Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” 1989, is an interesting look at several factors that played into the racial and ethnic relationship between white and black people in the 1980s. The story is centred around one hot day, when the dynamics between the two ethnicities boils over and spills into violence, and eventually death. In this essay, I will analyze how the film depicts the power dynamics in the context of race and police authority. In addition, I will show which relationship dynamics in the film are successfully depicted, and those that weren’t as successful. Also, I will give my opinion about what I think the film is attempting to achieve in the way that it represents each race and ethnic group in Brooklyn, NY. The film shows the perception of racism that took place at the time, and provides a good benchmark on which to compare the way races and police authority relate today.
The film investigates the building tensions that were taking place in the Brooklyn neighbourhood and it eventually built into violence and then tragedy. The film shows the ways that society, through racial intolerance of people who are often marginalized and oppressed, choose to handle that discrimination. From the beginning of the film, Lee uses the Public Enemy song “Fight the Power,” to set the tone. This helps show the type of film it will be, and the attitude at the time of people, particularly black people, to fight the authority that many police at the time exercised over them. In particular, it shows there is an Afrocentric tone to the movie. The song criticizes Elvis Pressley and John Wayne, who are cultural heroes of many white people. The song also has pro-black lyrics and is very defiant of the politics surrounding culture in America at the time. Each time Radio Raheem playing his sound system, the song plays, and it plays again during the credit sequence, and this shows the song is really a theme for the movie. Police were often criticized, and still are, for the ways they stereotype black people as being criminals, and they treat black people differently than white people. This power dynamic is something that helped build tension between the black and white people, and it fueled much of the violence that eventually spilled over at the end of the movie.
The film shows that it is very difficult for the back people to go about their daily lives with the police authority appearing to keep a discriminatory eye on them. But the dynamic is challenging because when the black people wanted to cool off in the water, the police came and turned it off. It seems as though the black people weren’t malevolent in the film, for the most part, but were just victims of circumstance. I think many people who don’t have air conditioning would support opening up a fire hydrant to cool off on a day that is tempting the 100 degrees Fahrenheit mark. It was just one or two people who decided to turn on the fire hydrant that were the real criminals, but that seemed to paint a dark picture for all of the black people in the neighbourhood, and that type of behaviour led the police to stereotype the black people and fueled much of the hate that they had towards them. This is an example of how the film does a tremendous job at showing how one or two bad apples can spoil the bunch.
Another example is when the police kill Radio Raheem. The black people retaliate by trashing Sal’s pizza restaurant, which a few felt didn’t belong in their neighbourhood because it didn’t have pictures of black people in it. This shows that the behaviour of the police, because they were white, reflected poorly on other white people, and Sal, even though he appeared to like black people most of the time, had to pay the price. Sal’s character showed the conflicting opinions about black people that white people possessed. Sal was in love with his black worker, Mookie’s, sister and he looked at Mookie as a son. However, when Radio Raheem wouldn’t turn his music down when he was in the restaurant, he started saying racial slurs. This shows how magnified the actions of each race was at the time, and when a member of one race did something wrong, it painted a bad picture for everyone belonging to the racial group.
While keeping on the topic of magnification, it is important to note what started the whole ordeal. When Buggin Out gets upset about the fact that there are no pictures of black people on the wall at the pizzeria, he becomes furious and tries to get a boycott going. However, not including a black person on the wall wasn’t meant to be an insult to the community. After all, Sal, as mentioned, loved black people, and all he wanted to do was put pictures on the wall of Italian Americans to reflect his heritage. This was what he had wanted his pizzeria to look like. Taking this small details and turning it into something it was not, is what eventually caused the riot and Radio Raheem’s death. Lee emphasizes this point by having the mentally challenged character put a picture of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King on the wall near the end of the film. The reaction Buggin Out had to there being no pictures of black people on the wall shows the sensitivity that he had and which was present throughout the film with nearly everyone involved. This is explained in “Unthinking Eurocentrism:” “The sensitivity around stereotypes and distortions largely arises, then, from the powerlessness of historically marginalized groups to control their own representations,” (184). But the question about whether Buggin Out was being sensitive is debatable. For example, as “Black Looks: Race and Representation,” points out, “From slavery on, white supremacists have recognized that control over images is central to the maintenance of any system of racial domination” (2).
The film also depicted the various power dynamics that were expressed between the white and black people. White people were usually in positions of power, such as was the position of Sal in the pizzeria, as Mookie was his employee. It was also evident in the police. However, when the white man driving the vehicle through the neighbourhood asked the black people to direct the water from the hydrant in another direction, he was rude to them, and they decided to instead direct the water at him and the vehicle in which he took so much pride. There was a consistent power struggle between the black and the white people, as Mookie continually questioned the authority that was on him. Furthermore, the black people were in control with the white man in the car wasn’t able to get by them without having his vehicle soaked. This shows the building tension that were simmering like the summer heat between the two races.
Also, when the biker accidently stepped on Buggin Out’s shoe and scuffed it, this shows how each culture was essentially walking all over each other, and there was little each could do to stay out of the others’ way. There was so much tension due to the fact that white people actually used black people as slaves at one point, and that there were so many other inequalities that were present with black people throughout the history of the United States. Much of the tension was also based on gentrification. For example, the black people were criticizing the white person for buying a home on their block, and they asked him why he would want to buy a home in a black neighbourhood. They also used the world gentrificationwhen describing what they thought of the man who decided to move into what they considered to be their neighbourhood.
Sal and his son, Vito, weren’t Eurocentric, or feel that their race was somehow superior to the others. The same could be said of the South Korean couple who owned the corner store, although they could have been saying at the end of the film, “I am like you,” just so their store wouldn’t be burned down. Furthermore, Mookie seemed to be very accepting of white people, and wasn’t at all racist, even though he threw a garbage can through the pizza restaurant’s window, which essentially started the riot (However, he was aware the restaurant had insurance). But for the most part, each person depicted in the film felt that their race was superior. This is similar to what is said in “Unthinking Eurocentrism.” For example, the text talks about the typical perception of people who have an opinion on Eurocentrism. This attitude, whether it was by the police or by Sal’s son, or, for that matter, by Radio Raheem, who consistently played “Fight the Power.” Instead, an ethnocentric attitude would be more precise to describe the attitudes of many of the people in the film. However, “Unthinking Eurocentrism” shines an accurate light on the type of perceptions that were evident in the film. “Although Eurocentrism and racism are historically intertwined – for example, the erasure of Africa as historical subject reinforces racism against African-Americans – they are in no way equitable, for the simple reason that Eurocentrism is the ‘normal’ consensus view of history that most First Worlders and even many Third Worlders learn at school and from the media” (3).
Each group felt they had a right to the neighbourhood. The Italian-Americans had been in the neighbourhood for 25 years and they felt they were entitled to stay. The white biker owned a home in the neighbourhood and he thought it was “a free country.” The South Koreans saw a business opportunity and they wanted to serve somewhere, and for whatever reason they decided to open up shop in Brooklyn. Finally, the black people felt it was the only place they could afford to live, and anyone else who moved in were causing gentrification. Each of the relationships look to be appropriate for the time, and this might still be the way things are in that neighbourhood. The film achieved its mission of depicting the challenges, tensions and misunderstandings of each group in the film, and the depiction shows the progress that has been made in race relations throughout Canada.
Hooks, Bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End Press, 1992.
Shahat, Ella, and Robert Stab. Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media New
York: Routledge, 1994.
Spike Lee, Do the Right Thing. Film, Spike Lee. (1989; Los Angeles: 40 Acres and a Mule
Filmworks/Universal Pictures, 1989). Film.