To describe Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” as “fiery” or “explosive” would be a dramatic understatement. The film is a powder keg-scratch that-a nuclear bomb sent straight into the heart of America. It is a film that takes no prisoners, one that seeks not only to ruffle feathers, but to pluck the whole bird clean. “Do the Right Thing is difficult, morally gray, and deeply sad. But say that it isn’t, at its heart, an angry film is to do it a disservice. This is a movie that could only have been made by a minority, one that seethes with the rage felt by generations of oppression. Lee released “Do the Right Thing” in 1989 and the world caught on fire. Now, everything has changed, yet much has remained the same.
The film opens with a lone, sad saxophone over the Universal logo, courtesy of jazz musician Bill Lee. It sets the stage as a melancholy, thoughtful mood piece. That is, until it’s interrupted by Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” The camera flies towards Rosie Perez boxing in front of the camera, full of fire and energy. This aural juxtaposition has a clear message: the time for placidness and calm is over. Now is time to fight the power.
The music in general in “Do the Right Thing” is indicative of the two warring factions of progressiveness in America. One is the well-meaning, yet soft spoken jazz of the left of center. The other is the radical, boisterous hip hop of the left. It’s hard to pin down what exactly Spike Lee believes in. It’s easy to say that his film is a call to action–and in many ways it is–but that doesn’t take away how deeply sad it is. It almost feels like a desperate cry for help for a country that feels long lost in the violence and discrimination tearing its soul apart.
A true conversation about the film can’t take place without discussing Radio Raheem’s iconic “Love and Hate” speech. Here, the character discusses the perpetual struggle between love and hate, with love eventually coming out on top. Lee, however, is critical of this dichotomy. He knows that the world isn’t so clear cut and simple and instead spends the rest of the movie interrogating this idea. Is love the answer to all of life’s problems? Or can hate be and important catalyst for change? Lee complicates this question by having Mookie scream “Hate!” before throwing a trash can through Sal’s Pizzeria. It’s undoubtedly an action fueled by hatred. But it’s hatred towards the systematic oppression and racism that has kept him and others like him disenfranchised.
In “Do the Right Thing’s” most poignant moment, two quotes are shown: one by Martin Luther King Jr. and one by Malcolm X. The former decries the usage of violence for racial justice as impractical and immoral. The latter states that it may be a necessary tool for self-defense. Then, Lee shows a picture of the two, smiling like friends. It’s a little discussed fact of history that MLK Jr. and Malcolm X were both close friends who often worked together. Instead, the textbooks often choose to demonize Malcolm X and lionize MLK. With this ending, Lee implies that both schools of thought need to work in conjunction in order to achieve social change. Fight peacefully, but have the threat of violence looming overhead. In other words “speak softly and carry a big stick.” In that sense, Lee is able to find a compromise between radicals, to show a way out that is both effective and conducive. Fight the power. Together.