Do the right thing

Antonio Lizárraga (Reviews Journal)


Commentary on Spike Lee's film that depicts police violence against African Americans.

Do the right thing has not been quiet. The film always comes up with every news of police violence against African Americans. Now it's the turn of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Unfortunately, staying in vogue is no difficult task for a work that deals with racial tensions and police violence in a society where racial oppression is constitutive and institutionalized. However, it is necessary to check whether the work has withstood the test of time.

When director Spike Lee released the film in 1989, instances of systematic police violence against African-Americans had already filled the news for many years, as had explosive mass reactions. Lee himself was concerned to dedicate Do the right thing to several victims who succumbed at the hands of the police or in acts of racial conflict. Coming from a more discreet career, with this film the young filmmaker sought to enter the fight in the open field. The film intended to name things, expose the wounds. Much needed to be brought to light, between indignation, reflection and guidelines. There was an anxiety of intervention.

The option taken was for a synthetic work, with no risk of overflow, so that the message could be passed respecting a well-trimmed, fluid and palatable narrative economy. For this, a conventional solution was used, that is, the representation of a spatially and temporally circumscribed microcosm. The diegetic clipping was millimetric: an entire Saturday in a block in Brooklyn, a New York region symptomatically characterized by the presence of a large contingent of migrants and African-Americans. Day and place justify the presence on the street of the varied neighborhood. It's hot and expected to get even hotter (this forecast is reinforced by the parade of headlines in major newspapers). Community radio defines the sound axis, with an African-American bias, inaugurates the morning and reiterates the contours of the microcosm.

Following the diegetic simplification, the characters or groups embody the typification of ethnic-racial segments (Latin, Asian, white, Italian-American or not, and African-American). In spite of their diversity, they all somehow know each other, as they share the same “piece”, and live together without great estrangement. Throughout the film, interspersed with small personal dramas, low-impact racial tension emerges in the street and, mainly, in the miserable pizzeria owned by Italian-American Sal and his children. At the center of this tension is the black activist Buggin Out. He is presented as a radical figure, who roams the block asserting the values ​​and prevalence of black people and insistently demanding that Sal hang images of African Americans in his salon, out of respect for his majority clientele.

At a certain point, at night, after the day of scorching heat, Buggin Out and two strays pass by the pizzeria and end up triggering the confrontation between the African-Americans and the Italian-Americans. The police intervene by suffocating one of the protesters (Radio Raheem) and arresting Buggin Out. In an unexpected reaction, Mookie, the pizza delivery guy, breaks the window of the pizzeria and the other residents go into convulsions, setting fire to the entire corner until they are dispersed by the police. The next morning, amidst the rubble, people are returning to normality in the neighborhood. Mookie and Sal meet again in a mixture of bitterness and melancholy, but without a drastic break; the radio DJ opens the musical programming of a new day that begins. What happened the night before was nothing more than a sad incident caused by an irrationality in which everyone, in some way, was harmed. In the final signs, two contrasting quotes (Malcolm X and Martin Luther King) leave the viewer with the burden of choosing the path to follow in the face of the posed dilemma.

Strictly speaking, the progress of the film exposes, in a summary and didactic way, the development of racial confrontations that had marked the 1980s. . Due to the comic-dramatic tonality, which creates a caricature and gives lightness to the situations, the film is almost a fable, with a moral and everything.

And it is in this way that the film finds its limits. Starting with the stereotyped way of composing the characters and situations, which turns them into bearers of a predictable role. Of all these cases, perhaps the most serious is that of Buggin Out, the black movement militant, represented as an insane radical, practically a one-note idiot. He spends the entire film driven by hatred and nitpicking, until he provokes the conflict that will lead to the death of the young and naive Radio Raheem and the destruction of the pizzeria. In this perspective, the claiming role, embodied by militancy, is meaningless and its boring image is reiterated. This is accentuated when the protagonism of the “fight” is shifted to Mookie, the uncompromising rogue and good square, who performs the decisive act of releasing popular reaction. He is the indolent individual who spontaneously corrects the crazed obsessive's mistake.

In this same line of demotion, the high point of the racial confrontation takes place in the symbolic dispute (the demand for pictures on the wall), which emerged from an irrelevant and laughable motive. Lee could have resorted to less pathetic pretext. In any case, there is never any underlying tension, chronic or acute, that refers to an order of physical and social exclusion. And this is problematic when one knows (and those years were full of examples) that the African-American population has always been the object of systematic brutality, not just on the part of police repression. There is, therefore, a depreciation of tensions and racial struggles, as if they were banal disputes inflated by hatred.

The idea is that ordinary, peaceful people living in a heterogeneous ethnic-racial environment can suddenly descend into fury and violence, just by raising the temperature. It's like they're in a pressure cooker heating up. This is the clear metaphor that emerges from Do the right thing. Lee conceived an enclosed space (a ghetto isolated from the rest of the city) in which tensions expand as the day grows hotter. Therefore, the origin and end of racial tension is an internal fact of the group, which is awakened when feelings subjected to pressure emerge.

In the equation that the film hints at, police violence, recognized as disproportionate, is the result of events motivated by irrational acts, which in turn are caused by minor issues that originate in hatred, immanent and cultivated within the community. Thus, racism is latent, uncontrollable and “two-way”, that is, relative. Everyone is prone to racial bigotry. This is evident in the scene in which the characters express the most visceral racist insults directly to the camera, as if they were going through a therapeutic process of purging an evil (which ends with the hecatomb in the streets). This is the moment of truth Do the right thing.

The assumption is clear: everyone is in the same boat (“you also came by boat”, reminds one of the three unemployed friends to the other who was jokingly referring to the Koreans). That neighborhood is ultimately made up of immigrants and, consequently, racism there is a fratricidal act. In addition to being psychological, the problem becomes moral.

Spike Lee, in his effort to compose a closed and controllable world, which was blunt in the message, incurred in the construction of a moral dome apart from the world. Racism, at its core, has lost connection with the historical totality, has been reduced to an internal and localized tension in the ghetto. The multiethnic quarter hovers in the clouds, disconnected from the structural relations of the prevailing social order. There is not a trace of these relationships; the repressive apparatus itself is indeterminate, it appears and disappears like an external entity. No confrontation of the effective powers, economic or political, wins the canvas; they are not even represented. The film, finally, is indebted to the beautiful theme song of the Public Enemy, fight the power. Morality silenced politics.

Do the right thing, as seen today, has lost much of its original impact. It does not bring racism as part of a broader logic of domination and does not carry the anger demanded by the times. Incidentally, the response to police executions of African-Americans deserved, even at that time, a different treatment than comic caricature. Spike Lee's limits are also in form.

*Roberto Noritomi he holds a PhD in sociology of culture from USP.


Do the right thing (Do the right thing)
USA, 1989, 119 minutes
Directed by: Spike Lee
Cast: Spike Lee, Bill Nunn, Danny Aiello, Ruby Dee, John Turturro.


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