Undoubtedly one of the most controversial films of all time, Spike Lee’s incendiary 1989 portrait of racial tensions in a New York suburb is more relevant today than it has ever been in the wake of the Baltimore riots.
It’s the hottest day of the year in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, and the hate and bigotry that resides in the community is about to boil over into riots, violence, and ultimately, tragedy. That is the plot of Do the Right Thing, a film that, ever since its release in 1989, has sparked boundless controversies. Many reviewers at the time were concerned that its inflammatory nature would spark nationwide riots amongst black communities. However, since then, it has become widely acclaimed as one of the greatest, and most politically charged films of all time.
The film’s tragic ending, whereby an unarmed Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) is choked to death by a police officer, is a clear attack on police brutality and on the underlying racism that continues to inhabit many communities even today, twenty-six years on. If you look at American society today, nothing has really changed, in-fact, it’s gotten even worse.
Figure 1: Radio Raheem getting choked to death by police in Do the Right Thing
July 17th, 2014, one of the hottest days of the year, Eric Garner, an unarmed black man is choked to death by a police officer in Staten Island, New York City. If you’ve seen Do the Right Thing, this sounds alarmingly familiar.
Figure 2: Eric Garner being choked to death by real-life police in NYC
Police brutality was a huge issue in America in the 1980’s and 1990’s, the ‘Algiers 7’ case of 1980, and the violent beating of Rodney King in 1991 are both standout examples, and are both cases that Spike Lee’s film set out to condemn. However, since the death of Eric Garner last year, there has been a plethora of police brutality cases arising in America. Last August, Michael Brown, an unarmed black eighteen-year old was shot dead by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Then, in April of this year, Freddie Gray, a twenty-five-year old African American died after sustaining injuries from police officers in Baltimore. The latter case in particular indicated the final straw, the final action that tipped over the boiling pot, erupting into riots, much like Sal (Danny Aiello) destroying Radio Raheem’s boombox whilst calling him a n***er being the final straw that causes riots in Do the Right Thing.
Fuelling director Lee’s condemnation of racism and police brutality is the accompanying soundtrack. Conceived at the request of the director himself (who sought after a musical theme for his film), Public Enemy’s song ‘Fight the Power’ permeates the film, and acts as a running parallel to Lee’s clear message on screen. We hear it right at the start of the film, as Rosie Perez dances, pounding her fists in time to the beats, and we hear it through Radio Raheem’s boombox throughout. “Our freedom of speech is freedom or death, we got to fight the powers that be” laments Chuck D in the opening verse of the song, both Lee’s and Public Enemy’s underlying messages clearly intersect.
Do the Right Thing was released at a time when hip/hop was a genre that had something to say, groups such as Public Enemy and N.W.A were making bold statements about police brutality and racism in American society; consider Public Enemy’s ‘911 is a joke’ and N.W.A iconic ‘F**k Tha Police’, as clear, and rather obvious examples of this social commentary. In contemporary society, hip/hop is not making anywhere near as much political noise as it used to. This is with possible exception to rapper Kendrick Lamar, whose new album ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ is filled with political commentaries, harking back to the George Zimmerman case in 2012 when he asks: “So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street?”.
The combination of Public Enemy’s iconic music and Spike Lee’s powerful film really spoke to audiences, black and white, although its final message is ambiguous as we, as an audience, are unsure whether Mookie truly did do the right thing by throwing the trash can through the window of Sal’s pizzeria. You could argue that he did it restrict the inevitable violence to merely property damage, on the other hand, you could argue that he did it to demonstrate that hate has won over love, proving Radio Raheem wrong.
Figure 3: Radio Raheem’s death indicates that love has lost to hate
Racial tensions in America are reaching a boiling point in contemporary society. Perhaps the Baltimore riots were the final culmination of everything that has been building up in the last year, but I fear that there will be more to come as these shocking cases of police brutality against African Americans seem to be never-ending. If Do the Right Thing was released today, I believe that it would be considered even more relevant than it was back in 1989. Its unapologetic, angry nature, and its sociopolitical messages perfectly reflect the huge racial tension in modern-day America.
Lee’s message is clear: “You can do nothing, you can do something, or you can do the right thing”. Many of his characters seem to make the wrong decisions, certainly not doing the ”right thing”, and it seems as if, despite everything that’s happened in this twenty-six year period, nothing’s changed.