When Do The Right Thing hit American theaters in 1989, it was deemed the most controversial film of the year. The clashing perspectives that were depicted within the movie left everyone with an opinion to cling to. Despite how one may feel about the plot, it is hard to deny the historical accuracy of Do The Right Thing, or its importance as a cultural artifact. The film gave incredible insight on the economic hardships that plagued the majority of Urban Black America in the 1980s, the relationship between Urban America and Police, and the fragility of race relations in America. No movie had offered all three of these aspects before, especially not as an explanation of urban rebellion.
In 1967, the Kerner Commission was appointed by Lyndon B. Johnson to investigate the causes of urban rebellions of the decade. Their 1968 summary report made specific note of numerous state faults, inadequate housing within the ghettos. This was demonstrated in Do The Right Thing when the radio host, Mr. Señor Love Daddy, warns local residents to take 1-2 minutes showers because of a water shortage in the neighborhood. Outside of inadequate housing, the Kerner Commission concluded that unemployment/underemployment had high effects on urban communities. Not only were Black men twice as likely to be unemployed as white men, they were also three times as likely to obtain a low-paying or unskilled occupation. This trend worsened in the 1980s, after the Reagan administration staged massive layoffs in the federal government’s social service agencies, a domain which employed a large number of Black Americans.
Major lack of employment in the inner city placed high pressure on Black individuals to obtain and maintain a job, and Mookie was staged directly within that conflict. He was working with racists, he made little money as an ‘unskilled’ delivery man, and he suspected his boss to be flirting with his underage sister -- Mookie had a few reasons to leave his job for good. Still, he defended the pizzeria when Buggin Out attempted to boycott Sal’s for having no photos of Black people on the esteemed Wall of Fame. Mookie saw Buggin Out’s retaliation against the pizzeria as an attack on his means of living, not just a boycott on the neighborhood pizzeria, because getting paid was the bottom line. Even after Sal’s gets burned down, Mookie returns to get his last paycheck.
Outside of throwing away inner-city jobs and loosening restrictions on discrimination in the workplace, Reagan drastically cut federal funding for cities. Public amenities, such as libraries, parks, garbage pick-up and hospitals were the first to be cut out of a city's budget, especially lower income communities. This was keenly conveyed in the film when neighborhood children opened the fire hydrant to dance and play in the water, as this was one of the sole forms of recreation in the ghettos once the budget cuts went into effect. What made that scene even more accurate was the presence of police. After they forced the children to disperse, they scoffed that the children should go to Coney Island if they wanted to swim, knowing that Coney Island is at least a 30 minute drive over the Brooklyn Bridge.
Police were present all throughout the film, almost always in a conflictual manner. Shortly after the fire hydrant incident, police rolled by Coconut Sid and his two companions very slowly, and a staredown ensued for about thirty seconds. Their short interaction stemmed from years of tension between each other. When the police saw the Black men, they immediately assumed they were up to no good, and the Black men couldn’t help but to assume the same thing about the police who routinely mean-mugged them. These negative assumptions erupted when the police who responded to violence at Sal’s pizzeria ended up murdering Radio Raheem.
The tension between police and Black individuals in Do The Right Thing is indicative of what was a shifting relationship between the two. The rise of conservatism, driven by Nixon in the 70’s and Reagan in the 80’s, situated crime as an urban Black issue. While Nixon’s campaign ads did not explicitly mention or include Black Americans, he participated in fearmongering by using images from urban rebellions to perpetuate the idea that violent crime was running rampant across America, despite lacking real evidence to prove his point. This was continued under the Reagan administration, yet it was now under the guise of a War on Drugs.
In 1984, Ronald Reagan authorized an influx of crack cocaine into the U.S. (through California) to help fund the reestablishment of a Nicaraguan dictatorship. This caused an incline in drug abuse and violent crimes within predominantly Black neighborhoods, to which Congress passed the reactionary policy that increased policing intensity. For example, in 1986, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which enforced mandatory sentencing and created a 1-100 disparity in sentencing between cocaine and crack. This act was formulated under the false belief that crack, which was found in low income (and therefore predominantly Black) areas because it was cheaper, was more addictive than its more expensive counterpart.
The Supreme Court, under Chief Justices Burger and Rhenquist, were also passing troublesome legislature, such as giving officers the authority to use pretext traffic stops (i.e., broken taillight) as an excuse to search for drugs, and much more. Between the efforts of the judiciary and legislative branches, discrimination was legal and completely enabled within law enforcement, and racial profiling became police’s go-to-tactic in predominantly Black areas. These all had serious effects; in the 1980’s alone, Black American’s went from 29% to 46% of drug-related arrests, and they were more likely to be charged with longer sentences than White Americans. While the era of Mass Incarceration was just being born, the chronic tension and mistrust between police and Black people was being severely intensified.
To be clear, the presence of police was very much racialized throughout the film. The policemen were all White, and one can be heard calling Buggin’ Out the n-word after the murder of Radio Raheem. But, digesting this entire scene, and what led up to it, through the perspective of a Black Bed-Stuy resident is crucial to grasping the movie’s main concept. The first idea to grasp is the existence of Sal’s, an Italian owned pizzeria, in the middle of the predominantly Black neighborhood. Sal makes a point that the neighborhood grew up on his pizza, and that most residents have “no problem” with the family owned restaurant. Sal fails to mention that he routinely skimps their servings and upcharges for extra toppings, all to make the most profit he can from a neighborhood he supposedly loves. Sal was in the neighborhood for economic gains only, and he made a living off of Black families, most of whom already lived in poverty.
Alongside the family economically exploiting the community was the fact that Sal and his family were racist. Pino hated working in a predominantly Black neighborhood, and often degraded the Black customers that came around. Mookie exposed Pino’s racism by noting that some of his favorite celebrities are Black, yet he called Black customers the n-word behind their backs. Pino responds by saying these celebrities are not Black, but “more than Black.” Even Sal, who was relatively moderate, released his racist anger in spewing racial slurs towards Raheem at the end. He also summed up Radio Raheem’s murder with “You do what you gotta do.” This insensitivity highlighted what most viewers already understood about Sal and company, which was that they had little to no compassion for the community off of which they thrived.
There was also an influx of Korean merchants in the ghettos whom also exploited Urban communities, from which tensions arose. While not everyone agrees, a section of Black Americans viewed the rapid ascension of ethnic merchants’ economic status as counterfactual, and even dependent, on their own economic struggle. This was the case of Do The Right Thing’s Coconut Sid. Regardless of his earlier sentiment, Sid and the accompanying old men ensured not to vandalize the Korean merchants’ store, and the store owners were also seen chasing police in solidarity with the neighborhood enraged about the murder. The place of the Korean merchants within the movie gave insight on the multiple relationships that must be considered when thinking of “race problems” in America, and how Black Americans somehow always end on the subordinate end of such relations.
I see the final uprising, which resulted in the destruction of Sal’s pizzeria, not only as a retaliation to the murder of Radio Raheem, but a retaliation to all of the factors previously mentioned. Similar to the conclusion of the Kerner Commission Report, I believe it to be impossible to separate the factors of mass poverty, mass incarceration/police brutality, tension from racial segregation/discrimination, and more, when asking oneself how America can experience such division. Spike Lee was not trying to divide anyone, he wanted to paint a more accurate and vivid picture of the inadequate, often uncontrollable conditions that plagued Black communities. He did this by providing multiple Black perspectives, mainly through character conflict, on real issues plaguing Urban Black America. Room was left for multiple interpretations of the movie because with that room, Spike Lee gave the viewer a subtle nudge to “Do The Right Thing” by thinking holistically when it comes to assessing our nation’s current state of affairs.
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