Do the Right Thing

Last night in our Post-Ferguson Film Series we screened Do the Right Thing (1989) by director Spike Lee. Having not seen it since I was an undergrad in a sociology course, it struck me how incredibly relevant the film remains today. Even 26 years later, it is still a great resource for teaching about race and protest tactics.

do the right thing

The film begins slowly, following various different characters on a hot summer day in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. The film documents the numerous subtle and explicit forms of inequality and racial tensions in this neighborhood. As the day goes on, and the heat increases, tensions build over a series of seemingly small, but symbolically laden, events between members of different racial groups. The film ends with an altercation between several black youth and Sal, the Italian owner of a pizzeria. This leads to the arrest and murder of one of the young black men in the altercation, Radio Raheem, by a police officer. In response to the unnecessary tragic death, the pizzeria’s delivery boy, Mookie (portrayed by Spike Lee) who is friends with Raheem, throws a garbage can through the window of the pizzeria. This leads to the complete destruction of the pizzeria and a riot in the neighborhood.

Do the Right Thing depicts, and holds in complexity, the many layers and forms of racial tension and inequality in American society, raising questions of how one can “do the right thing” in a society with such vast, entrenched, and diverse forms of inequality and injustice. It is a brilliant film, showing how a sense of hurt and injustice from a series of slights, degradations, and inequalities can slowly compound under difficult conditions (such as the symbolic summer heat), and combust in violent collective action.

The film ends with the following quotes by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X:

“Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends by defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

“I think that there are plenty of good people in America, but there are also plenty of bad people in America and the bad ones are the ones who seem to have al the power and be in positions to block things that you and I need. Because this is the situation, you and I have to preserve the right to do what is necessary to bring an end to that situation, and it doesn’t mean that I advocate violence, but at the same time I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don’t even call it violence when it’s self-defense, I call it intelligence.” Malcolm X

This film is a great teaching resource, which invites us, and our students to make sense of the social complexity portrayed in this film, and how, in a very unequal society, one can “do the right thing.” Yet there is no one “right” answer to the social problems in our society, which are depicted in the film. Some of the students and faculty argued that in a system that is “not built for us,” violence can be a necessary tactic to bring attention to deep social inequalities. As Martin Luther King also said, one faculty member quoted, “A riot is the language of the unheard.”

Yet, the film also reveals how collective violence can be a blunt, unwieldy instrument, which lacks precision in where it is directed and in the degree of force released. As King also said, as noted above, when used it can also foster the seeds of brutality in its survivors – which we can see in numerous locations around the world today, and most notably with the rise of ISIS in the Middle East.

Regardless of where you fall on these issues, the film raises important provocative questions about how to deal with the many complex social problems we face in American society.

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