There’s a pivotal scene in Spike Lee’s 1989 joint that illustrates how absurd — and in this case, amusing — racism can really be. Pressured to discuss his favourite entertainers, racist Italian-American pizza store boss Pino (John Turturro) confesses to his black delivery boy Mookie (Spike Lee) that his pop heroes are Eddie Murphy, Prince and Magic Johnson. When Mookie points out that they’re all black, Pino stumbles in his attempt to justify himself. “It’s different,” he protests. “Magic, Eddie, Prince are not niggers… they’re not really black; they’re more than black.” Mookie’s reply is classic Lee. “Pino,” he deadpans, “deep down inside, don’t you wish you were black?”
Almost 20 years after Do the Right Thing landed like a trash can through the store window of America’s race complacency, it’s tempting to hold the movie up as a dirty mirror to an age in which “urban” culture is more popular than ever with white people, and black stereotypes — from aspirational movie pimps to bejewelled rappers — service the vicarious desires of the lucrative middle class cracker dollar. Has anything really changed, or are they, as Malcolm X might have suggested, little more than “house negroes”: all-singin’, all-dancin’ sideshows afforded the bling life via the patronage of white audiences who enjoy them from a safe distance as multimedia “jigaboos”?
The reality is more complex, of course, and Spike Lee was smart enough to know how to play the game. Already a celebrity himself by 1988 — thanks to a series of popular Nike Air commercials with superstar Michael Jordan — the 32-year-old director and professional big mouth used the funding of a major studio (Universal, after Paramount balked at the script) to make a film he knew would court the controversy necessary to turn it into a cultural phenomenon.
Set over the course of one long, sweltering summer’s day in the Brooklyn suburb of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Do the Right Thing begins with local radio DJ Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson) exhorting the neighbourhood – and with it, the audience – to “Waaaaaake uuuuup!”, his voice presiding over the film like a theatrical conscience. His forecast: the day is gonna be HOT and the colour is BLACK. As the mercury rises so too does the tension amongst the blacks, whites, Puerto Ricans, Koreans and Italians uneasily sharing the block. “We were trying to depict realistically what I felt were the state of race relations in the United States in 1988,” said Lee, and the film functions as microcosm of this precarious balance.
Trouble escalates when Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) calls for a boycott of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, a neighbourhood institution whose eponymous owner (Danny Aiello) insists on displaying only Italian-American icons on the restaurant wall — despite the fact that all of his customers are black. Meanwhile, the imposing Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) stomps the pavement blasting the movie’s anthem, Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”, at ear-shattering volume on his monolithic boom box, and brandishing gold knuckle rings that read “Love” and Hate”; late ’80s B-boy culture by way of Robert Mitchum. Raheem’s “jungle music” drives Sal and his son Pino over the edge. “You black cocksucker,” he screams, “I’ll fuckin’ tear your nigger ass apart!” Raheem’s ensuing death at the hands of overzealous cops — complete with his Air Jordan’s flapping like dying fish; some canny Lee product placement — is the spark that ignites the film’s infamous climax. Shaken from his placid state, Mookie — and thus, Lee — tosses a trash can through the window of Sal’s store, inciting a riot that ends in fiery destruction.
Did Mookie “do the right thing”? Was that even a relevant question? Some critics were hysterically vocal in their outrage at the time, accusing Lee of an inflammatory call to violence and shocked at what they saw as an act of senseless vandalism. Lee was typically unrepentant in defense. “The title does not really refer to Mookie throwing the garbage can through the window,“ he shot back. “My experience since this film’s come out is that the white audience, they’re more concerned with the destruction of property, of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, than they were about the death of Radio Raheem.”
What those critics failed to see is that Do the Right Thing is as much a plea for tolerance as a call to arms. Lee certainly wasn’t naive: the film ends with juxtaposed quotes — one from Martin Luther King Jr, advocating peace, the other from Malcolm X (who Lee would later mythologise by biopic), favouring militant action. “We just go after the truth,” said Lee of the film upon its release, “more than being concerned whether it’s positive or negative.”
If Do the Right Thing sounds like righteous soap-boxing in theory, the film itself is anything but. Lee matches his didactic yapping with a style both accomplished and infectious. The film pops and weaves with the exuberance of its slippery jazz score; soaked in an almost Technicolor unreality, it’s a heightened fever dream-turned-nightmare, infused with the confrontational baiting of Godard and the irrepressible vigour of early Scorsese (whom Lee counts among his cinema idols). In one bravura montage, characters sling racist epithets to camera in a crude symphony of crossfire.
The critical arm flailing that followed worked like a charm for the film, and Lee had a hit on his hands. Controversy meant great publicity. When Do the Right Thing failed to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes — as Lee was convinced it would — the outspoken auteur cried robbery, even going so far as to threaten Jury president Wim Wenders with retribution via baseball bat.
If that all seemed like empty bitterness, Lee could be rightfully annoyed that the film failed to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Film — especially when the award went to Driving Miss Daisy, in which a rich white lady patronises a caricatured black man; played by Hollywood’s perennial “magic negro” Morgan Freeman.
Today, Lee’s film might seem almost simplistic in its manifesto, and yet it’s lost none of its explosive nature; in an era of cultural complacency, it still sounds the wake-up call.
“That garbage can was heavy,” Lee recalls of that scene. “In fact, the first two or three attempts to throw the garbage can through the window, it just bounced off.” Maybe it’ll take him a little longer to fight the power, after all.
Originally published in Empire, July 2008