A transcript of Matt Zoller Seitz's video essay, viewable here.
Released 20 years ago this month, Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing was one of the most controversial films of its time. It was praised in many quarters for its script, direction, photography, acting and music, and singled out by some prominent critics as a rich and multifaceted drama about racism, police brutality and the dynamics of an urban community. Others condemned it as contrived, unrealistic, shrill, even irresponsible — a potent work of propaganda intended to stoke racial resentment, perhaps even incite violence.
That there were no notably violent incidents at theaters showing Do the Right Thing is a matter of public record. But one doubts this was merely a lucky break on Lee's part. A close look at the movie's construction confirms not just its entertainment value and political relevance, but its generosity of spirit. Do the Right Thing is not a film-as-argument. It's a film about arguments. More specifically, it's about the roots of the grievances people hold and the anger they unleash.
It's less about the interaction between particular ethnic groups in 1980s New York City than the psychological processes that drive people to violence and the difficulty, at times impossibility, of figuring out who started the fight and how it might have been prevented. Racism is a key cause of the riot that ends the movie, but it's just one factor among many. The real culprit is human nature. Lee explores this subject by making every aspect of the film, from sequences and shots to lines and music cues, into opposing forces that dance around each other, argue with each other and whale on each other without achieving resolution, much less victory.
Although Lee's offscreen remarks about which characters he personally sided with understandably confused the issue, the film itself is not an argument for or against anything. Nor, for that matter, is it meant to be taken as a journalistic representation of big city culture clash. The characters are as emblematic and the situations as metaphorical as those in a stage play, a medium Lee goes out of his way to evoke, demonstrating special affection for Thornton Wilder's Our Town, a drama which, like Do the Right Thing, includes a character who's a stand-in for the playwright: Mr. Senor Love Daddy, the storefront DJ who provides an ongoing pop score for the neighborhood residents while watching their drama through a plate-glass window and offering history, commentary and context. It's telling that the only character invited to use Senor Love Daddy's microphone to address the neighborhood is Mookie, the deliveryman for Sal's Famous Pizzeria — a character played by the writer-director.
That's not the only nod to theatrical convention. Honoring guidelines laid down by Aristotle, the story unfolds during a self-contained period in a single location. And while that location was a real block in Bed-Sty, Brooklyn, Lee and his cinematographer, Ernest Dickerson, chose to light and shoot it in a highly artificial manner that makes it look like a set. Many conversations are blocked in a foursquare manner, as if the actors are on a stage. And from start to finish, Lee bruises or outright breaks the fourth wall by having characters deliver lines straight into the camera.
The result is a boisterous, rude, colorful, sentimental cinematic twist on what used to be called "a play of ideas." It presents many arguments, many prejudices and many words of wisdom, some compelling, others nonsensical. Then it shows what happens when people lose control of their emotions and transform hostile thoughts and feelings into words and actions.
The opposing impulses collide in the form of individual characters, but no matter who gets dressed down or beaten up, nobody really wins, and conflicts don't so much end as momentarily subside. They just keep circling around and around each other, waiting for another chance to clash. Lee's dialogue is often structured as a series of verbal mirrors, with characters repeating themselves with minor syntactical changes or inversions that seem to alter the statement's meaning. (Da Mayor to cops trying to figure out who turned a fire hydrant stream on a passing driver: “Those who’ll tell don’t know, and those that know won’t tell.”) The plot, the characters, even individual lines of dialogue are all continually grappling with one another and with themselves.
Lee shows where the urge to fight rather than talk originates: not in rational grievance, but in the need to impress friends, heal wounded pride, assert dominance or simply to let off steam on the hottest day of the year. Repeat viewings of the movie confirm that many of the hostile encounters were triggered by personal issues that are only tangentially related to politics. For instance, Buggin Out's anger at Sal and his sons is less about the absence of black faces on Sal's wall of fame than the fact that Sal snapped, pulled a bat on him and kicked him out in front of his neighbors.
In his definitive 1989 review of Do the Right Thing, originally published in the Chicago Reader and republished in several anthologies, including Movies as Politics, Jonathan Rosenbaum traces the chain of hostile and sometimes violent encounters that leads to the death of Radio Raheem at the hands of the police, and the subsequent trashing of Sal’s pizzeria by neighborhood residents — including Mookie, who up till then has been depicted as a detached observer who’s mainly interested in getting laid and paid. Rosenbaum writes, “The movie shows certain events happening and certain steps leading up to them: these events include one supposedly levelheaded pizzeria owner blowing his cool and a group of angry blacks trashing the establishment... At most, one might intuit that some of the film’s angry black characters associate their trashing of the pizzeria with ‘fighting the power,’ but there’s nothing in the film that suggests they’re right about this; nor does the film say that Sal is exposing his ‘true feelings’ or that Sal is the equivalent of ‘any white person.’ Indeed, the movie takes great pains to show that the characters who tend to talk the most about ‘fighting the power’ in less hysterical situations — Radio Raheem, Buggin Out and Smiley — are relatively myopic and misguided, and are seen as such by their neighbors; it also takes pains to establish Sal as a complex, multifaceted character who can’t easily be reduced to platitudes.”
Rosenbaum continues: “In place of either/or, Lee gives us both/and, epitomized by the two quotations that close the movie, from Martin Luther King, Jr. (condemning violence) and from Malcolm X (describing situations when self-defense may be necessary). Some have argued that Lee’s refusal to choose between these statements proves he’s confused, but this argument only proves how reductive either/or thinking usually turns out to be.”