Do The Right Thing

A part of this view­ing list: Criterion Collection Spine #97: Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing.


It might be a bit re­duc­tive to com­pare Spike Lee and Jane Campion [An Angel at My Table] in terms of mi­nor­ity film­mak­ing, but it is in­ter­est­ing to see how their films ex­ert them­selves in that sort of space. I think they can be called “mi­nor­ity films” be­cause the di­rec­tors’ en­gage­ment and iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with their mi­nor­ity sta­tus in­forms and di­rects what takes place on the screen.

I think Spike Lee is ul­ti­mately more suc­cess­ful at this. Do The Right Thing is still ef­fec­tive and con­tem­po­rary be­cause noth­ing in the film is con­tained; the ex­pe­ri­ence of watch­ing the film, and the ac­tion it­self are just as messy as real life, while still pre­sented in Lee’s unique sub­jec­tiv­ity. Because of this, any per­son who watches Do The Right Thing has a point of ac­cess that is not alien­at­ing.

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.

They key point in the pre­vi­ous quote, as it seems to me, is: “it seeks to hu­mil­i­ate the op­po­nent rather than win his un­der­stand­ing.” By pro­vid­ing such a var­ied and non-judg­men­tal set­ting, Spike Lee en­ables King, Jr.‘s words a chance to take ef­fect. Whereas, in my ex­pe­ri­ence of Campion’s films, points of ac­cess for un­der­stand­ing are much more dif­fi­cult to dis­cern due to her fo­cus on a sin­gle protagonist’s sub­jec­tiv­ity. In the Cut is a per­fect ex­am­ple of this, but it is also present in Angel at My Table and to a lesser ex­tent in The Piano.


Bamboozled [if only I could find my Film Theory pa­per on it] is an­other Spike Lee Joint where mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives mesh to­gether into a real-world mess of au­then­tic­ity and sub­jec­tiv­ity. It adds an­other facet to the mi­lieu of Do The Right Thing. Everyone in Do The Right Thing is au­then­tic, but in Bamboozled the char­ac­ters have to con­front the con­se­quences of soul-sell­ing and be­ing con­sid­ered a race trai­tor. I like Bamboozled more than Do The Right Thing, even if it is a less per­fect and more trou­bling film.

I al­ways seem to get to pro­duc­tion val­ues at the end. Do The Right Thing is a per­fect film in this re­gard. Colors and film stock make the spec­ta­tor feel the Bed-Stuy sum­mer heat, in­creas­ingly preva­lent dutch an­gles re­in­force the pre­car­i­ous fire watch at­mos­phere, and when the con­fronta­tion fi­nally comes it is still sur­pris­ing how hot the con­fla­gra­tion gets. The af­ter­math is just as sur­pris­ing. While Spike Lee is de­lib­er­ately not speci­fic with a Jerry Springer “Final Thought” the whole con­struc­tion of the film is such that it en­cour­ages any­one with two neu­rons to rub to­gether to think about what it means to do the right thing.


Criterion Essay by Roger Ebert
• Screenplay
Spike Lee Interview
Salon ar­ti­cle on the ef­fects of Public Enemy’s Fight the Power. [Uncut and Uncensored YouTube mu­sic video]
• YouTube clip

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