In 1989, director/writer Spike Lee, released what would go on to be one of his most controversial films, Do the Right Thing. The film’s diegesis centers on the fermentation of racial tension and the rage it produces within a fictionalized
Brooklyn neighborhood. The time covered in the film is
one hot, hot summer day but the cultural space that the film covers is immense and is still relevant today. Lee’s inspiration for
the film stemmed from a rash of killings by New York City police officers of young black
unarmed men. In particular a young graffiti artist named Michael Stewart, whom
police suffocated to death in an illegal choke hold. A peripheral character in
the film by the name of Radio Raheem dies in the same manner towards the end of
the film. In a sick twist on “life imitating art”, Eric Garner would die in the
exact same fashion, choked to death by
police officers, almost 25 years later. Stanton Island
The death of Radio Raheem in the film is precipitated by a lack of racial understanding in the tiny fictional world that he and the other characters of the narrative inhabit. Lee’s early treatment of the characters (mostly flat) and the setting (saturated in color, shot form a skew or an angle) gives the narrative an almost fable like quality. The community of Do the Right Thing serves as a microcosm example of the world at large. Characters such as Sal, pizzeria owner (the bigot), Mookie (the slacker), Buggin Out (the bombastic black militant), Radio Raheem (the gentle giant), Da Mayor (neighborhood sage) and so on, could easily be misinterpreted as stereotypical archetypes but Lee uses clever writing and an unbiased presentation to avoid this trap. The iconic love versus hate sequence featuring Radio Raheem is an example of Lee’s ability to offer a quick glimpse of the complexity that lurks beneath the seeming flatness of the characters, but at the same time does not reveal too much about their own inner, personal dialogues.
The death of Radio Raheem begins with the pivotal scene between the bigot, Sal and the black militant, Buggin Out. Buggin Out’s obsession with Sal’s wall of fame and its lack of “color” leads him to demand a boycott of Sal’s business by its mostly black patrons. Buggin Out demands that Sal places famous black faces on the wall to go along side those of famous Italians. Lee based the character of Buggin Out on popular black leaders in
New City at the
time who were big on symbolism but did little to actually bridge the racial
divide. Sal and Buggin Out yell at each and talk past each other. It is clear
that their lack of true communication with one another is what leads to the chaos that
eventually ensues in the film.
The murder of Radio Raheem, the riot, and of the chaos that ensues at the end of the film is presented in a very formalist, matter of fact way. Radio Raheem's last choked breath is not covered by some grand overture. There are no wide shots of Sal’s pizzeria burning or sweeping angled shots of the mobs destruction. Everything just happens as if it would in real life. In our world when confronted with these types of racial tragedies there is a tendency to question how we arrived at such a low point in our culture. Pundits and intellectuals gather for their close ups on 24/7 cable news channels pontificating on various theories of racism, trumpeting one side or the other of various arguments. Are they looters or protesters? Is it a riot or a rebellion? What is the root of all this anger?
Lee shies away from this type of examination in the film. There are no cuts to television news shows. The characters do not gather around to examine in conversation what has happened to them or to their neighborhood. Instead the film ends with Mookie, played be Lee, waking up in the next morning in his girlfriend’s bed as usual, dressing in his pizza delivery uniform and making his way to work, Sal’s pizzeria (this sequence mirrors the one at the beginning of the film). Sal is sitting there in front of his now burned out pizza shop and he and Mookie return in some weird sense, back to normal. Sal laments some about his destroyed shop and directs a little anger towards Mookie. Mookie collects his regular pay from Sal and walks away. Everything that transpired the night before, the death of Radio Raheem, the destruction and its aftermath, seems senseless.
Racism is futile. Hate is futile. Murder is futile. Rage is futile. Lee bravely constructs a narrative with an ending that does not attempt to make sense of the stupidity of all these things. The film's narrative does not offer any solutions to these problems. Sadly, as a nation, when confronted with the same issues of race our narrative's ending is often the same as Lee's film. Questions are left unanswered, tragedy feels unavoidable and sadly doing the right thing (whatever that is) seems to be impossible.
The morning after sequence and final shots of the film are available at this link: