In Do the Right Thing, writer/director/actor Spike Lee chronicles the lives of working class Brooklyners in the ethnically diverse Bed-Stuy area over a 24-hour period, on the hottest day of the summer. Lee gives a sense of the film’s energy and aggressiveness as early as the opening credits. As Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” blasts, sound and images are combined into a brilliantly edited sequence filled with bright colors, attitude, and anger. Shot by long-time collaborator Ernest Dickerson, the film seems about ready to burst with its palette of strong, saturated colors and emphasis on bright fiery reds and warm oranges and golds that create a visual representation of heat. As temperatures escalate, so do the conflicts between characters; tensions flare up and ultimately explode in racial violence.
Lee treads the fine line between the personal and the political, making his singularly unique characters more than just stand-in representatives for their class and race, but at the same time refusing to focus simply on the individual, instead reflecting on the wider social tensions that come to shape the characters and their actions. From the first shot of the film, a closeup of a ringing clock and Samuel L. Jackson’s character’s first words—“Wake up!” (which also happens to be the closing line of Lee’s previous film, School Daze)—it’s obvious the director is pleading with the audience as much as the characters to open their eyes and see the urgent need for interracial respect and understanding. Lee’s is a clear, level gaze at American politics of race, from a distinct, African American perspective. His films pose questions that evade easy answers; he offers no solutions. By the ambiguous ending of the movie, it is up to us to decide what “the right thing” is.
A multitude of ethnic groups are represented, all scrambling for a piece of the American Dream: Italian American Sal (Danny Aiello) and his two sons, Pino (John Turturro)and Vito (Richard Edson), a Korean family who owns a convenience store, Irish and Jewish police officers, Mookie’s (Lee) Latina girlfriend Tina (Rosie Perez) and her son, and over a dozen African American and Puerto Rican characters.
Racism is most heartbreaking to witness when it is unexpected, as when Sal, who seems kind, accepting, and genuinely happy and proud of his pizzeria and its black customers, calls Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” “jungle music,” or when Mookie is sure Sal wants to “hide the salami” with his sister Jade (Joie Lee). A slow pan moves from Mookie to the racist, short-fused Pino as they incredulously watch Sal and Jade talk; avoiding a cut between the two characters’ reaction, Spike Lee links them in their bigotry. No ethnicity emerges unscathed; in a montage of racial slurring that breaks the fourth wall—which the director extends in The 25th Hour (2005)— everyone has something to say about everyone else: blacks, whites, Jews, Latinos, Asians.
Against this backdrop of intolerance and senseless abuse, the local deejay emerges as the voice of reason. Mister Senor Love Daddy takes in all the street activity from his window and, like the Greek chorus of Sweet Dick Willie (Robin Harris), ML (Paul Benjamin), and Coconut Sid (Frankie Faison), comments on the action from his vantage point, as his “We Love” radio station provides the soundtrack of these lives. Sadly, “We Hate” would be more appropriate, especially when the disc jockey has to intervene after the montage of racial insults: “Time out! You all take a chill. You need to cool that shit out. And that’s the double truth, Ruth.” More than any other character, the deejay embodies love, civility, and understanding. The radio station that forms the soundtrack of the film, along with Bill Lee’s jazzy score does more than set up the mood; it expresses cultural identity, and Senor Love Daddy’s role in providing this music sets him up as a preserver of that identity.
The duality of love and hate pervades Do the Right Thing, from Radio Raheem’s (Bill Nunn) rings to the two opposing views on violence displayed by the quotations at the end. As Radio Raheem says as he imagines a boxing match between the two sentiments, “it’s a story of good and evil.” Radio Raheem’s first scene in the film also marks the director’s first use of his signature extreme slanted angles. The canted camera anticipates conflict and instability, foreshadowing Radio Raheem’s fate. Later, canted angles are used whenever there is an argument, most notably between Sal and Buggin’ Out when they disagree over the Wall of Fame. Slanted in different directions in the shot reverse shot, the images, like the characters, are literally butting heads. Ironically, a mural of Mike Tyson adorns the other side of Sal’s wall. The image that Smiley finally manages to put up on the Wall of Fame, even as the building is burning down, is also a perfect representation of the two possible responses to oppression, peaceful unrest and violence resistance.
Love and hate permeate the discourse of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. The two civil rights leaders represent different sides of the same coin. While King disapproves of violence, calling it impractical and immoral, and promotes love, Malcolm X advocates violence, and inevitably hate, when necessary, equating self-defense to intelligence.
Spike Lee doesn’t pretend to know what the correct approach is, nor does he make any comments on Mookie’s act of throwing the garbage can through Sal’s window. Confronted with the choice between his employer and his racial identity, the character does the only thing he can do, whether it is right or not. Up until this point in the movie, Mookie has never seemed to care about doing the right thing or about his responsibilities as long as he got paid; in starting the riot he asserts himself, not as a representative black hero, which would be all too easy and simplistic for Spike Lee, but as a black man, deeply flawed, but, as Mother Sister (Ruby Dee) puts it, “still standin’.”
There are no heroes and no villains in the film. Everyone is ultimately a victim of society’s intolerance and discrimination. In the end, it is Senor Love Daddy’s voice once again that restores order, encouraging listeners to vote in the next election for mayor in voice over as a crane shot of children playing ball zooms out to demonstrate that the life of the street goes on like nothing has happened. Do the Right Thing is not a film solely about race; it is a film about people.