I can say confidently that Do the Right Thing is a movie that I didn’t “get” the first time I saw it when I was in my first semester of college. I didn’t understand it for a lot of reasons – I didn’t appreciate the way that it built a world, the way it built a community, and how powerful it was that it did build a distinct microcosm with flawed but still good characters, characters with enormous dignity. I didn’t get what was going on, and I didn’t get that it wasn’t a hopeful movie but wasn’t a downer movie. I didn’t get a lot of the issues in it. I didn’t get if Mookie did the right thing, and I didn’t get how Sal could forgive him or how he could forgive Sal. I didn’t understand how the destruction of a store could ever be recompense for the death of Radio Raheem, and I didn’t understand why the store had to be destroyed.
But more than anything I didn’t understand the two quotes that appear on the screen at the conclusion of the film. I walked out of the screening utterly confused, openly deriding the message that Spike Lee offered. I said: “you can’t have it both ways”. I thought it was a film with a message (which it is) and I thought that it defeated the whole point if it had two messages (which it doesn’t). You can’t a film it with one quote advocating violence, and another advocating peace.
And probably the reason that I thought that was because I had never really had to fight for anything ever. And I still haven’t, realistically, ever really had to fight tooth and nail for anything, because by virtue of being born white, male, straight, and of an upper income, I simply have not faced the sort of battle that many of my peers have faced. But I have thankfully had the chance to expand my worldview, and while I can never fully understand what it would mean to be oppressed in so many major and minor ways (we can only imagine what it is like for us to be a bat, not what it is like for a bat to be a bat) I can at least sympathize and try to understand.
Though I haven’t seen Do the Right Thing since then (it’s on my list, especially this week) I have reflected on the film a lot. As Sam pointed out while reading an earlier version of this review:”It’s one of the only movies I can think of that is about racism without turning it into a very traditional good vs evil story.” And he’s absolutely correct about that. As I said above, the film grants every character a full life, and no action they take ever seems (strictly) malevolent. There is a sense that they want to be a strong community, but aren’t always able to figure out exactly how as tension rises (it is, after all, the hottest day of summer). Even up to the final altercation, Spike Lee keeps things hazy. When Sal demands that Radio Raheem take his music out of the story, when Sal refuses to put up anyone he doesn’t want on his wall, he’s not totally in the wrong. It is his shop. He has his reasons for what he does, and they may not be perfect but they also probably don’t exactly warrant the destruction of his store. But conflict doesn’t work like that, and just as there is no good and evil in the movie there is no necessary fairness in the fallout. Things never divide into any dichotomy.
After burning the store a character advances on the Koreans across the street and angrily points to them. “You’re next,” he warns. The Korean tries to explain “I’m black”. The crowd roars in laugher and incredulousness. “Open your eyes! I’m black!” retorts the ring leader. But the Korean continues to insist that he too is black. The issue, of course, is that he isn’t black. He’s Korean, but in America that offers it’s own set of troubles – they too had and have a battle to face, even if it’s a different ones. Sal no doubt is well aware of the time that Italians had the same trouble. There is no good and evil because each side has their own history and their own story.
I have particularly returned to the ending that so confused me the first time through, the quotes by Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., and that final image of them shaking hands. Because Do the Right Thing doesn’t have contradictory message by showing both. It takes rage and anger and conviction to fight to make change. And it takes peacemakers, kindness, and love. One without the other doesn’t get us anywhere.
I will never be able to get as angry as some other people. It’s just something in me, I guess. It’s maybe in my DNA. It’s maybe in the fact that I haven’t faced the same adversity, that the world has been soft to me and so I am soft to the world. It’s maybe in my upbringing, it’s maybe in how I have to view the world to not be crushed. But I am so proud of the people who have rage and who are disgusted when I have only sadness, and I am so happy to lend them my love and to try to reach across the adversity to the other side and find some connection. It’s infuriating that there are so many people with so many views, many of which condone anger and hatred towards the “other”. But there is a great strength too in humanity, that we have so many types fighting for the same side, so many individual strengths joining to one cause and one fight.
So I guess in the end Spike Lee said it best when he said Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. said it best.
Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys a community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends by defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.
– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I think there are plenty of good people in America, but there are also plenty of bad people in America and the bad ones are the ones who seem to have all the power and be in these positions to block things that you and I need. Because this is the situation, you and I have to preserve the right to do what is necessary to bring an end to that situation, and it doesn’t mean that I advocate violence, but at the same time I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don’t even call it violence when it’s self-defense, I call it intelligence.
– Malcolm X
Book – Between the World and Me (Ta-Nehisi Coates, 2015) was the must read book of last year, and remains a must read book this year. It may again sound like it was a long time coming, but it was the first book to make me fully realize that the physical world I inhabit with some people may be the same, but our realities may be totally different in an immediate and threatening way. It’s something I always “knew”, but had never felt in the way that Coates makes the reader feel it. In his interview on the Daily Show (watch both parts – seriously watch it) Coates discusses the sad reality that there has never been a society without an subjugated people and he’s not sure there ever will be. He remains hopeful that there will. That is a difficult pill to swallow, but it echoes back to the discussion the African Americans and the Koreans have – they each have their own oppressions. It makes it all the more important that we campaign for all of our fellow world citizens, so that we might one day reach that better place.