Spike Lee’s ‘Do the Right Thing’
It is by no means a monolith, but large parts of white America seem to be in a moment of reckoning. George Floyd’s death on May 25th horrified everyone, but the eruption of rage that fueled the burning of the Minneapolis precinct sparked a wave of sustained global protests that aren’t going away any time soon.
It’s still very early in this movement to know where things are headed, and the atmosphere has definitely changed since those first months, but one thing is clear. People all over the country want to change and they are hungry to learn. In many cases, people have turned to movies to spur conversation among their friends and/or immediate family.
Popular titles like Netflix’s 13th or the recent film adaptation of Just Mercy are getting attention because of their particular focus on criminal justice reform, and those are great choices, but there are few films I would recommend more for this moment than Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989). The moment I saw the first video of the Minneapolis police precinct burning I immediately thought about Do the Right Thing.
Now, it’s worth pointing out that there is one scene with some brief nudity and the entire film is saturated in racial slurs (so it might not be the most comfortable family flick… that’s your call), but if you want to start a mature conversation around race and what we all should do about it, this is your film.
Why Do the Right Thing?
Far before the death of George Floyd, Do the Right Thing became famous for its handling of racism in the United States and its almost prophetic prediction of moments like the Rodney King riots, also animated out of reaction to police brutality.
In a broader sense, however, Do the Right Thing is about community. Specifically, it’s about a community pushed to the breaking point by escalating race relations — and no matter what they do today — it’s a community that has to wake up tomorrow, face those same racial tensions, and live with every action they took the day before.
The title spurs a lot of questions to think about after the end credits roll, “Who did the right thing? Did anyone do the right thing? Who did the wrong thing? What would have been the ‘right’ thing?”, but Spike Lee doesn’t hand us any easy answers. Instead, our characters are complicated, subtle, and often sympathetic.
Most of the complexity even went over my head on the first watch. One famous scene involves Buggin’ Out (played by Giancarlo Esposito) getting in the face of a white man in a Celtics jersey who bumped him and scuffed up Buggin’ Out’s shoe. But if you pay attention, you can see that the man bumped Buggin’ Out on his left side and the scuff on was on Buggin’ Out’s right shoe.
A lot of oversimplified films address racial divides with a neat and pedantic bow tied at the end. Do the Right Thing is no such film.
Getting Into the Story
Do the Right Thing takes a particular focus on following Mookie (played by Spike Lee), but it would be hard to consider Mookie the “main” character. Instead, his presence drives the narrative forward as he meanders through the community on pizza delivery routes, introducing us to most of the characters that will inhabit the rest of the film.
If I can sum up the film’s narrative with any structure it’s the cyclical rhythm between moments when conflict emerges and tension builds to moments when characters try to cool things down by walking away or laughing it all off.
The best example of this build-up and cool-down structure is when an argument between Mookie and Pino (played by John Turturro) erupts into a montage of characters hurling racial slurs at the camera — ending with Samuel Jackson sliding towards the camera as “Mister Señor Love Daddy” with this truly fantastic line:
“Yo! Hold up! Time out! TIME OUT!
Y’all take a chill! Ya need to cool that shit out!
And that’s the double truth, Ruth!”
Spike Lee doesn’t pull any punches with this scene. So, don’t watch it if you aren’t comfortable hearing truly horrible racial slurs.
I also included a clip of just Samuel L. Jackson’s “cool that shit out!” line for good measure. The clip is truly universal in its applications and it skips the racial slurs if that’s a problem for you.
Let’s be real. We all have moments when we need Samuel L. Jackson to yell at us like this.
If there is one signature aspect of Do the Right Thing it’s the Heat. The entire narrative follows one small multi-racial, multi-generational community and it all takes place over the course of “New York City’s hottest day of the year”.
Heat plays a central role throughout the meaning of Do the Right Thing, and the film communicates that Heat onto screen beautifully. Spike Lee deserves much of this artistic praise, but we can’t forget Do the Right Thing’s cinematographer Ernest Dickerson.
Despite shooting during 8 often-rainy weeks, Dickerson still found a way to create Heat on camera. Most notably, he utilized an almost exclusively bright warm color palette and even went as far as to set heat lamps below the lens to give the sense of one blistering hot day.
In addition, one of the most effective ways to communicate Heat seems to be showing people trying to avoid that Heat. Spike Lee constantly incorporates moments of refuge from the Heat. 3 old men spend most of the film under an umbrella, young people in the neighborhood play around after opening up a fire hydrant, and cold showers provide a truly satisfying shelter from the oppression outside.
The Usual Interpretation
The most popular interpretation of Heat’s role in Do the Right Thing aligns with conventional uses of Heat in films like Sydney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men. In this case, Heat is interpreted to represent an unavoidable reality that needs to be addressed.
Symbolically, the Heat runs parallel to something else in the film which demands the characters’ attention. In a very physical sense, Heat is often a really hard thing to avoid. I’ve experienced my fair share of scorching hot days, and if you don’t have AC, there’s just no avoiding the fact that you are going to be HOT when the weather says so. In this way, Heat runs parallel to all those other things our characters can’t escape either.
In the case of Do the Right Thing, this unavoidable reality is racial tensions in the United States. The sweltering New York City Heat lays Spike Lee’s characters bare and provides them no shelter from things we might prefer to kick down the road for someone else or some other time.
As much as we might like to beat racism in one day and wake up with it gone, or save dealing with it for another time, racism has a long persistent history and those types of things don’t go away easily.
Sal’s last interaction with Mookie in the final scene nails in this fact:
“Well, they say it’s even gonna get hotter today?
What’re you gonna do with yourself?”
When Mookie woke up the scene before this interaction with Sal, you start with a sense of calm that didn’t exist the day before, but Spike Lee quickly reminds us of everything waiting for Mookie outside. Some things just can’t be avoided, and hoping for a cooler tomorrow provides no relief.
If we take the story at its surface, however, there is another meaningful way that we can interpret the role of Heat in Do the Right Thing. I like to call this frame of interpretation “Turning up the Heat” and I used it as a metaphor for climate change in another blog post (which served as the base for this current post).
This “Turning up the Heat” interpretation shies away from the usual symbolism and treats Heat in a very physical way. The Heat isn’t some analogy running parallel to something deeper. Instead, we’re watching people who are surrounded by Heat and reacting to that fact in the context of their pre-existing world.
In this interpretation (and in real life), Heat can bring out the worst in people. Heat pushes previous tensions and inequalities to the max. Then these tensions build and build until they finally erupt.
Those tensions were all there when the weather was good. The Heat itself never creates the conflict. Racism and inequality didn’t just pop up on one hot day in Do the Right Thing, but previous rifts and community tensions skyrocket when the community gets enveloped with that oppressive heat.
People are just much less patient when they’re covered in sweat, and as someone once described Do the Right Thing, “It’s about complicated people who lose the will to forgive each other” (link).
The prime example is Danny Aiello’s character, Sal. He can be a compassionate person who confronts the frequent and easy to spot racism in his son, but at the end of a long HOT day peppered with conflict, Sal reacts on a hair-trigger, and the racism inside of him bolts to the surface, overflowing into slurs, threats, and violence.
Eruptions like these have to come from somewhere. So, we can’t say that Sal “isn’t a racist” by judging him at his best. We need to be critical of how people react at their worst too. Heat can never be the primary reason Sal erupts, but Heat accelerates this movement and we need to be cognizant of that.
As briefly alluded to earlier, this interpretation of “Turning up the Heat” can provide insight into the relationship between climate change and racism, but it also builds a holistic framework that can help us make sense of much more. At this moment, the concept of “Turning up the Heat” helps remind us that there is always more at play than what lies directly in front of us. Policing, Trump, the COVID pandemic, wealth inequality, and a large history of other socioeconomic factors all play a part in the rage animating the protests. Despite what we may prefer, none of these things exist in a bubble.
So, go watch Do the Right Thing, and make sure you got people to talk it over afterward on zoom. To quote Zack de la Rocha, “What better place than here? What better time than now?”