats of the song “Fight the Power,” Perez lunges both of her fists forward at the same time and pauses. That pause is painful to watch and in a strange way, it almost seems as if the camera has just shook from such a blow. Then she takes both of her fists back next to her ribs and strikes again, fighting the power. Perez, by dancing and throwing punches into the air, is acting out the generic and abstract command, “Fight the power.” With the camera’s changes in colors and shades, the act of fighting the power is made into a simple image of a racialized woman fighting against an invisible yet nonetheless existing power. She strikes and dances her heart out without ever having discovered the propagator of this “power” and without ever having damaged it, much less destroyed it.
The scene is completely conceptual, representing a fighter who is visible and ready, full of discontent and anger. Notice that she throws her powerful punches after she dances rather exotically, after being sexualized and in a way, racialized. Other than the warrior, the only thing visible is the building. The power that she is fighting against is invisible, ambiguous, unknown. So while her lunges’ effect on the power cannot be judged, the color of the building changes the more she punches the air.
A crowd of embittered souls of South Central Los Angeles must have felt the same way as this sensualized boxer. Filled with hate at the acquittal of the three police officers involved with the beating of Rodney King, in a day’s notice, they evolved into uncontrollable masses and started a tumultuous revolt that lasted for six days. To them, rules no longer mattered and if the audience felt sympathy toward Sal when his restaurant was destroyed, they will not know what to feel about the destruction wrought on by the these rioters. “I have lived all of my life in Los Angeles. I know it well.” Stan Chambers states. Having seen the event from atop the KTLA helicopter, he sighs, “So many new buildings had been built in the last few years, a hopeful sign that, at last, something was happening; a new shopping center here, a new mini mall there, an old building rehabilitated across the street with a new business opening up inside. All the progress since the fires of Watts lost in the heat of this night” (Chambers). Clark Staten’s reports suggest that the riot killed 38 lives and caused over 3,600 fires by the riot’s third day and incited a national holocaust, which spread from San Francisco to Atlanta (Staten). The crowds thought they were fighting the power; in actuality, they have destroyed their own neighborhood and intensified racial animosities to an unbearable level (Koreans, Hispanics, Jews, and Blacks in L.A. are affected to this day), just as the Bedford-Stuyvesant’s inhabitants destroyed an essential part of their hood, Sal’s Famous.
Do the Right Thing‘s message is, of course, not as simple as this comparison, that minority America is ready to erupt if its poor and disenfranchised are ignored. The riot against Sal’s pizzeria, as important as it is, is not the end of the movie, the day after it is. The day after, Mother Sister says to Da Mayor, and to the audience as well, that she’s still standing. Despite the riot, she is still standing; despite a catastrophe America still stands. On the streets, Mookie ask Sal for money, to which Sal replies, “The fuck is wrong with you? This ain’t about money, I could give a fuck about money. You see this fucking place?” He points to his demolished store. “I built this fucking place, with my bare fucking hands. Every light socket, every piece of tile, me, with these fucking hands.” Sal, defeated and angered, eventually gives Mookie all the money he has. Then the camera zooms out, showing that life carries on in Bedford-Stuyvesant, that it must carry on.
But how are they to carry on? The people have fought the power and it only colored the background in different shades of red and blue. Hell, a key part of their town remains in ruins. Lee does not provide any answers except for two contrasting quotes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X at the end of the movie. What Lee does imply is that this hood must be rebuilt. Mookie is not the only one in want of money but this hood, as an essential part of America, is also in demand of some form of monetary investment. This is not merely their America, but the audience’s; it is our America. Like an untended backyard of a house, like a broken limb of a body, this society is our society and for the whole society to look well and function properly, this part must be fixed. The fact that Do the Right Thing has tried to present these messages as an independent film signifies that much action remains to be done for this society and for the general American public.
Barbershop. Dir. Tim Story. Perf. Ice Cube, Eve, Sean Patrick Thomas, Cedric the Entertainer, Troy Garity, Michael Ealy. MGM, 2002.
Boys N the Hood. Dir. John Singleton. Perf. Cuba Gooding Jr., Morris Chestnut, Laurence Fishburne, Ice Cube. Columbia Pictures, Sony Pictures Entertainment, 1991.
Chambers, Stan. News at Ten: Fifty Years with Stan Chambers. Rancho Cucamonga: Capra Press, 1994. http://www.citivu.com/ktla/sc-ch1.html >
Do the Right Thing. Dir. Spike Lee. Perf. Danny Aiello, Rosie Perez, Giancarlo Esposito, Spike Lee. Universal Pictures, 1989.
Ebert, Roger. “Do the Right Thing.” Suntimes. http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/argicle?AID=/20010527/REVIEWS08/105270301/1023 >
Hinson, Hal. “Do the Right Thing.” Washington Post. www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/style/longterm/movies/videos/dotherightthingrhinson_a0a948.htm >
Staten, Clark. “LA. Insurrection Surpasses 1965 Watts Riots, 38 Dead, More than 1,200 Injured.” Emergencynet News Service, 5-01-1992. http://www.emergency.com/la-riots.htm >