What I like most about this film is how tough it makes things for the viewer. The title sounds dogmatic at first, but of course it’s also brilliantly vague. Throughout the film, we’re confronted with situations where we almost can’t help making judgements about right and wrong, but where right and wrong are also mingled inextricably.
The confrontation between Buggin’ Out and Clifton is a great example (by the way, this feels like a scene Michael Haneke would enjoy). Clifton is an inconsiderate prick, and the way he rides over Buggin’ Out’s sneaker betrays his sense of superiority, his casual disdain for someone he sees as a social inferior; but a split second before Clifton barges past, we’ve just seen Buggin’ Out rejecting Vito’s earnest attempt to be friendly, and this suggests some kind of symmetry (or at least connection) between the one form of contempt and the other. The film prompts us to make fun of Buggin’ Out’s pretensions and his concern over his appearance (see also Robin Harris’ mockery of his hair), but also to share his indignation at the defacement of his property by the even more pretentious brownstone-owning Clifton – but also to share Clifton’s obvious terror when he finds himself confronted by a very angry crowd over what was essentially an accident – but also to share that crowd’s anger at the rich white guy talking down to them from the steps of his brownstone, foreshadowing the gradual gentrification of the neighbourhood (during one take shown in the making-of documentary, John Savage’s line is ‘I own a building here’; changing it to ‘I own a brownstone’ adds that extra layer of obnoxiousness) – but also to feel that some members of the angry crowd are spoiling for a fight rather than acting on righteous indignation...and so on.
Lee could easily have made Clifton more of a dick-head in this scene, and had him offending a more sympathetic character than Buggin’ Out, but by making us feel conflicting things about each side of the argument the film makes it harder for us to figure out our moral stance, and gives us something to argue about. It’s not easy to see what ‘the right thing’ to do is here, especially from Buggin’ Out’s perspective: maybe he’s mis-directing his anger, or at least directing an excessive amount of anger at this particular issue, but under these circumstances, provoked like this, it’s easy to feel that you would do the same thing, and that Clifton has it coming.
This ambiguity is set up right from the start in the title sequence. The film is called ‘Do the Right Thing’; we hear Public Enemy telling us to ‘fight the power / fight the powers that be’; but what we see is not Radio Raheem or Buggin’ Out, but Tina, who during the film shows no interest in battling the Establishment, or racism, but who fights to get Mookie to take his responsibilities more seriously.
This gives us a really complex way into what the film is saying about racism, because Mookie’s negligence towards his family is (I think) paralleled with his state of lethargic denial in relation to Sal’s Famous Pizzeria. When Buggin’ Out complains to Mookie about the Wall of Fame, Mookie just says to ‘ask Sal’; then Mookie takes Buggin’ into the street and berates him for embarrassing him at work. It’s more important to him to make money than to come to terms with the serious issue Buggin’ has called attention to, just as, at the other end of the spectrum, it’s more important to Buggin’ to vent his anger about this issue than to work constructively to do something about it.
To go back to the title sequence, we can see that it represents some kind of call to arms, and that it insists on this image of Rosie Perez’s combative dance moves as an embodiment of ‘fighting the power’ and ‘doing the right thing’, but when we think through this sequence’s relationship to the issues in the film we can also see that the confrontation being prompted here may not take the form of literal violence – but also that it might take that form in some contexts, because when Mookie hurls the trash can through the window at the end, this is very explicitly figured as a moment when he breaks out of his lethargy and proactively fights the institution that binds and limits him (and which gives him those wages Tina urges him to look beyond). But then again, that action is morally ambiguous. When Mookie goes from standing beside Sal to joining the crowd that’s facing him, he seems driven as much by social pressure as by a sense of principle; before he goes for the trash-can we see him running his hands over his face wearily, again as if he feels obliged and pressured into doing this thing, rather than morally committed to it; as he runs up to the window, he shouts ‘Hate!’, an ethically dubious rallying cry that I’ll come back to in a minute; during the riot, Mookie sits on the curb with his sister, looking impassive; and the next morning, much to Tina’s disgust, the first thing he thinks of his money. So why did he throw that trash-can: what was he confronting, and what was he trying to accomplish?
Spike Lee himself tends to play down the ambiguity of his own film in some of the stuff he says about it. (He’s largely responsible for that ambiguity in the first place, of course, but a lot of artists seem to become reductive about their own work after completing it.) For instance, he says that only white people ask why Mookie throws the trash-can, while black audiences ‘instinctively understand’ that Mookie does this because after Radio Raheem’s death Sal’s Pizzeria comes to represent everything that’s oppressing him. As it burns, there are several close-ups of the Wall of Fame disintegrating in the fire; but confusingly, Lee also says that he’s on Sal’s side in the earlier argument between him and Buggin’ Out over the Wall of Fame. Maybe, as Lee says, there’s some weight to Sal’s claim that he can put whoever he wants on his wall, and that black people should run their own businesses and then put their heroes on display; this connects with Lee’s frustration at Mookie’s lack of ambition. But it seems to me there’s a lot more weight to Buggin’ Out’s argument (even if, as Jade says, his anger is ultimately destructive rather than constructive...god this is complicated), that Sal’s paternalistic attitude to the neighbourhood whose inhabitants have ‘grown up on his food’ (notice how he infantilises them) is as profoundly problematic as it is superficially benign, and that his Wall of Fame is a symptom of this problem.
It’s very significant that when he allows the customers in late – because they love his food – he also lets in Buggin’ Out, Radio Raheem and Smiley for the climactic confrontation. Sal keeps the street clean, Sal controls the Wall of Fame, Sal and his sons (and heirs) control the neighbourhood’s food supply (there’s a complex link with the Korean grocery store across from Sal’s here), Sal keeps Mookie just-about-earning-a-living, etc., and all of this adds up to the problem Buggin’, Raheem and Smiley have come to confront him about.
His belligerence about the Wall of Fame at the start is directly linked to his belligerence about Radio Raheem’s music at the end: ultimately, while he’s happy to have his black neighbours depending on him like children, he doesn’t want any black people on his wall. We don’t see Radio Raheem anywhere but on the streets, and subliminally the film makes us feel that his radio – and the song it plays incessantly – are his only possessions, so when Sal destroys this piece of property, in the name of his own property (the pizzeria where there is to be ‘no rap, no music’), we need to link this to the subsequent retaliatory destruction of the pizzeria. Earlier in the film, Sal said ‘I’m gonna kill somebody today’; at the end he says to Radio Raheem, ‘I killed your radio’; Radio Raheem tries to kill him in retaliation (as if it is Raheem himself who has been killed); and then the police kill Raheem in the name of preserving Sal’s life. So to re-cap: Sal kills the radio for his pizzeria; Raheem tries to kill Sal for his radio; the police kill Raheem for Sal; Mookie and the rest of the crowd kill the pizzeria for Raheem.
My point is that you can’t simply endorse either Sal’s defence of the Wall of Fame or Mookie’s smashing of the window as morally straightforward acts without ignoring the labyrinthine complexities the film presents you with. It’s easy to understand why each person behaves the way they do, and by the same token it’s often hard to say whether they’re doing the right thing or not. Even something as unambiguously right as the Mayor’s saving of the child’s life leads to an ambiguous aftermath, when the child lies about what happened, the Mayor tries to cover up for him, the mother starts beating the child, the Mayor rebukes her for this, the mother insists that no one can tell her how to raise her child, and the Mayor resignedly replies, ‘You’re right’ – and we find ourselves thinking, ‘Is she?’
I don’t like the conversation between Mookie and Pino about the latter’s ‘not really black’ heroes. It feels more obvious and ‘on the nose’ than the rest of the film, engineered to make a specific point. The point itself is a good one, but it’s out of character for Mookie to confront someone about their racist views – this conversation would have made more sense, and been invested with more dramatic tension, between Pino and Buggin’ Out – and it’s also out of character for Pino to be this civil and attentive towards Mookie. That said, there is something touching about this rare moment when two people on opposite sides of a conflict have a relatively civil conversation, at least for a minute or so.
That brings me to the other thing I don’t like about this film: Bill Lee’s score. It’s not bad music as such, but if ever a film should have relied entirely on diegetic sound, this is it. Sometimes, when there’s just a lone saxophone on the soundtrack, it almost does sound like source music, but mostly it tends to dilute the immersive effect that is otherwise so brilliantly achieved by the film’s use of sound. Throughout the film, we both see and hear the various tensions and conflicts ebbing and flowing, and this culminates in the terrifying ‘Tower of Babel’ effect at the climax, when the soundtrack becomes a mass of offended and offensive yelling. The effectiveness of the soundtrack is integral to the point the film is making. For all that its treatment of racism and conflict is complex and ambiguous, and for all that it is often deliberately confusing, the film also achieves a certain clarity in the way it figures listening and love as being crucial parts of ‘doing the right thing’. And it does so without being as wet and corny as that last sentence sounds...
After the title sequence, the film proper starts with Señor Love Daddy broadcasting from the ‘WE LOVE’ radio station; it ends with him dedicating a record to Radio Raheem and saying ‘we love you’; and the song he then plays over the end credits is ‘Never Explain Love’ by Al Jarreau. I don’t much like the song, but it’s thematically apt in its message that love cannot be rationalised, but is something instinctive and organic. Note that the Mayor, the one who tells Mookie to ‘always do the right thing’, saves the boy from being run over because he doesn’t think about it first – as he admits to Mother Sister, if he’d thought about it he probably wouldn’t have done it. But it’s also a song about the need to shut up and be receptive to other people: earlier in the film, it’s Señor Love Daddy who intervenes to bring a stop to the series of into-the-camera racist monologues. As the Martin Luther King quotation at the end says, violence ‘leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue’, and the sequence just referred to is a great illustration of this. The DJ tells everyone to ‘cool it’, and elsewhere advises them to wear black in order to absorb and preserve the heat for colder days. The heat accentuates the violence because it makes people less ‘absorbent’ so to speak, more monologic, less inclined to listen. Señor Love Daddy’s role is implicitly to urge everyone in the neighbourhood to listen, and by the same token to love.
It’s interesting, then, that Radio Raheem occupies a similar role, prowling the neighbourhood demanding that people listen to ‘Fight the Power’ or, in one instance, to his Night of the Hunter Love/Hate monologue. In contrast to Señor Love Daddy, he seems to embody the Malcolm X quotation from the end credits, using his stereo to call attention to the corruption of the powerful, and implying that violence might be necessary when dialogue fails in his ominous silence after saying ‘but if I hate you...’ to Mookie. The mutual respect and love between Raheem and Señor Love Daddy indicates that their two viewpoints don’t cancel each other out. By the way, I have a hard time figuring out the point of Raheem’s confrontational attitude in the Koreans’ grocery store. I understand that Lee wants to say something about a specific kind of cultural tension here, but why bring Radio Raheem into it when the point is already made elsewhere? What is this supposed to add to our understanding of Raheem’s role in the film? Maybe someone else can suggest an interpretation.
You’re right about the dramatic structure, and I think there’s another reason (connected to this one) why the destruction of the pizzeria might, in the short term, come across as more upsetting than the death of Raheem. It’s not because of the loss incurred by Sal, or because the burning of property is worse than the death of a person (although no doubt Lee is right that some viewers have seen it in those terms), but because for a moment this feels like the destruction of a community we’ve come to love and feel invested in. The Mayor tries to tell the crowd that Sal was not responsible for Raheem’s death, which was technically true, and there’s a moment here when it feels like everything could have gone differently: the police could have been held responsible and relations between Sal and the rest of the neighbourhood could have been repaired. Part of us needs to want that to happen for this ending to work...matrixschmatrix wrote:I think, whenever I watch this movie, of the ending and the explosive confrontations- it's easy to remember it as a violent movie about conflict, between Raheem and Sal, Raheem and the cops, Mookie and Sal, Buggin' Out and everybody, Pino and Mookie, Raheem and the Korean store owner- but those explosive moments of confrontation stick out precisely because this is in many ways one of the warmest films ever made, a truly loving portrait of a community of well realized people who seem as though they've been lovingly going through the same cycle of conflicts for decades. There's tension, certainly, heightened by poverty and heat and Sal's inadvertantly nigh-colonialist attitude towards the neighborhood (while also being a legitimately sweet and friendly guy) and Pino's outright racism and Buggin' Out's hunger for a fight- but really, for most of the movie, it folds in, and one never feels like this community is inherently doomed to fall apart. That Da Mayor has maintained his position as a sweetly useless old man for time immemorial speaks to a place where horizons beyond mere survival are available even to the characters who have, effectively, no means whatsoever.
So the ending, of course, sneaks up on you every time, and feels like an elbow to the kidney, every time. The movie doesn't have to cheat by making Raheem a cherubic little child- he's kind of annoying, really, but he's a person, a character in the town, and when the cop kills him it's as shocking an act of murder as any I can think of on screen. Spike Lee has complained, on the commentary and elsewhere, that everyone focuses on Mookie's act of property destruction and skims over the murder- and while I think the reason for this is at least in part because the whole structure of the movie points towards Mookie's dilemma, the radicalization of a previously inert character, and the implicit question about it posed by the title and by Da Mayor- he is absolutely right that, in looking at reviews of the time, they seem to ignore both the richness of the movie and the complexity of the moral question Mookie is answering in throwing the trash can. Lee is being slightly disingenuous when he ridicules the idea that this movie could incite violence- what the establishment critics feared (and absolutely expressed their fear of in terms of childish racism) was randomized violence, but what the movie encourages is ultimately something more like revolutionary violence, the violence of self defense at the brink of being destroyed.
What’s really sad, though, is that the Mayor is only technically right about Sal. After all, what does Sal mean when he says ‘You do what you gotta do’? And the next day he certainly seems more upset by the loss of the pizzeria he built than by the death of Raheem. We've been made to like Sal, at least to some extent, so his behaviour at the end is to say the least disappointing. The riot, then, is upsetting because it spells out that Raheem’s death was not just a tragic, inadvertent accident: it was the logical and virtually inevitable outcome of and response to the attitude Sal embodied. There are other things in the film that temper the bleakness of this point, the coda being one of them, but Lee is definitely saying something more pessimistic than ‘Can’t we all just get along?’ (Rodney King actually said ‘Can we all get along? Can we get along?’, and maybe he was thinking of Señor Love Daddy’s open questions, ‘Can we live together? Together, can we live?’)
The destruction of the pizzeria is all the more upsetting because we can see that it is a justifiable reaction to what has happened, an expression of the ‘intelligence’ Malcolm X talks about rather than just mindless violence. It’s telling that Smiley, who carries around photos of ‘Martin and Malcolm’ embracing, is the one who lights the fire. What 'Martin' says about violence is right...but sometimes there's nothing left to do but smash the windows and burn the place to the ground. Once you realise that, you can see that this wasn't the destruction of a community at all. The film gets us to buy into the idea that the pizzeria is the heart and soul of this neighbourhood, but this is a misconception: it’s actually a kind of tumour, benign on the surface but malignant underneath. In fact there is a redemptive sense of communal solidarity in the climactic riot - cemented by the reconciliation between Paul Benjamin and the Korean store-owner - and ultimately I think the film wants us to feel that this was a directed, necessary act of violence on the part of the crowd, against a single corrupt institution. But coming to terms with what Sal really stands for, and with his responsibility for the death of Radio Raheem, is a painful process. At least that’s how it all seemed to me on the latest viewing.
One other random thought:
When I heard Ernest Dickerson say on the commentary that he was influenced by Jack Cardiff, I suddenly realised what that beautiful golden glow in so many shots reminded me of: Black Narcissus, which is also about a culture clash, and where the effect also suggests a heightened, intangible tension. And the boldness of that red wall, of course, which adds so much to our sense of the oppressive heat – in conjunction with the three superb performers sitting in front of it.