Opinion: the story of one hot day in a black neighbourhood in Brooklyn is as much about America now as it is about race relations then

By Ruth BartonTCD

It’s a shock to think that Spike Lee’s iconic Do The Right Thing celebrates the 30th anniversary of its release this year. In more ways than one, this story of one hot day in a black neighbourhood in Brooklyn is as much about America now as it is about race relations in the late 1980s. These were the years following the death in police custody of graffiti artist Michael Stewart, the shooting dead of Eleanor Bumpers, and a sequence of high profile fatal police attacks on members of the black community, many of them young and male.

At the time, Lee was an emerging filmmaker with a reputation for low-budget, cross-over productions. She's Gotta Have It (1986) cost $175,000 and took around $8m at the box office, while School Daze (1988) cost $6.5m and made over $14m. Lee had also raised eyebrows in certain quarters with his Air Jordan ads, the shoes the character Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) wears in the film.

Lee was young, educated, ambitious and outspoken. Just like his predecessors in the Blaxploitation movement, Melvin Van Peebles (Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song, 1971) and Gordon Parks (Shaft, 1971), Lee's aesthetic spoke not just to the black community, but to young people across America, for whom the inner-city sounds of hip hop were a rallying cry in the battle against the establishment.

Trailer for Do the Right Thing

Do the Right Thing centres around Sal’s Famous Pizzeria where Mookie (Spike Lee) works as a delivery boy. Mookie has a child with his Puerto Rican girlfriend, Tina (Rosie Perez) but lives with his sister Jade (Joie Lee). Changes in the neighbourhood are in the air and the arrival of a Korean couple to run the corner shop is just one of them. Race tensions are building; Sal’s (Danny Aiello) older son, Pino (John Turturro) has no respect for black people but his brother Vito (Richard Edson) is friendly with Mookie. Other characters criss-cross the neighbourhood including Da Mayor (Ossie Davies), an elderly, good natured drunk and Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) who plays Public Enemy at top volume on his boombox.

The film opens with a sequence where Tina dances to Public Enemy’s "Fight the Power" against alternating backgrounds of a brownstone stoop and graffitied underpass, her clothing changing back and forth between a tight dress and a boxing outfit. That combination of highly stylised performances, rapid edits, and poster-colour sets gives Do the Right Thing the feel of a musical or MTV music video. Sometime later, when a gang of Latino youths face off against Radio Raheem and lose, Lee also seems to be referencing an earlier performance of race hostilities, Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise’s West Side Story of 1961, and claiming his own victory – for authentic locations and black actors in black roles.

Matters come to a head when Buggin’ Out challenges Sal over his Wall of Fame in the pizzeria. Looking at the array of famous white faces, he demands to know why there are no brothers on the wall. Where are, Buggin’ Out wants to know, the pictures of Malcolm X, or Michael Jordan? From there, it’s a short step to the moment where the erstwhile politically disengaged Mookie smashes Sal’s window, the white cops catch Raheem in a fatal stranglehold and the neighbourhood erupts.

It was this scene in particular that so rattled the establishment. Newsweek's Jack Kroll notoriously pronounced the film to be "dynamite under every seat". David Denby in New York magazine focused on the film’s two closing quotes, one from Malcolm X urging black people to violent action, the other from Martin Luther King advocating peaceful resistance. These, he concluded, summed up Lee’s impotence, his inability to throw in his lot with either camp: "my guess is that Spike Lee thinks that violence solves nothing, but he’d like to be counted in the black community as an angry man, a man ready, despite his success, to smash things." 

When he crossed the line from detached onlooker to rioter, did Mookie do the right thing?

In the end, no one took to the streets after seeing Do the Right Thing, although it uncannily anticipated the 1992 LA race riots that followed the Rodney King beating. Even still, the Academy hedged its bets by refusing to nominate it for Best Picture in the year of its release. That award went instead to Driving Miss Daisy (Bruce Beresford, 1989), the ideological opposite of Lee’s film.

Since then, black cinema has changed. Jordan Peele’s accomplished works (Get Out, 2017; Us, 2019) are genre films that ask subtle questions about the place of black people in today’s America. If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins, 2018) reflects on the history of racial injustice through the lens of a love story.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Arena, Ruth Barton and RTÉ Brainstorm editor Jim Carroll discuss Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee and Public Enemy

In the space of reflection that 30 years brings, Do the Right Thing feels like a snapshot of intellectual uncertainty played out to the soundtrack of Public Enemy. It’s rough around the edges and angry and provocative. The question it leaves in its wake, that caused the critics of the day such anxiety, is this: when he crossed the line from detached onlooker to rioter, did Spike Lee’s Mookie do the right thing? The answer to that is still being played out in world politics.

Professor Ruth Barton is Head of Film Studies and Deputy Director of the Trinity Long Room Hub at TCD. She is a former Irish Research Council awardee

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ