Notes on Rewatching "Do The Right Thing"

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by Mike Mosher

Spike Lee's 1989 movie was recently screened at Saginaw Valley State University, presented by Associate Professor of History Ken Jolly, the Black Studies Program, the SVSU History and Art Departments, and the SVSU branch of the NAACP. These remarks were intended to help students appreciate and contextualize the film. —M. M.

Let's talk about three things in “Do The Right Thing”: its sense of space and place, its white people, and its moral ambiguity.

Spike Lee’s movie is all about a neighborhood, a place where people are interacting. It’s based in his own Brooklyn, New York. Spike went from there to Morehouse College in Atlanta. There he studied, like a lot of us in the 1970s, the world’s cinema. He is a sophisticated filmmaker, and you see moments in his films where he quotes the Italian director Fellini, the Swedish director Bergman, and others you should know. But he used his education to understand his hometown, where he’s coming from. Here you are, in the middle of Michigan: how are you using your education to understand yours?

Having known white people over the years—I even have some in my own family—I find the white characters in the movie very believably written. Even the “yuppie” on the bike has his reasons for being there. The youngest son Vito is still unformed, but decent in his inclinations. The older son Pino mouths stupid things he hears around him—“Prince isn’t black!”—but we soon realize his resentment isn’t so much against black people as the fact that he has to work in his father’s pizza parlor…tied to his apron strings. For most white racism in this country consists largely of resentment about other things in life, especially employment conditions, projected upon blacks. And a large part is many whites’ simple ignorance of the lives of black people around them. Finally, the pizza-making father Sal respects his customers, almost to the point of a romantic spark with Jade…until that stressed, hot summer night when he loses it, and drops the N-bomb, that costs him his business.

Which gets to the delicious moral ambiguity of this movie, which leaves nobody off the hook. The question is, does Mookie do the right thing? What if he hadn’t thrown that damn can through the window? Would the crowd’s rage instead been turned against Sal and his sons? Mookie’s emotional response to the police violence is understandable. What we get is complexity, and a movie without the clear, simple heroes and villains that Hollywood loves (like “Avatar”). Some theater owners were worried that black people would riot when this movie was shown, and the Academy Awards ignored Spike Lee’s film entirely. Nevertheless, it’s one of the best movies of the 1980s. Enjoy.

Do the Right Thing is available from the Criterion Collection

Mike Mosher is Associate Professor of Art/Communication & Digital Media at SVSU.
Graphic © Akia Bell 2010.

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