“Do The Right Thing” and Fighting the Power of Intolerance

A woman protesting hate at a rally

I had the pleasure of taking in a screening of the new 4k restoration of Spike Lee’s 1989 masterpiece, “Do The Right Thing,” late last night. Though I had seen it many times before, this viewing yielded my most visceral emotional reaction to the film yet.

A lot of that had to do with the news cycle I was monitoring and tweeting about as I sat in the theatre beforehand, waiting for latecomers to trickle in and the projection to start. I’m talking, unfortunately, about the most recent mass shootings to grab the headlines, killing an estimated 29 people (as of this writing) and injuring many, many more.

It’s no just that though. It’s also the toxic fear-mongering that influenced one shooter’s online manifesto; the sad, reductive excuses offered up by Republicans; and impassioned, expletive truth bombs coming from others in the political arenas. Not to mention the heartbreaking tragedy inflicted on so many families in the aftermath of such unspeakable horror.

However, instead of coming together with empathy, courage, and understanding, all I saw was indifference that bordered on tribalism. Some even clumsily tried to explain the unexplainable. It was, and I can’t stress this enough, an absolute shitshow.

It was in that frame of mind that I switched my phone off and prepared for the film’s stunning opening musical dance number/overture. As Rosie Perez’s outfit shifted from summer dress to boxing attire, as her movements became less stylized and more erratic, her anger melded with Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” in a way that I hadn’t felt before.

Just when I thought I knew every corner of this movie, I realized that night that “Do The Right Thing” still had so much to teach me about where intolerance comes from and how thoroughly Western culture continues to weave it into the fabric of everyday life.

The great thing about Spike Lee’s script–one that was nominated for an Oscar–is how reluctant it is to tell the viewer what to think and how to feel. In so doing, it goes beyond simplistic movie cliches like “good” and “evil,” preferring to take as detached and objective a stance as possible on what is still an extremely complex topic.

Here’s Roger Ebert with more (warning: spoilers ahead):

“There are really no heroes or villains in the film. There is even a responsible cop, who screams ‘that’s enough!’ as another cop chokes Radio with his nightstick. And perhaps the other cop is terrified because he is surrounded by a mob and the pizzeria is on fire. On and on, around and around, black and white, fear and suspicion breed and grow. Because we know all of the people and have spent all day on the street, we feel as much grief as anger. Radio Raheem is dead. And Sal, who has watched the neighborhood’s kids grow up for 25 years and fed them with his pizza, stands in the ruins of his store. A pizzeria does not equal a human life, but its loss is great to Sal, because it represents a rejection of the meaning of his own life, and Spike Lee knows that feels bad for Sal, and gives him a touching final scene with Mookie in which the unspoken subtext might be: Why can’t we eat pizza, and raise our families, and run our businesses, and work at our jobs, and not let racism colonize our minds with suspicion?”

I’ll go a step further and propose that intolerance of any kind, especially the kind that continues to leave Americans without a clear-cut solution to their homegrown gun violence epidemic, is what pulls the rug out from under characters we’ve come to admire and root for over two hours, reducing them to passive contributors to a vicious cycle they silently accept.

For the sake of my word count, let’s focus on Danny Aiello’s Sal and Spike Lee’s Mookie. The former is mostly seen as a kind-hearted neighborhood staple who sets off the film’s devastating climax by letting some kids into his shop after closing. The latter is a likable ne’er-do-well who, whether it’s with his baby mama, his sister or his co-workers at the pizzeria, is trying to keep the peace.

However, raw human emotion becomes each man’s undoing. Sal, who spends most of the film’s running time silently distancing himself from his son Pino’s racist vitriol, hits his breaking point by smashing a boombox right after hurling the cruelest of racial epithets. After a fight breaks out and the cops make the aforementioned fatal blunder, Mookie sets off the second phase of the night’s mayhem with the most famous trash can throw in movie history.

You can swap out racism for homophobia, misogyny, or any other kind of discrimination you like and the hair-trigger responses that turn a seemingly amicable atmosphere deadly would probably be about the same.

The real genius of Lee’s work as writer and director is how he lingers on the faces and reactions of certain characters during and after the pizzeria looting. There’s the shot of Radio Raheem’s dead body, lying in the back of a cop car anxious to flee the scene. There’s the shot of Sal and his sons, watching silently as their lives literally go up in flames. There’s the close-up on Mookie sitting on the sidewalk afterward, his dazed face implying an out-of-body experience.

Then, there’s maybe my favorite shot of the whole movie, where Smiley makes his way back into the smoldering remains of the pizzeria and pins a photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X to a wall that was once home exclusively to Italian celebrities. The reverse shot of the man, a gleeful grin on his face, represents both the harmful effects of intolerance and the positive effects that can come from meaningful outrage and protest.

There’s at least one moment in “Do The Right Thing” where some may empathize more with the burning of Sal’s restaurant than with the loss of a man’s life. It’s just one of the ways Lee and his cast and crew use provocative subject matter to provoke genuine reactions from his audience. The process forces anyone watching to hold a mirror up to their lives and habits and come to terms with their unique approaches to dealing with intolerance.

The film deliberately asks more questions than it answers, and maybe that’s why it’s still such an indispensable piece of pop culture three decades later. One could argue, like Tambay Obenson of IndieWire does, that the movie resonates more now than it did during its original theatrical run:

“Events that followed its release [only] underscore the profundity of the film’s commentary, from the tragic stories of the Central Park Five and Rodney King to the more recent death of Eric Garner. The latter resembled the scene from ‘Do the Right Thing’ in which Radio Raheem is choked to death by police. The arguments Lee makes in the film continue to have relevance, and that relevance in the era of Black Lives Matter is not only a tribute to the original work but also a testament to the resolve of the prejudiced system that the film contends with. It’s quite damning that so little seems to have changed […]”

As I walked home following the screening (taking an Uber and making idle chit-chat with a driver seemed impossible to do at the time), I found myself still trying to wrap my head around everything that “Do the Right Thing” has to teach us about intolerance.

It seems to magnify contemporary issues, like gun violence, and underscore the symptoms of larger, institutionalized conflicts of interest. As step after step of mine echoed into the hot summer night, I felt a renewed energy rise up within me to do better.

Let’s be clear: There are no easy solutions to a problem this big, one that touches so many lives in so many different ways. Watching this movie won’t be a magic bullet cure to what so urgently ails too many cities in the United States and beyond either, but that doesn’t change my revelation in connection with the film.

I’m not sure how that will happen–the doing better part, I mean. It may not involve breaking storefront windows, but embodying that change can’t be silent either. We’ve come too far, seen far too much bloodshed, to turn a blind eye to those who use intolerance, fueled by fear and hatred, as a way to incite violence and destruction.

No one’s immune to pangs of intolerance. I’ve had my moments where assumptions about people’s lives have taken the place of asking questions, getting to know them and, most importantly, informing my actions with facts instead of hollow emotional constructs.

But that doesn’t mean that those missteps have to define me or anyone else–that is, if we care enough to make that transformation.

Spike Lee is one of my favorite filmmakers and “Do The Right Thing” is one of my all-time favorite films. It’s moved me before, but not like tonight. Not after the world terrified me as it did right before the lights went down and the opening credits began to roll. Sometimes, you need to see something in the right place and at the right time to truly absorb its essence. I feel like that finally happened, in a tiny screening room holding fewer than 50 people.

Like all great art, Lee’s film transcends its era and its medium by penetrating your defenses, grabbing a hold of your soul and refusing to let go until it’s said what it has to say. It’s not a cure by any means, but it’s a reminder of how much work we still have to do and, in a way, what it will take to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

And that’s the triple truth, Ruth.

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